Hartshorne on Actuality

by Eugene H. Peters

Eugene H. Peters (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is professor of philosophy at Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio 44234, and the author of The Creative Advance and Hartshorne and Neoclassical Metaphysics.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 200-204, Vol.7, Number 3, Fall, 1977. 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.


Hartshorne makes the possible-actual distinction by insisting that the possible lacks the definiteness of the actual; possibility is essentially indefinite and determinable. Hence, actualization is the becoming (or incoming) of new definiteness. But Peters makes a clear distinction between facts and events, a distinction between definiteness (definite truth) and concrete entities themselves.

Charles Hartshorne holds that concrete reality is actuality and that actuality is definite or determinate.1 Does he mean only that definiteness or determinateness is a distinguishing mark of concrete reality? No, Hartshorne’s position is much stronger than this. He wishes to identify determinateness with actuality: fully determinate particularized quality is actuality (see TDG 193). As Hartshorne succinctly puts it, "definiteness is actuality" (RSP 94).

A metaphysician must explain the distinction between the actual and the possible. If the two are not distinguished, the actual may be taken as the possible all over again. The philosophy of being (as opposed to the philosophy of process) will then follow as a logical truism. For "there could be no emergent novelty at all" (CSPM 63). Hartshorne makes the possible-actual distinction by insisting that the possible lacks the definiteness of the actual; possibility is essentially indefinite and determinable. Hence, actualization is the becoming (or incoming) of new definiteness.

A concrete entity is, in each and every one of its features, settled, all the alternative ways it might have become and hence might have been an actuality having been resolved. To be sure, what the entity’s future may be is not settled: that will have to await subsequent particularization in which it is ingredient. But the entity in itself, as an actuality, is not potentially more or less, nor potentially other, than it is. Future entities will relate to it in ways yet to be decided, but its being is utterly determinate.

Hartshorne’s view that definiteness is the touchstone by which the actual is distinguished from the possible, and indeed the very meaning of actuality, is familiar to process scholars. Moreover, it is a plausible view, on the face of it, and one might accept it uncritically were one not to consider some of its rather startling consequences. One such consequence, which Hartshorne himself points out, is that "there is no such thing as a possible particular" (CSPM 122). This means that the possibility of this or that thing, however specific that possibility may be, never contains the precise particularity that eventuates as that actuality. For example, though poets and dramatists were possible before 1564, Shakespeare (as a sequence of actual states) was not among the possibilities. The reason is that no possibility corresponds to Shakespeare in his definiteness, there being no such thing as a fully definite possibility. No one, including God, can know in advance or plan the concreteness of events. Only an outline of future events, an abstract and determinable somehow, is available, even for omniscience.

Will this mean that Shakespeare, before 1564, was not possible? No, says Hartshorne; before Shakespeare actually existed, there was simply no entity Shakespeare to which "possible" or "impossible" (or any other predicate) could attach, the definiteness of Shakespeare being a creation added to antecedent reality and not present in it. Is it a proper reply that Shakespeare was of course no actuality before he became such but was a possibility prior to actualization? Well, Harts-home will reiterate that possibilities, however restricted, fall short of the definiteness of actuality, and he will remind us that when we speak of Shakespeare we are referring to actuality (actual states of a man). An actuality is an instantiation (or perhaps better, an incarnation) of its possibility, which is always relatively nonparticular, and universals, no matter how narrow, never entail their instances. Indeed, it is a key notion for Hartshorne that the general does not imply the less general or the particular.

It is obvious that if the definiteness of an actuality preexists the actuality as a possibility, the actuality preexists itself, granting that definiteness is actuality. We may accept the principle that from the general we cannot deduce specific or particular content -- it is a sound principle. However; we must then either deny (in company with Hartshorne) that an actuality is a possible thing or deny Hartshorne’s premise that definiteness is actuality It is necessary to deny one or the other, but not both. One option is to affirm that an actuality is something possible (after all, denying this seems counterintuitive, or at least contrary to common sense) and deny that definiteness is identical with actuality. Then of course we are squarely at odds with Hartshorne.

How are we to decide the issue? Hartshorne’s identification of actuality with definiteness means that actuality is the limit -- the zero case -- of indefiniteness. So an actuality will be wholly present all at once or simply absent. Within the fullness of a given actual entity no further determination is possible. Only in subsequent moments is additional particularization admissible. But now, whose decision calls forth the realization of new definiteness? Whose potentiality is resolved in that process? And indeed, where is the process itself, the transition in which that resolution is enacted? Decision and actualization cannot be attributed to the actual, for its determinateness is absolute. Hartshorne says that "only the past alone [not the present or the future] is fully determinate" (CSPM 64). But then the actual, being fully determinate, is past (see CSPM 61), and the past cannot now decide or enact anything. So decision and actualization must be located in the present moment, if anywhere. However, in the present moment (whatever its duration) there is no actuality which is coming to be or developing, none by whose decision-making new definiteness is being realized. The present, being less than actual, must be relatively indefinite, and since for Harts-home the indefinite is the possible, the present moment can be nothing more than possibility. Can possibility be the locus of decision and actualization? It can only if the abstract can make decisions or resolve its own indefiniteness -- which Hartshorne would deny.2 It will not change the situation to assert that Hartshorne’s theory, though it has no place for the internal development of an actuality, does provide for temporal development by stipulating that each succeeding actuality comes into being as a whole. The point of our argument is that neither the settled past nor the relatively indeterminate present can explain the possibility of a new occasion, for the determinate can no more decide or act than can the determinable.

The curious upshot is that Hartshorne’s doctrine actually imperils the philosophy of process. For him there is no concrescence, no growing together into concretion. In an article nearly forty years ago Hartshorne spoke of the (seeming) paradox that every determinate character, as an essence, "involves its existence," though that existence is contingent (see SDE 142). As Hartshorne explained, the contingency is not whether the determinate character will exist -- it will -- but whether existence or the universe or nature will enjoy that particular addition, that member, that determination. Defined to the point of zero indefiniteness, an essence exists; it is actual. "Not even God can fully define a world without creating it" (CSPM 122). The important point is whose contingent qualification, whose definition, the particular addition is said to be. That addition belongs to existence or the universe or nature. Apparently innocent, this contention meets the question of the locus of decision and actualization by making existence itself or the universe or nature a concrescing subject.3 But this will not do, even if we have recourse to God as the inclusive being. For the universe is neither more nor less than all that is actual and all that is possible. And the actual, consisting of entities each of which, like the medieval deity, is actus purus, can neither change nor enact change; and the possible, consisting of abstractions or universals (which entail nothing more specific, nor any particular), is not an agent and therefore can add no cubit of definiteness to its stature.

Interestingly, Hartshorne’s illustrations of actualization and purposive action often refer to persons -- the painter about to paint a picture, the man whose motive is to insult someone, etc. (see CSPM 65-67). These references, like those to existence, the universe, and nature, fall prey to the objections made above. At best such references evade the issue and give Hartshorne’s doctrine of actuality an illusory air of plausibility; at worst they implicitly trade on ideas foreign to Hartshorne’s own premises.

Certainly Hartshorne is correct on the large issue: if there is emergent novelty in temporal process, that novelty cannot have been present before its emergence, and therefore we should not import it into antecedent possibility. He holds that unqualified determinism, by confusing the causally possible (the future in relation to the past) with the causally necessary (the past in relation to the future), does just that (see CSPM 61). The result is that time and its modes are destroyed. If here too, regarding determinism, Hartshorne is correct, can we also accept his argument that omniscient foreknowledge of future actualities would contain those actualities? Doubtless such foreknowledge would entail that future actualities exist (if knowledge is agreement with reality); then, of course, they would not be future -- and, once more, temporal distinctions would disappear. Yet the question remains whether foreknowing future actualities means literally possessing them as items of knowledge. One’s answer here will depend on the answer to the prior question, is definiteness what is meant by actuality? If not, then the foreknown particular, though definite, will not be identifiable with its definiteness, nor will it be exhaustively knowable, its reality not being reducible to its status in cognition. Of course, if an actuality cannot be fully apprehended, this will have implications for the vital question of the retention of past data.

For Hartshorne, reality is (in principle) knowable through and though, so of course the unknowable is unreal. This axiom underlies and illuminates his claim that definiteness is actuality. For while the formal and abstract may be grist for cognition, the factual and concrete may prove ultimately unassimilable -- unless it be on a continuum with the former, the terminus ad quem where all questions regarding an entity’s features or its relations are answered. Then the actual is conceived in terms of its capacity to settle, for a sufficiently penetrating knower, whatever inquiries that knower may make respecting it. This is only a way of expressing, more concretely, Hartshorne’s view that the law of excluded middle is the criterion of the actual. Is the particular entity this way or that? As definite, the entity will leave no doubt. Thus, it is the cognitive context that shapes Hartshorne’s conception of actuality; hence, in the final analysis what anything (including the concrete) is, is what it is as an item of knowledge in the perfect knower.

So Hartshorne’s distinction between possibility and actuality falls within the knowable, or better, within the content of omniscience. But one may hold, on the contrary, that the actual is never simply a content of knowledge. If it is not, then the distinction of possible and actual is not that of indefinite and definite; rather the possible is the fully-knowable, the actual the only-partially-knowable. For the possible, however articulated or specific, is in principle accessible to the knower; the actual, as an instantiation of possible structure and quality, is knowable, but, as concrete, it exceeds any knowledge of its structures and qualities. To the claim that particulars are only partially knowable, Harts-home protests that the partiality involved is merely a factual limitation. Of course no human knower completely grasps or includes the entities he knows, but God fully incorporates and thus preserves all events as they occur. Time then is strictly a cumulation -- nothing is lost! "What could remain unknown to God?" Hartshorne will argue. "If nothing, then what could ever suffer loss or be omitted?" But it is not that God, knowing an actual entity, knows partially where he might have known fully. That interpretation takes the entity as the answer to all questions regarding its features or relations and regards that answer as the entity’s very being and identity. In short, it assumes its definiteness to be the actuality. And why indeed should definiteness escape detection by an omniscient knower?

God’s retention of past facts is, for Hartshorne, the basis for the permanence of historical truth. If God failed to retain them, what basis would there be? But what I have been suggesting is a distinction between an event and the facts about it. We must decide whether the truth (the facts) about some event -- even the truth as known to God -- would exhaust the reality of that event. We may concede that facts are everlasting, but is an event everlasting? If so, then the event will ever and always occur. Of course, as we have seen, Hartshorne denies development or coming-to-be within an actual entity, this denial being implicit in his identification of the definite and the actual. But this denial presents serious problems, as we pointed out. And, on the other hand, if the event is somehow a concrescent process, its entitative continuation in God seems impossible.

The distinction between facts and events is, I think, the distinction between definiteness (definite truth) and concrete entities themselves -- about which definite truth is possible. Correlatively, there is the distinction between X-as-known and X-as-existing. If anything is known (or knowable), then of course it exists in some sense or other. But a thing’s being known is not identical with its being. Perhaps this is finally a matter of intuition rather than of argument. Suppose a man to feel anxiety about dying. Would God then possess the man’s anxiety? I do not deny that God would know all the facts involved and would be in sympathy with his creature. But the anxiety itself is the man’s, not God’s. Such in any event is my intuition.



CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1970.

RSP -- Charles Hartshorne, Reality As Social Process. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1953.

SDE -- "Santayana’s Doctrine of Essence," in The Philosophy of George Santayana, ed. Paul A. Schilpp. Evanston: Northwestern University, 1940.

TDG -- Charles Hartshorne, "Tillich’s Doctrine of God," in The Theology of Paul Tillich, ed. Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall. New York: Macmillan Company, 1956.



1 Hartshorne has taken this position time and again in his writings, from the earliest to the most recent. Among the many references, I suggest the following: SDE 137-82 (see, e.g., 141); Man’s Vision of God (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1941), p. 225, pp. 244-47, and p. 315; "Chance, Love, and Incompatibility," in RSP 85-109 (see especially 94 and 98f; also see [in a later chapter] 118); TDG 193 "Abstraction: The Question of Nominalism," chapter IV of CSPM 57-68 (see especially 61-64; also see [in an earlier chapter] 22f and [in a later] 122).

2 "Very likely characters [forms or essences] do not themselves act" (SDE 154).

3 Hartshorne s view, I think, has not changed since his early article (SDE). In his most recent book, for example, he says: "Reality is protean, not for our ignorance merely, but in itself" (CSPM 67).