Chapter 1: The Career of Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne
by Alan Gragg

Chapter 1: The Career of Charles Hartshorne

“My position is that the non-theist lacks thoroughness and clarity in the intellectual framework of his position.”

Is God’s Existence a State of Affairs?

Charles Hartshorne (pronounced “harts-horn”) is a distinguished professor of philosophy in The University of Texas at Austin. One of the most eminent of living American philosophers, Hartshorne has had a career that may be easily sketched. He was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, in 1897, the son of a clergyman, the Reverend F. C. Harts-horne. Charles remembers his father along with Professor Rufus M. Jones and an unnamed science teacher as the pivotal influences of his childhood and youth, who instilled in him a religious reverence for intellectual integrity.1

Hartshorne attended Haverford College for two years (1915-17), but his college education was interrupted by two years of service in the United States Army (1917-19) in the role of a hospital orderly. Resuming his academic training at Harvard University, he earned the A.B. degree in 1921, the A.M. degree in 1922, and the Ph.D. degree in 1923. After winning his doctorate with a dissertation on “The Unity of Being,” he spent two years (1923-25) in Europe, primarily at the Universities of Freiburg and Marburg, where he studied with the famous phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and the great existentialist Martin Heidegger.2 During the years 1925-28, Hartshorne was back at Harvard as a research fellow, serving for one semester as assistant to the renowned British-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Hartshorne’s professorial odyssey has taken him as professor of philosophy mainly to three American universities: The University of Chicago, 1928-55, including the Federated Theological Faculty from 1943 to 1955; Emory University, 1955-62; and The University of Texas, from 1962 until the present. Moreover, he has held visiting professorships or special lectureships at Stanford University, New School for Social Research; the University of Washington; Yale University; Frankfurt, Germany; Melbourne, Australia; and Kyoto, Japan.

Although he is comparatively small in physical stature, Hartshorne is one of the giant intellects in contemporary philosophy. He gladly acknowledges his intellectual indebtedness and kinship to other philosophical minds of past and present, but he is no merely eclectic thinker. His rational powers display remarkable penetration, steady intensity, and some notable originality and independence. In general philosophical terms, Hartshorne may properly be called an untamed rationalist. His serene confidence in the powers of philosophical rationality, when disciplined by logical rigor, to discover and describe the major facets of ultimate reality radiates from his speeches and writings. He reports that, after reading Emerson’s Essays at about the age of seventeen, he resolved “to trust reason to the end”; and, therefore, he has sought to make his “thinking about metaphysical and religious questions good thinking, good by the proper criteria of thinking, rather than of persuading, edifying, or expressing emotion.”3 Hartshorne’s readers soon discover that the effort to comprehend his thought is not only an exciting intellectual adventure but also an arduous mental task.

Regarding his intellectual affinities, Hartshorne feels himself to be “closest” to Charles Sanders Peirce, Henri Bergson, and A. N. Whitehead.4 He expresses gratitude to his Harvard professors C. I. Lewis and H. M. Sheffer for introducing him to “logical exactitude,” and especially to Professor William Ernest Hocking, his first teacher in philosophical theology, for fresh insights into a philosophically trustworthy vision of God.5 Furthermore, he acknowledges some indebtedness to Josiah Royce, William James, and Ralph Barton Perry, as well as a close kinship to the Russian existentialist Nicolai Berdyaev.6 Nevertheless, Hartshome’s philosophy is strikingly similar and most profoundly indebted to that of A. N. Whitehead. Though Hartshorne developed some of his Whiteheadian notions before he encountered Whitehead, his mature philosophy may not improperly be described as an original adaptation of Whitehead’s philosophical cosmology and theology, Hartshorne does not hesitate to modify (often for the better) and even reject some of Whitehead’s views, but the influence of Whitehead’s metaphysics upon Hartshorne’s metaphysics is unmistakably all-pervasive. Indeed, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine Hartshorne apart from Whitehead. Therefore, one may much more easily comprehend the intricacies of Hartshorne’s philosophy if he already commands a general understanding of Whitehead.

What is the place of Charles Hartshorne in twentieth century American theology and philosophy? Any comprehensive assessment of the depth and scope of his influence at this time would be decidedly premature. In some intellectual quarters, he is just beginning to receive the attention his meticulous thought deserves; and it is hoped that this brief study will help enlarge still further the ever-widening range of his impact. Moreover, it is even now possible to say that Hartshorne’s strenuous mental labors have not been in vain, for he has already made a decisive mark upon contemporary American philosophy and theology.

Though Hartshorne considers himself primarily a philosophical metaphysician, his strongest influence thus far has been upon theologians; but this fact is not surprising, inasmuch as his philosophy has concentrated with amazing single-mindedness upon the question of the nature and reality of God. Moreover, two of Hartshorne’s former students, Schubert Ogden and John B. Cobb, Jr., are now leading American theologians who are in the vanguard of the most recent developments of that creative movement known as “process theology.” In general, American process theology is consciously dependent upon the process philosophy of either Whitehead or Hartshorne or both; and Hartshorne deserves a large amount of credit for doggedly advocating Whiteheadian-Hartshornian process philosophy during the past four decades when such advocacy was not popular among either philosophers or theologians. After being partially eclipsed for over two decades by Barthian, Niebuhrian, or Tillichian theology, process theology of the Whiteheadian.Hartshornian strand now stands forth in the theological sunlight as one of the most creative and viable options on the American scene. No one will be able to do responsible theological work during the remainder of the twentieth century without taking account of the philosophy of Charles Hartshorne; and all who study it, layman and theologian alike, will be profited, if not fully convinced, by it.

Nevertheless, in addition to Hartshorne’s influence on theology, his role in American philosophy has also been one of great significance. Along with Paul Weiss, he should probably be regarded as preeminent among living American philosophers who still pursue their work in the grand style of systematic metaphysical description and construction. For decades, Hartshorne and Weiss have tenaciously clung to their definite convictions that metaphysics is the main business of philosophy, despite almost overwhelming opposition from the powerful camps of American logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and their allies. Accordingly, Hartshorne’s efforts to combine logical rigor with metaphysical description have been an enheartening example to many younger philosophers who have surmised that dogmatic exclusion of all metaphysical issues would eventually afflict philosophy with a fatal case of “analysis Paralysis.” Since the antimetaphysical ban has now been partially lifted by many philosophers, they are regarding Hartshorne’s positions with increasing seriousness. Furthermore, in gratifying his metaphysical passion, Hartshorne has demonstrated that the deepest levels of metaphysics inevitably involve the question of God. This achievement alone is pregnant with enormous meaning and interest for philosophy and theology; and, in this regard, we must view Hartshorne as standing in the same tradition with Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel, and Whitehead. Accordingly, philosophical thinkers everywhere may thank Hartshorne for his notable contributions in preserving and recovering a sense of the wholeness and grandeur of philosophy as the pursuit of that light and wisdom which alone can sustain civilized human life during a time when civilization seems gravely threatened.

In broad outline, Hartshorne’s dependence upon White-head finds clearest expression in his enthusiastic adoption of Whitehead’s view of the universe as essentially one of perpetual change and becoming. This view, which Hartshorne affirms without reservation, holds that everything, including God, is ceaselessly changing in a dynamic process of creative advance that will never end. Accordingly, the Whiteheadian-Hartshornian conception of the universe-in-process is squarely in opposition to the dominant views of traditional Western philosophy and theology. The traditional or classical vision of the universe has held that the basic realities of both God and the universe endure permanently without essential change. Hartshorne follows Whitehead in insisting that the only permanence anywhere occurs within and not above the ever-changing process. Both thinkers feel that one misconceives the nature of the entire universe as long as he fails to understand that becoming, dynamic, changing categories are more fundamental than being, static, and permanent categories.

Furthermore, Hartshorne fully shares Whitehead’s idea that the ultimate components which constitute the universe are droplets of experience or feeling. These droplets are often called “actual entities” or “actual occasions,” and they are not permanent things such as atoms but rather fleeting, transient events, occurrences, or happenings. Harts-home claims that nature, man, and God are all composed of countless billions of these droplets of experience that occur and then pass away only to be succeeded by other similar events. Each such event is a type of experience that strives toward the realization of some value. In this manner, therefore, Hartshorne also adopts Whitehead’s contention that the world is not a conglomeration of dead, material atoms but a vast congeries of fleeting aesthetic sensitivities or feelings. In other words, Whiteheadian-Hartshornian process philosophy maintains that every facet of the universe is alive, thus repudiating metaphysical materialism in all its forms.

A further feature of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornian vision of reality is its affirmation of the ultimate reality of the temporal process of creative advance. God becomes an indispensable aspect of the ever-advancing process and ceases to exist above or beyond the process in splendid isolation. Thus Hartshorne maintains that there is no eternity outside or above the temporal process. He asks man to live without eternity in any traditional sense and to be content with the everlastingness of temporal change. Of course, this view means that God is forever changing along with the world and that all divine, natural, and human life is properly oriented not to the past but to the future toward which all things ceaselessly move.

Although the subsequent chapters will develop these matters in detail, it might be helpful at this point to delineate briefly the main lines of development that Hartshorne has laid down for process theology. Of course, the various contemporary process theologians do not necessarily agree with Hartshorne in all details. However, such noteworthy process theologians as John B. Cobb, Jr., Schubert Ogden, W. Norman Pittenger, and Daniel Day Williams all acknowledge a profound debt to Hartshorne for assistance in carrying forward the theological task in a manner essentially dependent upon process philosophy. To say the least, Hartshorne’s process philosophy has cogently stated some of the chief issues that process theologians are striving to resolve.

First and most strikingly, Hartshorne’s philosophy radically reconceives the nature of God in order to obviate some notorious logical and moral difficulties in the traditional Western conception of God. His panentheistic doctrine of God (For a discussion and definition of this doctrine, see chapter 4.) suggests that it is impossible to conceive of God apart from the world or the world apart from God. Hence, he discards the classical Christian doctrine of God’s creation of the world out of nothing and affirms instead that the world, just as God, never had a real beginning and will never have a final end.

As one would expect, Hartshorne lays special stress on God’s life as one of continual change and becoming instead of an unchanging life of eternal and static being. Hartsborne also abandons the notion of God’s absolute and unchanging perfection and relates God’s life and love crucially and decisively to the deeds of men and the events of the world. Moreover, Hartshorne contends that there is literally no end to God’s everlastingly changing in response to perpetual changes in the cosmic process. Therefore, since God may always surpass himself and his previous perfections with every new experience, Hartshorne asserts that absolute perfection will never be attained even by God. An especially impressive facet of Hartshorne’s vision of God is his relentless insistence that, in the midst of all God’s joy and bliss, God also suffers most poignantly and excruciatingly as he witnesses the misery and tragedy of the creatures. By this means, Hartshorne has paved the way for excitingly new possibilities for contemporary theological grappling with the age-old problem of evil.

In contrast to the views of the Barthian and biblical theologians, Hartshorne holds that the existence of God can be known and proved by means of human reason. He thus emphasizes that philosophy is indispensable for theology, tending to place much more stress upon sound philosophical reasoning than upon faithful acceptance of revelation. Consequently, process theologians in general regard philosophy as an essential ally in doing theology in a way that is incomprehensible to many theologians in conservative and neoorthodox camps.

Concordant with Hartshorne’s tendency to minimize the importance of revelation as the basis for man’s knowledge of God is his concern for a philosophy that places man in primary relationships to nature instead of to history. The chief emphasis, therefore, in much process theology is upon the need for satisfying modern man’s quest for meaning and for making sense of his place in the cosmic universe. Likewise, there is a tendency among some (but not all) process theologians to neglect man’s relation to history, including most importantly the salvation history witnessed to in the Bible. Among these process theologians, there is much more concern that their theology make some kind of sense to modern man than that it should be faithful to biblical revelation. Therefore, some process theologians are prepared to dispense partially or wholly with the idea that Jesus Christ is either the essential basis or central core of theology, although others would regard this mood as a tendency of process theology that needs drastic modification. In addition, process theology generally tends to follow Hartshorne in neglecting or minimizing the ideas of man’s sin and guilt and consequent need for atonement and repentance, ideas that have been central in many theological perspectives.

Another characteristic aspect that process theology derives from Hartshorne is its decisive rejection of humanism as a satisfactory option for modern man. Hartshorne grounds all of reality and all meaningful human existence directly upon God. It is because of this feature that process theology constitutes a vigorous challenge and a viable alternative to the paradoxical views of the “God-is-dead” theologians. The “God-is-dead” theology has suggested that all talk about God should be abandoned because it is meaningless to modern man. However, virtually the entire platform of the death-of-God theology has been effectively rejected by process theology, primarily because Whitehead and Hartshorne have marked out a path that enables the process theologians to understand how it still might be possible and necessary for man to speak meaningfully about God. This stance of process theology in opposition to theological humanism might well prove to be its historically most significant feature.

Hartshorne’s treatment of the question of human immortality has also left its mark upon process theology. Because he doubts that there is any continuation of personal human experiences after death, he forcefully challenges all the traditional notions of life after death, including the doctrines of heaven and hell. Hartshorne’s view of immortality is neither the humanistic one of immortality through posterity nor the Greek one of an immortal soul nor the biblical one of bodily resurrection but a very special one of being eternally remembered in the mind of God. This view stresses the unique, once-for-all, everlastingly significant meaning of this present human life. It thus accords well with the emphasis of process and other types of contemporary theology on what John Baillie called “the proper claims of earth.” Process theology is emphatically positive in its evaluation of the character and importance of this present human life. It joins cause with the contemporary theologies that celebrate the possibilities and achievements of man’s total secular life and that abominate a narrow religious isolationism. Consequently, process theology is helping to pave the way into new and still largely unexplored realms of interpretation of the nature of man’s ethical life under God in this present world.


1. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1941), p. xviii.

2. Ralph F. James, The Concrete God: A New Beginning for Theology — The Thought of Charles Hartshorne (Indianapolis: The Hobbs-Merrill Company, 1967). Part I provides a useful analysis of the influence upon Hartshorne of Husserl, Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Alfred North Whitehead.

3. Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Pub. Co., 1962), pp. viii-ix

4. Ibid.

5. Man’s Vision of God, p. xviii.

6. Charles Hartshorne, Reality as Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press; Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), pp. 19-23.