Introduction: How I Got That Way by Charles Hartshorne

Existence and Actuality: Conversations with Charles Hartshorne
by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Franklin I. Gamwell (eds.)

Introduction: How I Got That Way by Charles Hartshorne

What causes an individual’s choice of a philosophy? If to cause means to strictly determine, my philosophy holds that nothing causes such a choice. There are no literally sufficient conditions in the past for our present ways of thinking, or even for the precise happenings in inanimate nature. However, there are necessary conditions without which the thinkings or the happenings would have been impossible. There are also probabilities, weighted possibilities, or what Popper calls propensities. How a philosopher thinks is partly explained by biological inheritance and environmental influence from conception on.

What then made it possible, perhaps probable, that the oldest of five sons of Francis Cope Hartshorne (called Frank by his wife) would develop something like my kind of metaphysics? At least three features of that metaphysics, which I call neoclassical, need explaining. It is, in an obvious sense, religious; it at least tries to be clear and rational; it is both respectful of tradition and yet iconoclastic. My first suggestion is that these three traits were also in my parents. Frank Hartshorne was a sincerely pious Episcopal minister, son of an Episcopal mother and a Quaker father. My father did not merely proclaim his piety, he lived by it. Moreover, it was an attractive form of piety. He saw Christianity as a religion of love and took seriously the two sayings that God is love and that love for God and fellow creatures sums up Christian (and Judaic) ethics. He was essentially affectionate, gentle, and fair in his treatment of others. He had compassion for poor and underprivileged persons. Himself the son of a rich man, he disagreed strongly with the richest man in his church, who expected employees in his iron mill to work a twelve-hour day.

My mother, Marguerite Haughton Hartshorne, was the daughter of a pious and scholarly Episcopal minister whom I recall as a gentle and sweet grandfather. One of Mother’s brothers was also an earnest clergyman of the same religion. There was a touch of saintliness in Mother. If she ever acted notably selfishly toward anyone, it escaped my notice. Her piety, even more than Father’s, was attractive. If she hated or envied anyone, that too escaped my notice. The biblical phrase, "in whom was no guile," applied to her well. Once, mostly by the fault of another, she got on a train without her ticket or money. No great deal! Anyone could see that Mother was honest, as well as a lady in the complete, old-fashioned sense, who had a secure place in the world. Mother did not do the cooking for the family, but she kept busy doing useful things. So did Father. I was once told by someone in a position to know, ‘You haven’t a lazy bone in your body." This was true of my parents.

How philosophers think about religion may well depend largely on how they have encountered it in childhood and youth. A genuine religion of love has its appeal. This is especially true if the love includes an aspect of what Spinoza called intellectual love and the poet Shelley called love for intellectual beauty. Frank Hartshorne had a very vigorous mind; he had earned two higher degrees, one in divinity and one in civil law, and was given an honorary degree in canon law. He published or spoke in public, respectably I believe, on all three subjects. He had studied natural science and accepted the evolutionary view in biology. He was far from being a biblical literalist. In intellectual development his wife was not his equal, and this was something of a trouble to both of them, though they made the best of it and had a fairly good life together. Mother had deep insights into people. Both my parents were habitually cheerful and, especially Mother, had vivid appreciation for the humorous side of things. She loved the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. Father loved classical music and poetry, especially Tennyson and Matthew Arnold.

You are not to think that these were inhumanly perfect individuals. In the phrase of Wordsworth for his wife, they were "not too good/for human nature’s daily food." In my youth I saw faults enough in both parents, and the full measure of their stature has become clear to me only with my own maturing.

In the broad sense of rationality, Mother was perhaps slightly superior to Father. Her view of things could be counted on for sanity, especially her view of personal relations. Three examples. Once, when I was fussing about a girl whom I knew I did not love and did not want to marry, but who had charm and who had somehow offended my pride, Mother heard my story and simply said, "Charles, life is big." No more needed to be said. I had been making a mountain out of a molehill. Once when a parishioner undertook to explain to Mother that she should refer to her black laundress not as Mrs. Smith but simply as Lizzy, Mother said, "I am accustomed to calling her Mrs. Smith. I think I will continue to call her Mrs. Smith." Subject closed. Third example. My youngest brother, Alfred, brought home for us all to look over the first girl who had interested him. We all thought she was hopeless. She seemed extremely frail, for one thing, as though starved from infancy, and not especially well educated. Mother did not argue with Alfred. As she told me later, she simply said, "Alfred, marriage is a very serious matter. It is not enough to love a girl, you must know that you can continue to love her for years after you are married to her. It is not fair to the girl otherwise." No one in the family was unkind to the girl, certainly not Mother. Brother Henry did say to me, "If you’re going to marry into the proletariat, at least you ought to get health." Henry was the one of us with a slight touch of cynicism, and the only one who did not survive his twenties.

Father’s sermons were not especially eloquent. They were reasoned affairs, rather like an honest lawyer’s brief. He definitely intended to be rational. He also had the combination you may have noticed in me of respect for tradition but also willingness to smash idols. Biblical literalism, the Bible as the absolute word of God, he thought rather ridiculous. Father also believed, though I was not aware of this when I was thinking out the question myself, that medieval theology, as set forth in scholasticism, was the deduction of absurd consequences from alleged axioms. Father held that the absurdity of the conclusions should have been taken as reason for giving up one or more of the axioms. I have a letter from him about this, written after he had read my book Man’s Vision of God. The letter showed that my rejection of classical theism was something like an elaborated repetition of what Father went through fifty or sixty years earlier.

In thinking about my parents I am struck by the fact that they did not talk in clichés. Mother’s "Life is big" is not a hackneyed use of the word "big." Indeed I have never otherwise encountered it. Mother liked to say of someone she had known for a long time, "So and so has developed." This was high praise. In her diary she wrote, "Charles is a merry child." "Henry is such a comical baby." There was an aunt who, alone among the many relatives, had a reputation for selfishness, and who had kept a grown-up son as handy-man around the house but was finally persuaded by another aunt to let the son go to Labrador to take part in a philanthropic project there. Then she had sent a telegram to the persuading aunt, "James has gone to Labrador as you wished. Hell here." "And of course,’’ said my mother, "She was the hell." Father’s speech was similarly unhackneyed. Once when the family was packing up to go home from summer vacation Father found me reading a book with my unpacked things all around. "You’re a model of inefficiency" was his summary of the situation. What neater way could there have been to make instantly clear to me that my role must be to turn myself right away into a model of efficiency? It comes to this: I and my five siblings had parents who used language creatively, as well as grammatically. When to his observation that, though he liked the main thrust of my Man’s Vision of God he failed to find in it any discussion of sin, I replied "I have a paragraph on sin," his comment was a simple, "A paragraph!"

My parents talked and wrote (Mother in letters and a diary) well and to the point. They also told us no lies. Not much about sex, but no wrong things.

In our family of eight, plus a cook and a so-called (and well-called) mother’s helper, quarrels were almost unknown and, as brother Richard recently put it, none lasted overnight. I have sometimes been said to like everyone. This would be even more true of my mother. And Father was not a man to quarrel much, though with one relative who irritated him he did have something of a quarrel. Although I argued with both parents, Mother complaining of this, I do not recall accusing them of unkindness in their treatment of me. Once when, as an adult, I defended myself mildly in answer to Father’s letter objecting to my behavior in delaying repayment of a loan from him, no date of repayment having been specified, he replied, referring to his letter, "It was a fault of long-standing: that of overarguing a good case. And I did not do you justice." When I wrote that I had decided to become a philosopher, he wrote a letter giving his opinion of philosophy, stressing the fact that in that subject there is "not one certainty." I defended my choice of subject; his next letter began, "An excellent apologia for philosophy." When brother Richard announced his choice of mathematics for a subject, this was accepted; when with some apprehension he wrote a year later that he had changed his aim and would be a geographer, Father wrote saying that he liked that subject better than mathematics. All the time the family had hoped that one of the five sons would volunteer to become a clergyman; when none did, no fuss was made. We were all given financial assistance to do whatever we felt we could do best. True, the money came largely from Father’s father, who left a fifth of a million-dollar estate to each of his five children.

That I was not aware, while working out my philosophy of religion, how much I was repeating some aspects of the paternal train of thought was partly a consequence of the facts that, from the age of fourteen on, I was much away from home at boarding school or college, in the army, studying in Europe, as instructor or research Fellow at Harvard, or otherwise occupied, all of which meant that I was seldom exposed to Father’s sermons. Nor did we ever do much discussing of metaphysical issues, apart from the long letter mentioned, which came after my beliefs were largely formed. Yet it can hardly have been without considerable paternal influence that I became the kind of philosophical theist that I am.

The boarding school was small, Episcopalian, and for financial reasons went out of existence long ago. Its headmaster and founder, Dr. Gardner, was a clergyman somewhat like Father, trained in science which he taught in such a way as to make one appreciate its intellectual beauty. From him, as from Father, I heard nothing, so far as I recall, about a conflict between biblical creation and Darwinian evolution. I cannot remember having ever had to fight my way out of the trap some now quaintly call creation biology. That is what neo-Darwinian biology is for some of us. Later at Haverford, by wonderful luck, I had a course on evolution by a young man whose name I forget who skillfully taught the theory as then understood (1916). It was a fine course in theorizing. I have never consciously not been an evolutionist.

In the bearding-school years several events were perhaps more important than anything the school officially did for me through its teachers. During a vacation visit at home I happened to pick up my Father’s copy of Emerson’s Essays, which I read entire. This changed my life substantially. I also, during a Christmas vacation in 1912, saw and bought a copy of the first convenient, and even by today’s standards excellent, bird guide, by Chester A. Reed. Returning to school, which was admirable for birding, being small and in the country, with nothing but fields, woods, and streams for miles around, I began to learn the small land birds of eastern Pennsylvania and in a few years knew them fairly completely without any assistance from others except the Reed’s guide. The ultimate result of this new interest was that I came later to philosophize to some extent as a biologist and also to write seriously in a small branch of biology, the study of singing birds as such. My book, called Born to Sing, published fifty-eight years after I left boarding-school, is unique. Not since Aristotle, probably, had anyone in his work dealt so seriously with philosophy and ornithology.

Another change in those years was that, after an unduly delayed, major operation for appendicitis, I began to write poetry, writing the first poem in the hospital itself. For years I continued in this activity, and developed the ambition to be a poet, of course a great poet! During my college career this changed into the aim of being a writer indeed, but in prose. Some of the poems were about birds, and were so reminiscent of Wordsworth that a sophisticated friend who read one of them said to me, "You little Wordsworth!"

Another decisive event, near the end of the boarding-school experience, was that I read Matthew Arnold’s criticism of Christianity called Literature and Dogma. This was my first encounter with a clear-cut attack on conventional Christianity. Emerson’s essays were veiled attacks that somehow did not register as such. Arnold’s book was almost like an explosion in my mind. My parents learned about this and were more or less upset but said little. I recall my father’s remark, "I have not tried to mold you." This was true, though Mother had seen to it that we heard a fair number of Father’s sermons and went to Sunday school. Eventually Father gave me his reason for being a Christian. Like Dr. Johnson, he thought the coming to be of the church could only be explained by the miraculous resurrection of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels. A fine Orientalist, Jeremy Ingalls, has written a book taking this position. It is a historical argument; she says that, while she does not attempt to refute metaphysical arguments, she does not trust herself to judge them. My response to her is that, while I do not trust myself to refute historical arguments, I have some trust in my ability to judge metaphysical ones.

After Arnold, my only options were to drop all theological beliefs -- except perhaps Arnold’s desiccated formula: "The enduring power not ourselves that makes for Righteousness" -- or else to become a philosopher. It took four years, two of them in the army medical corps, to make this clear to me.

At Haverford College was Rufus Jones, a scholar in mysticism, reputedly a mystic himself, and probably the most philosophical theologian in the history of the American Society of Friends. A disciple of Josiah Royce, also of the Cornell school of idealism which sought to combine relativity and absoluteness, infinity and finitude in the idea of the supreme reality, he was reasonably Open-minded and tolerant. He once said, "Every philosophical system has an impasse in it somewhere." I took his course on the history of Christian doctrine, and heard him give many talks in Quaker meetings and other gatherings involving the entire college.

Jones had us read Royce’s Problem of Christianity, a very singular book, even for Royce. The chapter on community was another writing that changed my life. Never, after reading that, would self-interest theories of motivation have much appeal for me. Royce shows that, apart from participation in the lives of others, there is no self to be concerned about. Later on, Whitehead and Peirce, and eventually Buddhism, made the point even clearer. Sympathy, participation, is more fundamental than any concern for the ego, the mere personal career. David Hume brought the West close to the Buddhist "no-soul, no-substance" doctrine. Curiously, Hume did not use this aspect of his ontology in writing his ethics, with its contention that sympathy is not derivative from self-interest. All of these motifs are united in Whitehead, and all but the clear rejection of substance as relevant to ethics and as implying the primacy of unit-events rather than unit-things or persons, were in Peirce. An additional point, stressed by Buddhism and Whitehead, is that since we all die, the self is a wasting asset, unless there is something immortal to which our lives are contributions. It was no huge step to seeing all this from the way I was thinking soon after entering the army from my sophomore spring at Haverford.

At Haverford I did some reading on my own of works relevant to philosophizing, which after Arnold was a continuing activity. I read Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, the poet-philosopher’s rehash of German idealism, of which I had then read nothing. I do not recall being excited by this book, but it must have done something to me. What did excite me was H. G. Wells’s novel, Mr. Britling Sees It Through. In this wartime writing, Wells set forth, with wonderful eloquence, a kind of theism derivative from William James’s notion of a finite God. Wells later rejected this view and reverted to his previous agnosticism. But I still think that a paragraph or two in this novel gives matchless expression to some aspects of the case for theism, provided the dismal idea of theological determinism is clearly ruled out. Wells wrote another religious novel, The Bishop, in which he got rather lost in theological speculations. Considering the limitations of James’s idea of a finite deity, I can easily understand that Wells’s satisfaction with this doctrine was not lasting. But he did strongly reinforce my own tendency toward a theism of some form, and his book led me to read, while in the army, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, a thrilling adventure. This work, Royce’s book on Christianity, and Augustine’s Confessions were the three writings by great philosophers, commonly so regarded, that I had read when I reached Harvard after the war was over.

While at Harvard I kept in touch with Rufus Jones. He led me to read the essays by J. E. Creighton, the Cornell idealist. Eventually I read nearly all the idealists, American, British, some of the French, and quite a good deal of Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling. This is one difference between me and many of my still living and younger contemporaries, that they have tended to avoid idealists in general. Charles Morris, not long before he died, told me that he regarded me as "the greatest living idealistic philosopher.’’ This was measured praise since, as Morris knew, most of the great idealists were dead, including Peirce and Whitehead.

In childhood the people we encounter are the-great influences. In my youth and early manhood, however, I think that it was books and essays which counted most. What made me once and for all an indeterminist, for example, was James’s essay, ‘The Dilemma of Determinism." Later the chief reinforcement and generalization of the same position was Peirce’s "Doctrine of Necessity Examined.’’ None of my teachers had much to do with this decision. Lewis and Perry were then determinists. (Lewis later changed his mind but did not, so far as I know, publicly announce this change.) My joint rejection of dualism and materialism, that is, my idealism or psychicalism, came initially from no teacher but from my own experience, interpreted, as I later found Croce interpreting experience -- in his aesthetics, which he regarded as prior to ontology for reasons that I also had in mind. Whitehead once told me that it was his reason for rejecting the concept of mere, dead matter.

At Harvard there were the idealist Hocking, whose poetic intuitions seemed to me profound, but whose arguments seemed mostly loose and unsatisfying (nevertheless it was he who convinced me that God was not immutable); Ralph Barton Perry, whose criticism of idealism and monism were challenging and impressive in their apparent rigor; and two brilliant logicians, Sheffer and Lewis. With these last two I had the most courses. Thus my intention to think rationally, which I had somehow had ever since reading Emerson (not that there was much logic in his writing) was reinforced and clarified. I think it was in my father’s spirit.

My doctoral dissertation, "The Unity of Being," was a fantastically bold and comprehensive project. I stated my position on many of the philosophical problems to which my teachers had introduced me, for instance the question of internal and external relations; and I gave arguments for the positions. None of this work has been published, though many of the ideas expressed in later writings are more or less clearly anticipated in it. As I recall, Peirce and Whitehead are not mentioned. I then had read nothing of Peirce and had never seen Whitehead or read any of his metaphysical works.

Two years of postdoctoral study in Europe followed, mostly in Germany. These, and the two years in the army, are about the only years since the age of sixteen when I did not write for publication in some form, even if only a poem. In Europe I listened to Husserl and Heidegger; the idealists Kroner, Natorp, and Rickert; the Platonist Jonas Cohn, the Kantian Ebbinghaus; also Nicolai Hartmann; and Max Scheler.

After these influences I was simultaneously exposed, during my second and last stay in an official capacity at Harvard, from 1925 to 1928, to the writings of Peirce and the writings and presence of Whitehead. I already knew the general kind of metaphysics that could be convincing to me. But my experience was deficient on the side of exact science. That was the side Peirce and Whitehead were uniquely equipped to illuminate.

One of my teachers as a graduate student at Harvard had been the brilliant psychologist Troland, who happened to be a psychicalist, influenced by a founder of his science, Fechner. So the three scientists who influenced me most were, on this point, on my side. Later the great geneticist at the University of Chicago, Sewall Wright, became a fourth man of genius I could look to for support on this issue. Peirce and Whitehead were theists; Wright and possibly Troland were not.

An important difference in philosophers is the extent to which they have had to break away from manifestly vulnerable religious ideas. The most common form of this phenomenon is the reaction to the problem of evil in its classical formulation. The concept of omnipotence which generates this problem was never, so far as I know, the belief of any of my teachers, and definitely not of my father. He repudiated the idea that what happens to us is determined by divine fiat. He accepted the libertarian view of human freedom, and there was nothing like predestination in his theology. I am convinced that he did not accept the dogma of divine immutability. For him, classical theism, as found in the scholastics and in modern philosophy down to Kant, was neither biblical nor intelligently modern. Thus my, for some, too scornful attitude toward the scholastic theology was something I came to naturally enough. It was also reinforced by reading Nicolas Berdyaev.

To some extent then my thinking can be causally explained. Arnold’s mode of rejection of any supernatural role for Jesus still influences me, and Whitehead’s objective immortality in God is all that I make of "Heaven." As for Hell I recall not a word about it from my early life. But I do believe that love, sympathy, participation, apply to reality on all levels from atoms to deity. And these ideas are also found in Peirce and Whitehead. But my basic convictions about them were derived not from these philosophers but partly from my being surrounded from birth with the reality in question; partly from Emerson’s essays and the works of James and Royce; partly from the poems of Shelley and Wordsworth (which similarly influenced Whitehead); and most of all from my own experience, reflected upon especially during my two years in the army medical corps, when I had considerable leisure to think about life and death and other fundamental questions. What I owe to Peirce and Whitehead concerns technical matters of method, definition, rational reasons for and against, relations between metaphysics and science, relations to intellectual history.

This then is something like an answer to the question, "What caused my philosophical development?"

However, I have overlooked the most important single influence of all on my writing. If I were to describe, so far as this is possible, the company I have enjoyed with my• most intimate companion of fifty-five years, whose name when I met her was Dorothy Eleanore Cooper, the reader in response could not do better than to quote one of Jane Austen’s characters: "That is not good company, that is the best company." It was also the most helpful for one concerned with nature, science, philosophy, liberal religion, and good writing -- all of which my wife had learned to appreciate before I met her. Without her I might have had opinions not widely different from those I have had; but I view the chances as slight that I would have been able to formulate them nearly so well and adequately as I have done. My wife has had her ambitions and many talents and skills, and I have tried to further those, for one thing by not expecting her to be a routine dishwasher and housecleaner, so far as I could prevent it. But any efforts I have made to this end are but little compared to the unfailing persistence and skill with which, in a remarkable variety of ways, she has furthered my aims, and enabled me to be actually what my first thirty years made possible.