Musings Of A Psychologist- Theologian: Reflections On The Method Of Charles Hartshorne

by Mary Elizabeth Moore

Mary Elizabeth Moore is Professor of Christian Education and Theology at the School Theology at Claremont, 1325 N. College Avenue, Claremont, CA 91711. She is the author of Education for Continuity and Change: A Traditional Model and is currently working on a book of dialogue between process theology and educational methodologies to be entitled View from the Bridge: A Traditional Model and is currently working on a book of dialogue between process theology and educational methodologies to be entitled View from the Bridge: Theology and Educational Method.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 113-117, Vol. 21, Number 2, Summer, 1992. 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.


Dr. Moore discusses three aspects of Dr. Hartshorne method: 1. His distinction between empirical and a priori knowing; 2. His understanding of phenomenology and pragmatism; 3. His use of linguistic and logical-mathematical ways of knowing.

 (This article is a revised version of a lecture given on September 30, 1991 in Claremont, California, during a conference celebrating Charles Hartshorne and the publication of The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, Vol. XX in The Library of Living Philosophers Series, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn [La Salle, IL: Open Court Press, 1991]).


What does a psychologist-theologian have to offer to this celebration of Charles Hartshorne besides comic relief? The words of Lewis Ford come to mind. More than a decade ago, he and I discussed the challenges of doing a process-relational philosophy of education. He said that what was needed was "middle principles" -- that is, principles between metaphysics and educational practice. I knew immediately that Lewis Ford was correct in his assessment, and I have spent the intervening years living into his proposal. Within the philosophy of education especially, much of the process-relational work has been focused on the few tantalizing middle principles offered by Alfred North Whitehead, and some sparse work (with the notable exception of Robert Brumbaugh) has been done relating process-relational metaphysics to educational practice. The work thus far is more centered on the metaphysical principles themselves or the dynamics of practice than on the middle ground where the conversation takes place.

The middle ground is where I want to focus in this brief essay. I will argue that Charles Hartshorne has lived primarily in the first and third worlds of concrete actualities and generalized abstractions. In those worlds he dazzles me and countless others with his sensitivity to the smallest subatomic actualities and with his daring brilliance as a logician of generalized abstractions. I suggest, however, that in choosing to live in these first and third worlds, he has spent far less time in the second world of middle principles. This middle world is where I will focus, seeking questions and insights that emerge as the perspectives of that middle world interact with the observed actualities of the first world and the metaphysical principles of the third world.

Three aspects of Hartshorne’s philosophical method are particularly important in begging middle world questions. One is his distinction between empirical and a priori knowing, both of which are formulated without explicitness about the possible influence of middle principles, such as selective perception or the conceptual bias that emerges from the social location of the philosopher and the historical influences on the philosophical community. A second aspect of Hartshorne’s method is the way he defines and employs phenomenology and pragmatism in his method. Within the first and third worlds, Hartshorne’s method is genuinely phenomenological and pragmatic. Within the middle world, some questions remained unanswered. A third aspect of Hartshorne’s method is his choice of linguistic and logical-mathematical ways of knowing. He has plumbed the riches of these ways of knowing far beyond my own comprehension. The middle world question is: What kind of riches remain unexplored by remaining in this third world of analysis, and what might be discovered by further exploration of middle world modes of analysis, such as the analysis of ordinary language and human relationships?

In a profound sense, my raising these questions is a logical extension of Hartshorne’s own work, because his own metaphysical analysis has propelled him to move beyond dualism and to find middle grounds, or more expansive explanations that hold together polarities. Also, I come to his work as a lover of nature and a student of human relationships, as one who has learned more from the natural world and people than from books (though I have read more than a few). Hartshorne, by his own self-description, has found his "intellectual stimuli" more in books than in people (PCH 25, 16). This is not meant to be a trite comment, but to point to different ways of knowing that stir different questions and different modes of inquiry. As a student of human relationships, I live largely in a middle world, where Hartshorne’s first and second world analyses are inordinately interesting and useful. Now I ask how the analyses of that middle world might be interesting and useful to Hartshorne.

Empirical and a Priori Knowing

Focusing first on Hartshorne’s distinction between empirical and a priori knowing, I am struck that Hartshorne has critiqued Husserl’s seeming naivety regarding the possibility of suspending belief in phenomenological inquiry (PCH 22). Hartshorne assumes that some belief cannot be suspended; people bring theoretical prejudgments to observation. Further, those theoretical judgments have themselves been influenced by experience in the world. He recognizes, for example, that the world has influenced his own thinking. He says, "The same world, and many of the same influences, worked on me as had worked on Whitehead and Peirce. None of us would have been possible a century earlier (PCH 21, cf. 31).

For Hartshorne, however, a priori knowing is different from Husserl’s "belief" or from theoretical judgments shaped by experiences in the world. A priori truths, for him, are those that are constructed by logic -- that contradict "no conceivable observation" or "could not conflict with conceivable experiences (CSPM 19-20). In this way, a priori truths are defined into a separate class of thinking, almost untouchable by observation. Since Hartshorne defines metaphysics as "the study which evaluates a priori statements about existence," metaphysics itself is focused on these necessary truths. One wonders what the relation is between this third world of metaphysics and the first world of observation, and how great are the real possibilities for critical reflection on metaphysics from the ground of empirical observation. Perhaps what is needed is middle principles that mediate between the data of observation and the a priori truths formulated by metaphysics.

On closer examination, Hartshorne himself is taking a middle road between Popper’s denial of empirical verification and the denial by other philosophers of non-empirical, non-contingent a priori truths. He does this by adopting Popper’s distinction between empirical truth (which is contingent) and a priori truth (which is non-contingent or necessary) (CSPM 19).1 Might a further distinction be made in the middle -- a form of truth that we might call empirical generalizations -- generalizations that are based on empirical truths and serve as data for forming and critiquing a priori truths?

This seems urgent now as greater evidence is coming from the social sciences regarding the immense diversity in the human family and the way one’s worldview and experience of the world is shaped by one’s social location. For example, the work of linguist Benjamin Whorf suggests that the language of a culture shapes the way in which people of that culture experience the world. Of particular interest would be the distinction between the Hopi people and peoples of SAE (Standard Average European) languages. An empirical generalization that emerges from Whorf’s work is that Hopi people tend to view the world as a flow of reality because discreteness is not part of their language. The Hopi will speak of "earlier" and "later," rather than use objectified numbers for time, for example. On the other hand, peoples of SAE languages tend to view the world in terms of discrete entities, including numbers for temporal phenomena (such as 10 days), concepts of waves in the ocean, and so forth (LTR 134-59).

What does this have to do with Hartshorne? Hartshorne wrestles with the difficulty of resolving the contradiction between "distinct unit-experiences" and "the apparently continuous flow of experiences in waking life," especially if one focuses on purely empirical inquiry (PCH 636-37). He himself uses logical analysis to demonstrate the existence of distinct unit-experiences and the implausibility of thinking in terms of substances that move spatially but not temporally. This truth might be analyzed differently if one were functioning within the Hopi language and worldview in which discreteness is not even named, but in which everything is understood in relation to something else, such as "the tenth day," instead of "ten days" (LTR 140).2 Empirical generalizations such as this description of Hopi language and worldview could contribute to the evaluation of truths in what I have called the first and third worlds. And it could sharpen suspicion of both a priori and phenomenological truths by raising our awareness of the social construction of all knowledge.

Phenomenology and Pragmatism

In general Hartshorne’s metaphysical logic is more explicitly and fully developed than his phenomenological investigation and analysis. Others have developed this point, however, and I will not expand on it here (PCH 291-312, cf. 636). The point that I will make is that Hartshorne’s phenomenology and pragmatism both function primarily in what I have called the first and third worlds. One example of his phenomenology is an experience in his youth that led him to a new metaphysical understanding:

One day, looking at a beautiful French landscape, I had a vivid experience. A phrase of Santayana . . . defining beauty as ‘objectified pleasure’ popped into my mind. ‘No,’ I said to myself, and then something like the following: the pleasure is not first in me as subject of this experience. It is given as in the object, or at any rate some sort of feeling is so given (PCH 17).

An experience such as this one is helpful to see how Hartshorne merits his own claim that his method is phenomenological (PCH 23; see also M 324). He did, in fact, experience a French landscape (a concrete actuality) and respond with a metaphysical judgment (a metaphysical generalization). He exemplifies in this moment the way in which he was living in the first world of concrete actuality and the third world of metaphysical generalization, and how these were influencing one another.

Likewise, Hartshorne has claimed a particular form of pragmatism in his method. He describes an instance of such pragmatism:

One of my objections to the invidious interpretation of categorical contrasts . . . is, in my sense pragmatic, and is that no one can express in manner of living the alleged conviction that, for example, it is, universally and unqualifiedly, better to be independent than dependent, absolute than relative, infinite than finite. . . . We show in living that this is not what we believe (PCH 634).

I suggest that this is genuine and helpful pragmatism, but it is quite different from the pragmatism of John Dewey or William James, or the neo-pragmatism of Cornel West.

Hartshorne’s pragmatism belongs more to the third world of metaphysical logic without a full interchange with the first world of concrete actuality. Perhaps another kind of pragmatism is also needed, and that is a pragmatism of the middle world, in which extensive attention is given to historical events, global conditions, and emerging crises in the world. Metaphysical constructs would be formed in dialogue with those events, conditions, and crises, and ideas would be judged by the contribution they make to life in the world. For example, the mechanistic and substantive views of reality that Hartshorne critiques so well through metaphysical logic may be critiqued even more radically in terms of how they have fostered the abuse of the natural world for human benefit.

Modes of Analysis

My last question has to do with modes of analysis. The question is: What might be gained if Hartshorne expanded his modes of analysis beyond the linguistic and logical-mathematical? This question will get the barest mention here, but recent study of human intelligence by Howard Gardner indicates that at least seven intelligences exist in human beings, of which linguistic and logical-mathematical are only two (FM). Gardner names the other intelligences as spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Hartshorne’s interest in, and attention to, aesthetics suggests a compatibility with the insights that would emerge from the exercise of these various capacities, but what new insights might emerge if all of these ways of knowing were integrated as sources and modes of analysis in metaphysical reflection?

This question throws us into the middle world again, where folk tales, works of art, ordinary language, cultural rituals, and patterns of relationship become integral to philosophical method. One particular experience would still have import, but the patterns of experience discerned and expressed in the middle world would also be taken as data, and the modes of analysis in the sciences of experience would be taken as appropriate, even vital, to philosophy.

What I have offered here is a call for middle principles; but more than that, I hope that the formation and reformation of middle principles will inspire a continuing reformation of metaphysics. My thanks to Charles Hartshorne for being an intellect who could stir such a dialogue within me and offer such a challenge for the future.



CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophical Method. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1970.

FM -- Howard Gardner. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

LTR -- Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Whorf. Ed. John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1956.

M -- Charles Hartshorne. "Categories, Transcendentals, and Creative Experiencing." The Monist 66/3 (July 1983).

PCH -- The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne. Ed. Lewis E. Hahn. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991.

WM -- Charles Hartshorne. Wisdom as Moderation: A Philosophy of the Middle Way. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.



1From this distinction, he proceeds to offer examples of a priori truths: "Something exists," "experience occurs,"" creative synthesis occurs," concrete actualities exist "which are both externally and internally related," and divine or infallible experience occurs which has "fallible experiences among its objects" (CSPM 172; cf. WM).

2Hartshorne does allow for considering this kind of empirical generalization, but he relies more on what Nancy Frankenberry calls "the method of a priori falsification. in connection with nonempirical statements." See Frankenberry, "Hartshorne’s Method in Metaphysics" (PCH 297).