Hartshorne on Personal Identity: A Personalistic Critique

by Peter A. Bertocci

Dr. Bertocci is Borden Parker Bowne professor of philosophy, emeritus, at Boston University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 216-221, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. 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.


Any resort to bodily unity-continuity to explain the awareness of self-identifying unity despite intermittent consciousness does not resolve the problem.

Before examining Professor Hartshorne’s view of personal identity, I wish to express my esteem for him and my gratitude for his work. I had already caught the general outline of the view that process is reality in Whitehead’s class in cosmologies in 1931-32. My revered teacher, Edgar S. Brightman, had even before this made me aware of the problems facing a scholastic or substantive view of mind, finite and infinite, as he reexamined the personalistic world-view of his teacher, Borden P. Bowne. In 1934-35, while working through my dissertation at the University of Cain-bridge with F. R. Tennant,1 I was forced to reconsider the case for a substantive soul-psychology.

In any case, the problem of defining the nature of personal identity has been with me during all of my teaching years, especially since a good part of my efforts have been focussed on borderline issues in the philosophy and psychology of personality. For over twenty-five years I have found myself being drawn over and over again to Hartshorne’s way of conceptualizing the nature of identity. Is my present uneasiness with Hartshorne due to an obstinate residue of the psycho-logic of substantive metaphysics? I hope that this response to Professor Hartshorne’s paper will be a step in clarifying what I take to be a significant difference between a temporalistic-personalistic view and an organismic-process view of identity.

Let me, to begin with, affirm basic agreements. First, becoming is real; being is the common property of all becoming, and nothing apart from becoming. Second, this first principle is consistent with what I find in my experience: to be is to act and to be acted upon. Third, act-uality is always a definite and noninstantaneous unity. Assuming agreement thus far, the problem is that of discovering the most reasonable account of act-ive unity and, what is inseparable, of act-ive continuity.

In the remainder of this paper, I shall try to pinpoint reasons for my present inability to follow Professor Hartshorne’s account of personal identity.

1. While this is not the place to pursue the matter, I must say to begin with that a methodological difference may well be at the root of differences in interpreting personal identity. Hartshorne, following White-head, is convinced that an epistemology must be worked out within the framework of a theory of reality. His paper shows that he is led to conceive of personal identity as one level of a basic model of identity; one developed, as I hope to show, without adequate attention to experience at the personal level. There is, methodologically, a radical personalistic experientialism in Brightman’s insistence that every metaphysical theory is inadequate if it misconstrues or forces self-conscious experience into some mold that does not include personal self-consciousness -- the one place where there is not only activity but activity aware of itself as activity. The fact that we begin theorizing as self-conscious persons does not, to be sure, entail the conclusion that the person is the microcosmic model for the macrocosm. But it does require that both philosophers and psychologists never lose sight of what is given in self-conscious experience; that any attempt to show that the sell-conscious experient is an emergent from other beings, psychic or not, be consistent with what is displayed in personal self-conscious experience.

2. Borden Parker Bowne, the founder of American idealistic personalism, held that there could be no succession of experiences without the experience of succession. To use A. C. Campbell’s illustration (without accepting his conclusion), in order for a person to hear Big Ben strike ten times he must be present at the beginning and at the end of the series in order to know that these ten strokes succeeded each other. I agree. If a person is to hear ten successive strokes he must be a unity that is a self-identifying continuity as he experiences the strokes as successive. Thus far I agree with Hartshorne’s insistence: identity is never a strictly logical identity. This is clearly so in personal experience; I am a self-identifying unity-continuity in change.

But when Hartshorne says that "reality is the succession of units" (b), meaning thereby the succession of actual entities or "experient occasions," I must ask whether this statement can be rendered coherent with personal self-conscious experience. For at no point am I a succession of unit-events. I am an experient who is a self-identifying unity without which there would be no meaning for "succession." For me to know my-self as a continuity I must be succeeding myself but not be a succession of units. For, again, succession cannot be apart from a self-identifying continuant.

3. Hartshorne says that "experient occasions have previous occasions, whether or not clearly similar to themselves, as their data" (d). He goes on to say that "in becoming datum for an experience of unit-subject, an entity becomes constituent of the subject" (e). And I emphasize his own further elaboration:

Subjects include their objects. Thus an actual entity must "house" its actual (meaning its past) world, must embrace the latter in the "synthesis" forming its own unity. Excluded by this doctrine of synthesis or "prehension" is the view that the data of experience are merely adjectives of that experience.

Hartshorne’s explanation for this fact, that subjects "include" their objects, is italicized: "The past comes into the present; the present cannot go into the past" (f).

I find neither the basic thesis nor the explanation consistent with my experience.

a. In my person-al, noninstantaneous direct experience. I do not find that I am a succession of units. I am a self-identifying unity who can recognize and recall his own experiences as successive.

b. What Hartshorne would call my previous occasions are not a past (or other data) that I am "housing" or "embracing" or "including" as such. There is nothing in my experience of myself that justifies my calling myself a synthesis of successive moments. I am indeed active in any moment, but I am neither a collection of moments nor a "synthesis." As long as I exist at all, I am a unity as synthesizing, selective activities, a unity accepting and selecting, in my contemporary ambient, what is consistent with my own activity-potential to date.

c. I come now to the point where epistemic and ontological contentions are both critical. In knowing my past (or present) objects I never include or embrace them; they are, insofar as they are objects of my experience, "adjectives" without the word "merely" attached (cf. quotation from Hartshorne, above). I don’t know what distinguishes the word "know" from "exist" if in my becoming I must be in part what my objects are in themselves, independent of me. The meaning of objects is adjectival to me, whatever their status in themselves is as they interact with me.

The epistemic dualism I assume here against Hartshorne’s (and Whitehead’s) realism is rooted in a concern to make error intelligible, but I shall not discuss this point here. Suffice it to say that it seems to me that both Hartshorne and Whitehead do not draw the dualistic consequences of a sentence in Process and Reality (p. 18): "Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality" (italics added). I would think that in the light of many such statements, one can hardly say that subjects include their objects. If the actual occasion is creative, can the theory of prehensions support a realistic epistemology?2 Here, however, I turn to the crucial ontological issue.

d. I agree that the present cannot go back into the past. But I do not know what it can mean experientially to say that "the past comes into the present." I understand the manner of speaking, but surely it is not more descriptive of what actually takes place than when we say: "the sun rises in the east and sets in the west." The sun doesn’t rise! The past doesn’t come into the present! It is gone forever.

What is at stake is the nature of the continuity required for a self-identifying unity. My fundamental contention is that our manner of speaking, "going back into the past," or "coming into the present," should not blind us to what we experience. This saddle-back now, the crucible of my becoming, cannot indeed go back into the past that is no more. Neither can it be said to move into a not-yet. Both "past" and "future" are abstract poles by which I identify my own history.

Thus, for example, at any moment in my personal experience I can roughly discriminate the Big-Ben sounds characterizing my vivid peak of "enjoyment." One stroke after the other is enjoyed in a present durée which remembers and anticipates even as it makes its creative contribution; and the novelty of each sound is differentiated and appreciated in a present. For I am never in my past, but only in my present. I may say that my present is my past with the enjoyment of a subjective aim that passes into a future, but this manner of speaking must not seduce me into reifying what cannot be. The burning, present experience is a present complex unity that is able to identify itself as changing and successive. To say with Hartshorne that "the present includes the past, becoming is cumulative and is a growth" is to give a theory about my present, but it is a theory and not what I experience. In a present I recognize aspects I describe as past, but my present is never an accumulation of pasts (hidden, distinct, or clear).

In (j) Hartshorne says that "since data are past events indistinctly given in the present we have, but do not fully have, our past." This marks the kind of seduction this manner of speaking invites. For epistemically we do not reach into a past that no longer is, and ontologically we cannot be what in fact is no more. The person-al moment is always a person-al now recognizing itself as it changes, and anticipating what is not now. The temporal person, accordingly, is not necessarily a line of sequences, of pasts becoming presents which become pasts for future presents. The temporal person is a complex unity interacting with his ambient at each moment and able to sustain his nature in a way that gives meaning to the words "self-identifying" and "continuing."

To summarize: for me, it is crucial to see that my personal identity is the selective and creative history of a becoming-being who has found that he can persist -- can modify his own being, select from, or change, his ambient in ways consistent with his being. I am not the result of persistence of the past into the present. The kind of persistence, and the causes and factors involved in the fact that I am still able to identify myself -- all this is open to further theorizing. I suggest that my memories, as aspects of my present, indicate a successive past because I, as an active unity, have been my "past." I am not, however, a result of linear and cumulative sequence. For, as I said, the experience of succession is the experience of a unity able to remember and anticipate. Again, how this is possible, be it in relation to God or to the environment as they present themselves, distinctly or indistinctly, to me as a creative self-identifying unity, is a matter for further debate. But I deny units of succession and unity as preeminent linear sequence.

4. This contention is critical in relation to Hartshorne’s view of personal identity, which stresses the linear or "personally ordered" sequences or "trends of becoming" (k, 1, m, n). To quote: "What then is personal identity? It is the persistence of certain defining characteristics in a very complex orderly society endowed with a preeminent linear society or "soul" (n).

I interpret this to mean that there can be no I that is other than a dominant linear persistence of a complex body. Thus Hartshorne holds that there is "no absolute right or wrong" as to whether personal identity begins with conception, or at some later stage. He leaves no doubt that he finds no meaning in saying that an "I" exists at the moment the fertilized egg came into existence. I see no reason why an actual occasion (later knowing itself as I) cannot come into being on the occasion of conception, having been created in accordance with God’s will at such a point, or at any other point.3 But I am not sure that I understand Hartshorne at this point. I press my concern.

Assuming that Hartshorne does not identify the person entirely with his bodily society, then the person’s own linear unity, however "fed" by his bodily society, can hardly be understood as a constant by-product of the complex bodily society. For as I said above, every actual occasion makes its own contribution to what is received selectively. Whenever it is that "I" does come into existence (let us assume, when a multicellular organization is present) the paramount question still remains: Does that "I" have the capacity to maintain itself, as it interacts with its body (however finally conceived) and with its total ambient, including God?

I suggest, in agreement with Hartshorne, that the person is no monad with closed windows; it opens and shuts its windows (within limits). But, I would insist, as long as the person is able to maintain its unity-continuity at all, it affects and is affected in accordance with the quality of its own knowing-caring-active nature, which is not identical with the society deemed to be its body or the ambient world. This is the essence (not circumference) of the personalistic contention, whether the person is created with limited delegated autonomy by God, or whether the person is a nonreducible emergent.

5. Thus, granted the existence of God, I myself hold that the person is created by God, and I would suggest that this view is what is required by a Whiteheadian theory if we are to take seriously the view that God creates the subjective aim of any actual occasion. Process theology is, I think, misguided in allowing a preference for creativity to lose the values in creatio ex nihilo. But that is another story. The important personalistic thesis is that the (temporal) person, whenever he begins to be, is the kind of being who is never a sequence or a succession of units but a unity who can succeed himself by virtue of his ability to relate his world to himself on his own terms (within limits). My larger contention would be that this quality of being depends ultimately upon God for its existence and also for the principles by which it survives -- which seems clearly to involve what we call nurture and challenge from the nondivine environment. God establishes the limits of consequences of personal being, but persons choose the sequences insofar as they choose at all.

6. Is this view endangered by the fact of dreamless sleep? I would hold that the phenomena of subconscious and unconscious being call for a theory of personal being that does not identify it with consciousness and self-consciousneSs, but this is again a larger story and, I think, still needs further elaboration by personalistic thinkers. But I confess that I do not see why dreamless sleep creates a hardship for a personalistic view of self-identity that does not hold equally for any other view of personal being that includes consciousness and self-consciousness. If personal identity is no more than that of a bodily society, there is no problem seemingly -- that is, until we ask what changes in the body are such as to produce the consciousness which is still nonexistent during dreamless sleep. In dreamless sleep the nature of a society of mental (nonconscious) entities, or of a society of brain-cells, is hardly the same as one that enjoys conscious experience. The problem of accounting for the self-identifying unity within the conscious-self-conscious being is still present.

Accordingly, any resort to bodily unity-continuity to explain the awareness of self-identifying unity despite intermittent consciousness does not resolve the problem. I do think personal being must be more broadly defined in appropriate mentalistic, telic terms, rather than conscious-self-conscious terms alone, but I see no good account of continuity across intermittency of consciousness by shifting the problem to a bodily society that does not enjoy my consciousness. It does no real theoretical good to sidestep the problem of intermittent consciousness by referring either to the body or to God. Why is it better to talk about a probability that is an actual state of a body (which in the sleeping state is presumably not the same as waking), than to talk about the dynamics of a telic being which, at the personal level, is to be understood in terms of activity-potentials by which it maintains itself at conscious, unconscious, and self-conscious levels? As I say, the problem cannot be sidestepped for long. But that must remain a topic for another occasion.



1 His two volumes of Philosophical Theology (1928-1930) I still regard as the best systematic argument for theistic philosophical theology in England.

2 In a written rejoinder Professor Hartshorne writes: "My personalistic critic denies that present experience includes past experiences. If ‘includes’ meant that we effectively and adequately still possessed these experiences, then I too would deny this. Thanks to the pervasive indistinctness of memory, past experiences are in a real sense inaccessible to us." What I am disclaiming is the possession of past experiences, because this blurs the distinction between "know" and "exist." How would the past "be" indistinctly? Earlier I said that epistemic differences may well underlie important phases of our disagreement. This becomes clear when Hartshorne continues in a vein that runs through realistic epistemic claims of any sort, including the Whiteheadian: "On the other hand, if what I have in present experience is not the past itself but a newly created substitute or image, then the door is open to solipsism of the present moment, and only arbitrary fiat will keep that door closed"(italics added). I must reply that solipsism cannot be overcome by an arbitrary denial, made at the very moment that it is conceded that memory is inaccurate; and that, owing to data in the present that are otherwise inexplicable, we can infer with reasonable probability that we ourselves have a past. But here a basic issue is joined, and I conclude with Hartshorne’s further explanation: "I think the truest way to do justice to the inaccessibility of the past, which nevertheless we somehow know, is to say that we indistinctly intuit the past itself."

3 Incidentally, questions about abortion should not, I think, enter in at all here, since the question as to whether abortion is right or wrong depends on whether one believes that killing is ever justified.