Experience, Dialectic, and God

by Herbert J. Nelson

Herbert J. Nelson is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Philosophy at Canisius College, Buffalo, NY.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 153-168, Vol. 11, Number 3, Fall, 1981. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author argues that the view that the process account rests on experiences in some sense while other metaphysical and theological accounts do not, is at the very least thoroughly misleading, and at the very worst quite false.



Process philosophers in the tradition of Charles Hartshorne propose an account of God as changing from moment to moment, and therefore as internally complex, internally affected by events in the world, and essentially dependent on other nondivine realities. This account is fundamentally incompatible with the account of God characteristic of classical theology. For the God of classical theology is timeless, unchanging, simple, unaffected by events in the world, and absolutely independent of other, nondivine realities.

One important source of this incompatibility is Hartshorne’s characterization of reality as consisting concretely in units of experience, specifically his contention that experience is essentially temporal in structure and order. Then if there is a concrete, divine reality, that reality must be an experience which stands temporally between other experiences. If there is an enduring divine reality, that is, a divine reality which persists for an extended period or forever, it must, like other enduring realities, be a series of concretely distinct units of experience in which later experiences feel and thus inherit the content of earlier experiences. If there is a God who exists concretely, who endures over the course of human and cosmic history, and who is affected by and affects what occurs in that history, then that God would consist of an ordered series of unit-experiences, each exemplifying the necessary abstract features essential to a divine experience, each experiencing both the divine and the nondivine experiences which had preceded it, and each in turn being felt by the divine and nondivine experiences which succeed it. If, therefore, experience is essentially temporal in structure and order, a timeless unchanging being of the sort proposed by classical theology could not experience, could not know or love, and indeed could not exist concretely.

An important part of the assessment of process theology must therefore be an examination of the concept of temporal experience. To that assessment this essay will contribute modestly by arguing (1) that an account of experience must be compatible with the fact that there is no one thing which is what experience is or is the essence of experience, (2) that no philosophically adequate account of what experience is can be established merely by appeal to direct, personal, intuitive experience of one’s own experience, (3) that generalization from features found in human experience is not sufficient to justify the claim that temporality is essential to experience, but (4) that dialectical argument rather than intuition or generalization is necessary to support the claim that experience is essentially temporal.


The process account of reality in general, and of God specifically, appeals to experience in its support. But ‘experience’, as Aristotle remarked of ‘being’, is said in many senses. To speak of one’s years of professional experience, of an experience of humiliation, of an experience of pain, and of an experience of heat is to use ‘experience’ in different senses. Indeed, in a given language there may be no single term with just the variety of senses characteristic of the English word ‘experience’. Talk of experience is thus in some measure a function of the socially and individually imposed conventions relevant to the particular context in which ‘experience’ is being used. These conventions vary, and what might he appropriately called experience under one set of conventions might not be appropriately called experience under a different set. For example, proving the Pythagorean theorem is an experience many of us have had; one can learn the truth of the theorem from proving it; and yet (with a shift in relevant conventions) one has not learned the truth of the theorem from experience, as one might from experience to distrust an acquaintance.

If, as I have suggested, there are different sets of conventions governing the use of the term ‘experience’, and if those conventions are such that what might properly be called experience under one set might not properly be called experience under another, then a rather obvious question arises with regard to the process account of experience. What sense, if any, could there be in speaking, as process philosophers do, of the essence of experience? For, after all, at the heart of the process philosopher’s constructive metaphysics and theology is the claim that having temporal antecedents is essential to experience. But if there is a single essence common to all instances of experience, how could there be different and conflicting conventions determining what is, and what is not, legitimately called experience? Or, if there are different and conflicting conventions, how could there be a single essence common to all cases of experience? One might be tempted to argue (1) that process philosophy and theology rest on the assumption that there is an essence common to all instances of experience, (2) that an examination of the legitimate uses of the term ‘experience’ reveals that there is no such common essence, and therefore (3) that process philosophy and theology are mistaken at the outset.

The argument should be resisted for the time being, even if it should happen to be sound in the end. For there are a number of ways in which the force of the argument can be at least temporarily neutralized. I intend to examine some, but not all, of those ways.

One rather obvious move would be for the process philosopher or theologian to concede that there are different uses of ‘experience’, but to argue that that fact does not entail the nominalistic conclusion that there is no essence of experience. I think that this counterargument is correct -- so far as it goes. It is conceivable, e.g., that, instead of one essence common to everything properly called experience, there might be different essences corresponding to some or all of the different uses of the term.

That opens several paths to the process philosopher. One might claim that the process account of reality and God is constructed from an analysis of one of’ the common uses of the term ‘experience’, without pretending that the other uses offer an apt basis for metaphysical generalization. Or one might claim that, even though there are different uses of the term ‘experience’, there is still something common to all or many of those uses and that process philosophy and theology are constructed around and from an account of an essence common to many different kinds of experience. In this latter case, it might be that some one of the present uses of ‘experience’ already signifies this essence and that the process account is an analysis of one particularly important and central current use of the term. Or it might be that there is no present use of the term which clearly reflects this essence common to all or many kinds of experience and that the task of the process thinker is to construct a new use for the term ‘experience’, where the analysis of this essence will provide criteria constituting a new set of conventions governing a use of the term different from any present use, but intimately related to all or many present uses.

This sketch of possibilities is not intended to be exhaustive. There are perhaps many others. But I shall mention only one more -- one which is important not because of its attractiveness in the abstract, but because it seems to be tempting in practice. Rather than clearly choosing some one path, one may shift from one to another, sometimes acting as though one is explicating the meaning which ‘experience’ has had all along, sometimes acting as though one is exploiting one of the several meanings ‘experience’ has had all along, and sometimes acting as though one is constructing a novel sense for ‘experience’ -- a sense different from (though not unrelated to) any sense the term has had prior to the construction of the process account of experience. Such shifts make it difficult sometimes to determine just what claim is being advanced and, therefore, just which criteria of evaluation are relevant.

The observation that ‘experience’ has many senses does not, however, imply that process philosophy and theology can be rejected a priori because of an illegitimate attempt to speak of the essence of experience. But neither does the prima facie availability of avenues of escape imply that one who sets out on one of those paths will come ultimately to anything but dead ends, impassable swamps, fatal falls from darkened cliffs, or the wandering circles of the lost explorer. The paths need to be cautiously mapped to see where they lead before one abandons oneself to them. In that sense, the process philosopher or theologian who chooses to make some concept of experience central to an account of reality and of God may reasonably be expected to establish the credentials of the concept.


Philosophers, however, like other explorers, are commonly tempted by the lure of a direct route which offers rapid and rich reward, instead of the tedium of caution. The Northwest Passage of many philosophers is the promise of privileged access. In the case at hand, some process thinkers seek a direct route to the essence of experience by exploiting the unique promise of a view from the inside. The prospect of discerning an essence of experience in the bewildering mass of disparate things termed experience seems dismayingly remote by contrast with the direct access to the essence of experience which an intuitive and immediate grasp of one’s experience would seem to offer.

It is a prospect which may appear to cut across problems of the sort we were just considering. If I am presented with claims that the variety of uses of ‘experience’ does not and could not reveal any normative essence of experience, I can counter that I have a prelinguistic intuition of the essence of my own experience -- an intuition against which the adequacy or confusion of language can be authoritatively measured. If I have accepted the variety of usage and am looking to find or create a use to support metaphysical generalization, I can rely on the uniquely intimate and immediate revelation of my own experience -- intuitively grasped from within -- to authorize an insider’s judgment about what reality is like at its heart. In any case, I can step away from the complex and obscure maze of language and external phenomena to find simplicity, clarity, immediacy, and profundity in an inner intuition of my own experience as subject. Instead of argument open to mistake there would be direct grasp without intervening source of error. Instead of inferring, one could just look and see.

In some cases this appeal to inner intuition might take the form of the claim that each of us has a "non-sensuous experience of the self" which is "both prior to our interpretation of our sense-knowledge and more important as source for the more fundamental questions of the meaning of our human experience as human selves" (BRO 75). It is not claimed as the special privilege of certain human beings or of certain philosophers. It is a, even the, distinctive feature of being a self, and it grounds one’s experience of any reality external to the self (cf. RG 74). One’s experience of other is grounded in one’s experience of self (cf. P 446, 450).

In other cases this appeal alleges, not that there is any experience of the present self which grounds all experience of the nonself, but that the most immediate objects of present human experience are the immediately preceding instances of human experience (cf., e.g., MMCL 444). Thus, while no experience can be an experience of itself (cf. CSPM 7, 91, 106, 109, 167, 224), each human experience directly grasps other human experiences immediately preceding it at only a moment’s distance. One’s experience of things like trees and fire hydrants is thus mediated by one’s experience of experiences (cf. MMCL 446). Thus one has better access to the nature of experience than to the nature of anything else (cf. MMCL 455, 461, 462). For, in the concrete, one directly experiences only experiences.

This contention is not defeated merely by a critic’s facile claim not to be conscious of any such nonsensuous perception of one’s own "self," or of anything describable as experience mediating one’s experiences of trees, dogs, and fire hydrants. For the thinker who appeals to such awareness may distinguish between awareness and conscious awareness, and then contend that his claim depends only on a necessary awareness which one must have even if one’s awareness is not conscious. In that case the critic’s lack of conscious awareness would not conflict with the claim being advanced. To make this move plausible the thinker might draw an analogy with visual experience. Just as there is a real difference between noticing something already within one’s vision and bringing something new within one’s visual experience, so there is a real difference between becoming conscious of something already within one’s field of experience and introducing something new within the range of one’s experience.

Even if the analogy were sound, i.e., even if there were such awareness of the self, the real effect of distinguishing unconscious and conscious awareness is not to preserve the authority of the experience of the self to which the process thinker is appealing, but instead to underscore the philosophical weakness of the appeal to such privileged and direct experience. Insofar as the experience of this self is unconscious, its immediacy and directness offer no exploitable advantage: one can hardly claim to be conscious of the essence of experience as exhibited immediately and directly in an experience of which one is not consciously aware. Insofar as the experience of this self has been made conscious, it fails to provide the process thinker with the desired immediate and authoritative access to the essence of experience. For the consciousness of that experience of the self is mediated by the dialectical examination or analysis which brings it to consciousness. The authority of that experience is mediated by the dialectical defense of this (mediated) immediacy and its (consequent and derivative) authority.

Schubert Ogden, for example, says that the principle from which process philosophy and theology begin "requires that we take as the experiential basis of all our most fundamental concepts the primal phenomenon of our own existence as experiencing subjects or selves" (HG 57). A reader might take the phrase "the primal phenomenon" to mean or imply some fundamental consciousness of the self, as though the first and most apparent thing of all is "our own existence as experiencing subjects or selves." But Ogden seems to appreciate that this "primal phenomenon" does not leap easily and inevitably to conscious view. His claim is more modest: "no careful analysis of our experience can fail to confirm the difference between our inner non-sensuous perception of our selves and the world as parts of an encompassing whole and the outer perceptions through our senses whereby we discriminate the behavior of all the different beings of which we are originally aware" (RG 105; cf. BRO 65,66). My point is merely that the analysis required to confirm Ogden’s claim -- even if the analysis cannot fail to do so -- itself mediates access to the allegedly primal phenomenon, and thus leaves Ogden with a "phenomenon" which is not epistemically "primal," and access to which is neither epistemically immediate nor privileged nor error-free in principle. The "primal phenomenon," even if it were as described, is only as authoritative as the analysis which renders it epistemically accessible. The account of it is as error-prone as the products of philosophical analysis generally -- which is to say to a nonnegligible degree.

The claim of privileged access is not saved by arguing that each of us intuitively grasps this self without analysis or argument, that each of us singly grasps the essence of experience in this intuition, and that the analysis or argument is required only (1) to call it to the attention of those who have not noticed it, or (2) to defend the claim of such an intuition against those who deny it for no or bad reasons, or (3) to develop its implications and describe its content. The claim is not saved in this way, for the claim to have such an intuition is not the alleged intuition itself, and only that claim is what in fact and in principle enters the realm of philosophical theory and argument.

Moreover, that claim cannot escape characterizing the alleged intuition except at the price of emptiness.1 If there is indeed such an intuition, then whatever role it might play in other contexts, it is philosophically mute. As itself voiceless and inarticulate, it may be the subject of, but cannot itself participate in, that enterprise of dialectic and articulation which philosophy is. Only one’s account of it can represent it in the inherently public and discursive enterprise of philosophy. And in principle that account cannot itself maintain the immediacy and the infallibility which it might seek to attribute to the intuition which it seeks to articulate and defend.

Consider the comparable case of a mathematician intuitively (and excitedly – "Eureka!") in possession of what he believes to be a solution to a nagging mathematical problem. The solution remains mathematically deficient in an important sense until the mathematician has spelled it out, i.e., has set it out in an explicit, discursive form which stands on its own merits, independent of the particular subjective experience whose objective content the mathematician has sought to display in the explicit formulae. While the mathematician’s intuitive conviction might in some informal contexts be sufficient to justify a claim to have found a solution to the problem in question, it would clearly not be sufficient (nor even relevant) justification in the formal mathematical presentation of the solution itself. That the mathematician had the intuition is not something which functions as a premise in the formal mathematical argument, nor does the occurrence of the intuition provide any guarantee that the argument or proof constructed is successful in satisfying the (quite public) criteria by which the success of such arguments or proofs is measured.

In general, while appeal to or reliance upon one’s own intuition (in some technically unspecified sense of the term) may satisfy the informal demands of many ordinary, nontechnical contexts, such intuitive conviction -- however important heuristically to the individual inquirer -- may be of no logical relevance to the job of satisfying the technical demands constitutive of some formal arena of discourse. In the case at hand, an intuitive grasp of the nature of experience would be no substitute for, no guarantee of, and no part within an account of experience which satisfied the (quite public) criteria by which the adequacy of philosophical accounts is determined. And this is true not only insofar as one’s account is offered to others, but also insofar as one constructs and weighs one’s own account. Just as not even the mathematician described above could be professionally satisfied by his own intuitive solution but for himself wants the explicit formal statement of the solution, so too the philosopher’s own philosophical satisfaction is contingent on the articulation of a dialectically sound account.

There is a further objection to the appeal to one’s own privileged and direct access to the essence of experience as encountered immediately and from within. This further objection is independent of any of the preceding argument and, in my judgment, by itself entirely suffices to defeat the ambitious attempt to find a direct route to the essence of experience as such. Suppose one did have an immediate experience of the experiencing self as such or of immediately preceding momentary units of experience as such. Suppose that the content of these experiences were revealed in such a way as to be philosophically available and fertile. It would still be true, I think, that the content of such an experience, and even a fully adequate and somehow (impossibly) guaranteed inventory of that content, would not alone provide any nonarbitrary basis, intuitive or articulate, for distinguishing what is essential to the experience simply as an experience, and what is essential to it as a specifically human experience -- nor even for determining whether there is anything peculiarly one’s own in the experience, as distinguished from what is essential to human experience as human or as experience.

The point is especially important because a key move in the process thinker’s characterization of God is to argue that since experience as we know it is always and necessarily temporally ordered and structured, so must it be with divine experience as well. I do not argue now that the conclusion is false. But I do argue that even if we each had privileged and direct access to, and guaranteed inventory of, our own individual human experience, only a complex dialectical examination could, if anything could, reasonably and nonarbitrarily determine which features of our own experience -- individual and human -- are essential to experience as such, which are essential to human experience but not to experience as such, and perhaps which are essential to one’s own experience but not to human experience as such. Specifically, only a rather sophisticated philosophical argument could offer a reasonable basis for taking temporal order and structure to be essential to experience as such and therefore to divine experience as well as to our own.

I conclude, therefore, that any temptation to avoid the frustrations of philosophical discourse and argument by appealing to a direct intuition of the essence of experience within oneself should be vigorously and clearsightedly resisted. For in spite of its prima facie attraction, and even if there is such a "primal" experience, that experience would not be accessible in any philosophically helpful way, could not be exploited without reliance upon the very analyses and arguments whose lack of immediacy and authority the appeal is seeking to escape, could not (even for oneself) sustain translation into the discursive and dialectical combat zone of philosophy, and could not by itself alone provide a nonarbitrary basis for determining what in it is essential to experience merely as such. There is, I think, no philosophically viable substitute for the tedious, painstaking, and unending analysis and argument which, properly, most people avoid in favor of the rich directness of normal human life.


The process account of God, of course, does not depend in principle on the legitimacy of a claim of privileged access to the essence of experience. Some process thinkers, Charles Hartshorne preeminent among them, seem to recognize that the view of experience on which process theology rests owes its philosophical credentials to the coherence and intelligibility of its account of experience and to the dialectical defense of its adequacy, rather than to some claim of privileged access -- real or imagined. Since Hartshorne’s account and defense of the process concept of experience is more sophisticated and detailed than any other yet proposed (with the possible exception of Whitehead), and yet assumes a form typical of a major current of process thought, I will examine several aspects of Hartshorne’s dialectical concept of experience.

Although at times Hartshorne has spoken as though his account of experience rested on some intuition of its essence as exhibited in his own experience,2 his predominant view and his philosophical practice advance a concept of experience that is generated by dialectical argument rather than by appeal to direct introspection or intuition: "The philosopher, as Whitehead says, is the ‘critic of abstractions.’ He starts, not with the purely concrete, for which abstractions are to be found, but with such more or less suitable abstractions as are already available, and seeks to improve them, having in mind experiences of the concrete. In so far, philosophy is like science" (CSPM 57). Indeed, Hartshorne’s settled view seems to reject even the possibility of a direct intuition of the self (so CSPM 106,109,112,220; but cp. MMCL 461). And when, in proposing that we have direct experience only of what is past, he holds that one’s own immediately preceding experiences are directly experienced, he indicates that this normally involves no consciousness of what is experienced (cf. CSPM 79, 90f., 106, 195, 300). In fact, it seems consistent with his view to claim that they might never be consciously experienced.

Not so clear is whether Hartshorne takes his dialectic to explicate some current use of the term ‘experience’, or whether he takes himself to be constructing a new sense -- a sense that will capture for the first time the true essence of experience (cf. CSPM 33,60, 81, 90,92, 105, 154,155,231,282,288; also, e.g., MVG 19). What is clear and sufficient for now is Hartshorne’s belief that there is an essence of experience (cf., e.g., CSPM 79, 81, 90, 115, 155), that this essence is somehow common to all instances of experience (cf. CSPM 80, 81, 91, 92, 105, 115, 154, 155,156,167, 168, 216ff., 224, 231, 263, 271, 277), and that he knows and is able to say with reasonable adequacy in just what this essence consists.

The resulting account of experience is intended to provide "a legitimate broadest possible meaning of psychical terms which is applicable to all individuals whatever, from atoms to deity" (CSPM 154), and, therefore, to all the various things now legitimately termed experiences. This seems to indicate that Hartshorne is proposing a generic concept broad enough to be oblivious to differences between species of experience. Whether merely the explication of some current concept, or instead the construction of an utterly new one, the result is a concept which Hartshorne believes to stand in real continuity with current uses of ‘experience’ and other "psychical terms." The result would also seem to be a concept which captures the minimal conditions necessarily satisfied by anything to which it is applicable, and which therefore supports a univocal use of ‘experience as applied to any individual, "from atom to deity" (cf. CSPM 3, 33, 75, 90, 91).

The method employed to generate this generic concept consists, on one level, in close scrutiny of ordinary cases (cf. CSPM 231), seeking to find what is common to them. Hartshorne speaks of freeing concepts "of limitations which do not seem inherent" (CSPM 90) in their meaning, or of divesting experience of its "contingent specificities" (CSPM 91). Typically this takes the form of comparing different kinds of experience in the attempt to find conditions common and fundamental to each kind. The search takes a standard form: "What, then, is the concept . . . which expresses what the two forms have in common? If there is none, then our metaphysical search is balked at an essential point. A unitary principle for both might be that . . . or it might be that . . ." (CSPM 91).

In practice Hartshorne commonly looks to one of the cases under examination to supply a paradigm or model to which the other cases may be assimilated. He attempts to discover which of the cases under comparison might be taken to exhibit more clearly the essence of experience, and then moves to state it in a form sufficiently neutral to apply to the other cases as well.

The aspect of primary concern here -- the temporal ordering and structure of experience -- results from just such a choice of memory as a particularly illuminating paradigm of experience.

Memory, perception, and imagination are three obvious aspects of concrete experiencing. A philosopher needs to make a careful examination of all three, in their essential or generic aspects. . . . in some ways memory is a better key to the nature of experience than perception, not only because, by the time we have used a datum of perception, it will already have been taken over by memory, but for the additional reasons: (a,) in memory there is less mystery concerning what we are trying to know than there is in perception [i.e., "our own past human experiences"]; also (all) the temporal structure of memory is more obvious. (CSPM 75)

The choice is clearly a reasoned one. The several reasons are marshaled systematically in support of the conclusion that "memory is the clearer case, and should be studied first" (CSPM 75).

The result of the study should be a description of the relevant feature (s) of memory. But the description should be sufficiently generalized to be equally applicable to perception as well. In that way memory and perception "can be assimilated to one, and . . . memory is in some respects a better name for this single function than perception" (MMCL 441). From generalizing and assimilation of cases there is progressively generated a description by which all and only cases of experience can be characterized. He concludes:

Common to the two is what Whitehead calls ‘prehension,’ intuition of the antecedently real. This is a specimen of what I mean by metaphysical discovery. It is no mere matter of human psychology. There are good reasons for holding that only what is already real could be given to any experience in any world. Intuition of the past seems a paradox to some, but if they had really tried to conceive how something strictly simultaneous with the experience could be given they might see where the real paradox would be. (CSPM 91f.)

The process of developing this account is clearly rational and constructive in character. It rests on an appeal to "good reasons." It involves imaginative insight into generalizable features of particular kinds of experience. It requires a skillful and knowledgeable appreciation of the systematic consequences -- positive and negative -- of proposed generalizations. And it requires a willingness to use old (and sometimes new) words in perhaps strange but (the user hopes) powerfully illuminating ways that may disturb or add to, but still remain in fundamental continuity with, the conventions dear to common sense (cf. CSPM 81).3

Clearly this kind of imaginative generalization is far from some mysteriously privileged report of some introspectively examined essence of experience. It is a quite public exercise in the manipulation and construction of concepts -- a manipulation of fundamentally the same sort and serving substantially the same purposes as scientific generalization.

We arrive at a more attractive scientific generalization if we dismiss the apparent dualism between perception of the sheer present and memory of the past, and adopt instead the view that only the past literally gets itself experienced in its concrete actuality (MMCL 444). . . . why try to assimilate either way?. . . The answer is that it is the driving motive of science to find unity in difference. (MMCL 441)

Viewed in this way, Hartshorne’s concept of experience seems to be the product of a purely straightforward attempt at theory construction. The theory may or may not be coherent and adequate. But it is an effort to sort out the central features of experiences of various sorts, to generalize their descriptions, and to develop in that way a generic notion of experience intended to be applicable to all the various kinds of experience.


A prime feature of the resultant notion of experience is temporal ordering and structure. From the selection of memory as a paradigm of experience, and from the generalization of the paradigmatic intuition of the past, temporal ordering and structure are built into the very conceptual bone and muscle of the theory of experience which Hartshorne constructs and proposes.

When one puts the theory to the task of developing an account of divine experience, it therefore follows quite directly that temporal ordering and structure will be judged to be as essential to the divine experience as to any other. Thus, in the terms in which I have so far presented the theory, the attribution of temporality to God has the great advantage of appearing to be a perfectly reasonable next step in the positive task of constructing and working out the implications of a theory of experience. But, at the same time, the application of the theory to God imposes the need to face a serious question which I have so far passed over.

If, as Hartshorne does, one uses one’s prior understanding of various types of human experience as the source of generalized descriptions which together constitute the final concept of experience, how does one decide whether the generalizations have been radical enough to support application to all -- including nonhuman -- experiences or were sufficient only to cover human experiences? How is one to decide whether all of the merely human limitations have been eliminated from the concept so that there remain only those features characteristic of all experience?

The ultimate weakness of the earlier appeal to some immediate and privileged intuition of the essence of experience was precisely its inability to provide such a determination. Does a reasoned and discursive construct succumb to the same line of objection? Or can process thought find some way to defend itself against the charge that it has retained human factors that are not essential to experience as such? I raise the question here in terms of Hartshorne’s account of experience and God, and I will pursue it by examining his reasons for retaining temporal ordering and structure as essential to all experience, including divine experience. But the question is one that must be faced by any process philosophy or theology which sets out to use an analysis of human experience as a basis for characterizing God.

Hartshorne has faced the question rather carefully, both in general and specifically in terms of the issue of temporality. His general response, I believe, consists in his view of falsification as the crucial element in the method and argument of metaphysics. Hartshorne contends that a "basic procedure in all thinking is to exhaust possible solutions to a problem and arrive at the best or truest by elimination of those that are unsatisfactory" (CSPM 84). This procedure is not, in Hartshorne’s view, just one of several possible methods. The approach to the true solution by exhaustively eliminating alternative solutions is essential.

Not only have philosophers habitually sought to justify their positions by refuting others; but we have every reason from intellectual history and the nature of man to think that this method must be followed. The idea that one can somehow hit on the manifest truth and simply forget about alternatives as mere curiosities receives little support from experience. As Popper has so well shown, in empirical inquiry at least, falsification is the most crucial operation. I hold that this is true in non-empirical inquiry also. But unless possible solutions can be exhausted, there is no reason why elimination should bring us to our goal. (CSPM 85)

In the case of metaphysics, at least, Hartshorne’s reliance and insistence on falsification appears to be a consequence of his view that the truth of metaphysical statements is a function of their meaning: "Metaphysical statements are not opposed to anything except wrong ways of talking. Metaphysical error is exclusively a matter of confusion, inconsistency, or lack of definite meaning, rather than of factual mistakes" (CSPM 69). Given this view of metaphysics, one might properly conclude that the truth of one’s own metaphysical statement is definitively established only if the falsity of opposing statements can be shown. And the falsification of metaphysical statements must take the form, not of exhibiting "factual mistakes," but of demonstrating "confusion, inconsistency, or lack of definite meaning," i.e., in showing that they are "wrong ways of talking."

If Hartshorne takes this account of metaphysics and its method seriously, then the whole process of constructing a general concept of experience as such is, on its positive side, a process of framing a hypothesis and not at all a process of establishing a thesis. The defense of the thesis that experience is as the hypothesis has been framed consists in the destruction of opposing hypotheses. And their destruction must consist in showing their inconsistency or lack of definite meaning.

How does Hartshorne’s defense of his theory of experience implement this method of falsification? The facet of that theory that is of special interest here is the claim that temporality is essential to experience as such and therefore to divine as well as to human experience. Hartshorne’s explicit defense of this thesis seems to take two forms.

The first is to argue that we know experience only as a response to what is temporally prior to it, and therefore that to try to exclude such a temporal dimension from divine (or any other) experience is to destroy that analogy to our own experience which is the only source from which ‘divine experience’ could derive any meaning.4 This line of defense seeks to show "lack of definite meaning" (CSPM 69) in the opposing statement, just as the method of falsification requires. But it does so only by appealing to experience as we know it.

If experience as we know it were to function as the definitive norm by which the essence of experience is to be determined and as the definitive measure of all meaningful talk of experience, then the consequence must be that no experience can be, or can meaningfully be said to be, any different from experience as we know it. Such an appeal appears to suffer from two defects important to Hartshorne’s enterprise. It cannot, without begging the question, alone support a distinction between what is essential and what is contingent in our own experience. And it cannot support a distinction between what is essential to human experience and what is essential to experience as such.

The theological consequence of taking experience as we know it to be the sole norm, positively requiring that everything characteristic of experience as we know it be considered essential to experience as such, and negatively excluding anything different from experience as we know it as meaningless, is to require God to have every characteristic of experience as we know it, and to refuse as meaningless any divine characteristic different from experience as we know it. Even from Hartshorne’s position that is both to require too much and to allow too little. Indeed, especially for the psychicalist like Hartshorne, such a norm would render impossible the very kind of generalization which moves from things as we know them to inferences about both subhuman and superhuman realities.

As Hartshorne himself repeatedly reminds us, an adequate concept of experience as such must be freed of the contingent limitations inherent in human experience (cf., e.g., CSPM 90,91,154). The issue is whether temporality is inherent in experience as such, or only in certain kinds of experience (cf. CSPM 154). Even if experience as we know it had always been temporal, that fact does not of itself bear immediate witness to its own necessity or contingency for human experience, much less for experience as such. The needs of his own philosophizing lead Hartshorne himself on occasion to reject the persistent message of experience as we know it. In taking occurrence in discrete units to be essential to experience as such, for example, he admits:

no process directly exhibited in human experience seems to come in clearly discrete units. Here is a splendid example of a seemingly strong (empirical) case for a philosophical view, a case which is nevertheless inconclusive, and indeed can be opposed by perhaps a still stronger though non-empirical case. No better example of the difficulty of philosophical issues is needed. (CSPM 192)

I conclude that Hartshorne’s defense of the temporality thesis by appeal to experience as we know it is at best suggestive and "inconclusive," at worst mistaken, and by itself insufficient to show that experience as such must be temporally ordered and structured.

Hartshorne’s second line of defense exhibits more adequately the character of his method of justification through falsification. In general, it consists in attacking the claim that divine experience is nontemporal by arguing that the claim is self-contradictory in meaning or has implications which are mutually inconsistent. Specifically, a number of fatal paradoxes are urged. The central allegation of paradox seems to me to run roughly as follows: a nontemporal divine experience would include in itself all events in time (cf. CSPM 105); but to experience all temporal events simultaneously would dissolve any real distinction between past and future (cf. CSPM 66); so there could be no temporal transition, no change, no contingency, and no freedom (cf. CSPM 137); and since nothing could become, there could be no real permanent and unchanging reality either, "for then the contrast between the terms, and therewith their meaning, must vanish" (CSPM 166).

My present purpose is not to evaluate or to refute this line of argument. The argument is clearly one which purports to establish radical and fatal paradox in the claim that divine experience is or even might be nontemporal. Some argument of this type must be successful if Hartshorne is to live up to the demands of his own conception of metaphysics and its method of falsification. If this argument were successful, it would indeed establish -- as direct introspection of one’s own experience or any merely positive, constructive analogy with human experience could not establish -- that temporality is essential to both divine and human experience.

But the argument also depends on a number of premises rather remote from intuitions of one’s own experience or from any generalized description of one’s own or of human experience. It depends on a certain theory of how an experience is related to its objects; on the view that if two temporal events are nontemporally experienced, they must be simultaneous; on the contention that the possibility of alternatives and of freedom is inseparable from temporal transition; and on a peculiar theory of meaning as requiring contrast.

All of these positions may well be correct. But even so, it would also be true that none of these positions could be known or shown by us to be true, even as interpretations of experience, by any direct appeal to experience unmediated by very complex philosophical analysis and dialectic. Their truth cannot be established (or disestablished) by any privileged direct intuition of one’s own experiencing, or by any direct, nondialectical inventory of the contents of one’s own experience.


Process philosophy, and specifically the process account of God, are sometimes defended by various kinds of appeal to experience and to the essence of experience. I have argued here that in general it is not terribly clear just what an appeal to experience might be, nor whether talk of the essence of experience is legitimate or meaningful. I have tried to show that, even if one can successfully carry the burden of showing some legitimate sense in which one might speak of the essence of experience, one cannot know or say (in any philosophically relevant way) what that essence is merely through some privileged intuitive grasp of it. I have contended further that one cannot know what the essence of experience is, or whether temporality is a part of it, merely through generalization of features found in human experience. And I have sought to show, using Hartshorne as a concrete example, how a dialectical defense provides the ultimate support for one’s claims about experience and its essential temporality and how that dialectic rests on claims quite remote from any direct or straightforward reading of experience, whether private or public.

Process philosophy and its account of God may rest on a theory of experience. But that theory is highly dialectical, as must be any theory that hopes for adequacy. To claim therefore that the process account rests on experience in some sense in which other metaphysical and theological accounts do not is at the very least thoroughly misleading, and at the very worst quite false. Assessment of process thought, and in particular of its attribution of temporality to God, must proceed to an evaluation of the dialectic which is its final support.



BRO -- David Tracy. Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975.

CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. London: SCM Press, 1970.

MVG -- Charles Hartshorne. Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964.

MMCL -- Charles Hartshorne. "Mind as Memory and Creative Love," in Jordan M. Scher, ed. Theories of the Mind. New York: The Free Press, 1962.

P -- Charles Hartshorne. "Panpsychism," in Vergilius Ferm, ed. A History of Philosophical Systems. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950.

RG -- Schubert M. Ogden. The Reality of God and Other Essays. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977.



1 Even Hartshorne, who takes memory to be a grasp of past experiences, distinguishes between memory and verbal judgments based on memory. Cf., e.g., CSPM 79f., esp. 80: "The mere process of verbalization, being a human and hence fallible operation, introduces possibilities of error that involve more than memory."

2 Cf., e.g., P446, where Hartshorne speaks of "the human self" as "the only distinctly intuited singular" and argues that all other singulars "are conceivable only as more or less remotely resembling" it. Cf. also MMCL 461. For a detailed examination of some other aspects of Hartshorne’s concept of experience, see my "The Epistemic Availability of Hartshorne’s ‘Experience’: A Critical Analysis," International Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1981) 29-49.

3 Hartshornes willingness to introduce new uses for ordinary words is often quite apparent. He says, e.g., "if memory is defined as ‘experience of the past,’ then all perception . . . is a form of memory, by this definition of the word" (MMCL 442). Even if one accepts the claim that memory is an experience of the past, this is rather like saying that if we define dog as a four-legged mammal, then all horses are dogs. I am not inclined to oppose such moves in principle. The issue seems rather to be whether the advantages of such moves outweigh their potential for creating confusion and for misleading not only readers but authors as well.

4 Cf, e.g., CSPM 12 on experience as creative: "We know creativity only as a responding to prior stimuli, and if we refuse to allow an analogy between such ordinary creative action and the divine ‘creating’ of the cosmos, we are using a word whose meaning we cannot provide." Cf. CSPM 124, 239.