Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Life and Influences

Charles Hartshorne was born June 5, 1897, in Kittanning, Pennsylvania. He married Dorothy Cooper in December 22, 1928 and they have one daughter. He attended Haverford College for two years in 1915-1917 and then spent two years as a stretcher bearer and hospital orderly in the US Army. He returned to academic life in 1919 at Harvard University and earned the A.B. in 1921, the A.M. in 1922 and the Ph.D. in 1923. Two years were then spent in Europe studying especially with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. From 1925-1928 Hartshorne returned to Harvard as a research fellow where he was an assistant to Alfred North Whitehead for a semester. He was an instructor and then a professor of philosophy in the University of Chicago from 1928-1955, followed by professorships at Emory University (1955-1962) and the University of Texas at Austin (1962-76). He retired in 1976 and has produced several important books since that time. His hobbies include writing poetry and the study of ornithology, the latter of which resulted in a book on bird song in 1973.

Hartshorne is very aware of the diverse influences upon him and gives a lively and interesting account of them in "How I Got That Way", an autobiographical contribution to Cobb and Gamwell (eds.) (see the bibliography for details). Among the strongest early influences he numbers his father (a compassionate and thoughtful Episcopal minister with an appreciation for logical rigor), his mother (a sharp and loving woman with invariably balanced and penetrating insights into people and life), an unnamed science teacher at Haverford (who made Hartshorne realize that he had never consciously not been an evolutionist), Emerson's Essays (which played an important role in solidifying his already well established confidence in the powers of human reason) and Matthew Arnold's criticism of Christianity called Literature and Dogma. This last reading experience led Hartshorne to a junction point in which he thought he had to choose between abandoning all theological beliefs and becoming a philosopher. The experience of being a stretcher bearer in the First World War both clarified this choice for him (he chose the latter!) and solidified another tendency in his thought: reality is experienced. If Emerson was his first philosophical hero, then Royce was his second. While still at Haverford, he read Royce's Problem of Christianity and the chapter on community permanently affected him: there could be no self apart from participation in the lives of others; reality is social.

On the basis of these early influences, Hartshorne developed an appreciation for idealist philosophy and process metaphysics. Most significant in this regard are C.S. Pierce and A.N. Whitehead, but Hartshorne gladly lists an array of thinkers which includes virtually all of the prominent nineteenth century idealists of America, Britain and France, and many of his teachers at Harvard. His philosophy bears a strikingly close resemblance to that of A. N. Whitehead. At the time of his doctoral dissertation he had read nothing of Pierce or Whitehead's metaphysical works but was exposed to them both simultaneously when he returned to Harvard in 1925 after his two years in Germany. Hartshorne's mature philosophy may be described with tolerable inadequacy as a highly creative adaptation of Whitehead's view of the world and of God.

Philosophers have not been all that enthusiastic about any kind of undisguised metaphysics during the twentieth century. Hartshorne's influence on the philosophical world will therefore take some time to gauge. However, his work has been appropriated enthusiastically by theologians: especially the so-called process theologians such as Henry Wieman, Daniel Day Williams, John B. Cobb Jr., Scubert Ogden, Norman Pittenger, Lewis Ford, David Griffin, and others.

Process Metaphysics

The background to Hartshorne's thought is in large part also the background to process metaphysics. When the adjective "process" is used to qualify "theology", "philosophy", "metaphysics", "modes of thought" and similar words and phrases, the intention is to indicate that priority is being accorded to the categories of event, becoming, and relatedness over the categories of being and substance. The significance of this categorial decision has long been appreciated in western philosophy, beginning with the pre-socratic attempts to understand change, which is sometimes popularly (and apocryphally - as a teaching device) represented as an argument between Heraclitus and Parmenides, with the former insisting that all is in flux, and the latter that all is one. In Buddhist thought there is also a strong and ancient thread which teaches that there are no static substances behind the flow of experience. The modern manifestations of the process emphasis are grounded in:

1. Hegel's and post-Hegelian views of reality as dynamic history,

2. scientific advances towards a deeper understanding of reality (especially biological evolution, physical cosmology and an increasingly rich, if confusing, theory of the sub-atomic), and

3. the experiential and empirical pragmatism of philosophers like Pierce, Dewey and James, with its insistence on the centrality of experience for understanding reality.

The modern process worldview is, simply, that what is real is in process. Anything that is actual is properly understood as a momentary event within a series of momentary events. Each momentary event is conditioned by the previous one, by its environment and by the available possibilities for its own completion. Anything which is genuinely static and unchanging must, on this view, be past, dead, or abstract. The things we think of as objects are a family of momentary events. Each such event is rightly regarded as an enduring individual because it inherits the vast bulk of the characteristics of the event which preceded it. Everything which is real is, therefore, temporal.

This simple statement must be adjusted and enhanced in various ways depending on the thinker in question. Whitehead and Hartshorne are in substantial agreement on which adjustments and enhancements need to be made. Here is a brief list of a few of the more significant of them.


Each event is constrained by the event which it succeeds, by the environment and by the range of possible future events (this is regarded as a part of the environment in Whitehead). Within these constraints, however, each momentary event creatively determines itself. This application of intentional terminology to events is not metaphorical, but literal. It points to a psychicalist view of reality in which everything is a least partly mental. Consciousness as humans experience it is merely a relatively highly developed form of mental activity.

God is in time

God must also be within the flow of time and must be subject to change as God moves from one divine event, conditioned by the environment, towards a partially open future, the direction of movement through which is creatively determined by God. Impassibility, omnipotence, and omniscience as traditionally (and narrowly) conceived cannot be asserted of God, both because of this analysis of reality and because their assertion leads to incoherence: witness the traditional formulations of the problem of evil. While there is overall agreement, Whitehead and Hartshorne differ in the details of their approach to God. Hartshorne's God is much more personal and active than Whitehead's (see below), and so more conducive to Christian theology in most forms. Both are emphatic, however, that God is not to be treated as the supreme and unique exception to metaphysical laws, and used as such to protect a metaphysical system from collapse. Rather God is the supreme exemplification of metaphysical principles.

The Direction of Change

God is the reality who grounds the appearance of novelty through the process of change over time. God is immediately aware of all that has gone before, and is also aware of the myriad of possible futures. The movement towards greater richness of experience is the contingent result of God's intentional drawing of reality in that direction. The most descriptive images here are of slow and quiet persuasion, companionship, understanding, suffering love, and the like. The basis of this movement of reality towards self-transcendence or actualization or increased intensity of experience or aesthetic enrichment is found in the dipolar nature of God, for both Whitehead and Hartshorne, but differently in each case.

The Dipolar Nature of God

In Whitehead the dipolar distinction is between the primordial and consequent natures of God. The latter is the immediate divine awareness of what is actualized at a given moment (note the problem for coherence inherent in this in the light of the relativistic understanding of simultaneity). The former is the awareness of the rich potentialities for reality. It is the conscious holding out to reality of God's primordial awareness of the wealth of potential which grounds the use of such words as "lure" and "draw" for describing how God ensures the orderly and continued movement of reality towards actualization. In Hartshorne, the dipolar nature of God is understood in such a way that God is more active, more personal, and so more like the biblical images of God as an agent of activity. On the one hand, God is necessarily, absolutely and unchangingly existent; every state depends upon God, while God exists no matter what else there might be. On the other hand, the actual character of God at a given moment is contingent upon choices made in relation to the actual states of reality. God is therefore contingent, changing and passible relative to those states and choices. In this way, Hartshorne offers an analysis of God which affirms that God is both loving and divine. Some of the traditional strands of the doctrine of God within the history of Christian thought have been left behind, like omnipotence (of which omniscience is an aspect), and impassibility. Others are affirmed in a refreshingly definite way because of the absence of obviously problematical logical conflict, like God's love for and involvement in reality, and God's ontologically necessary and unchanging existence. The process analysis of reality is what offers the possibility of a coherent doctrine of God. The dipolar understanding of God's nature, whether in Whitehead or Hartshorne, is what saves the doctrine of God from triviality.


This term is Hartshorne's and is distinguished from both theism (in which God is inevitably removed from the rest of reality) and pantheism (in which God is indistinguishable from the sum total of reality). It is intended to express the idea that everything in the world is immediately experienced by God and that God responds to the world so that every part of it experiences the consequences of divine choice. But God is not identifiable with the world.

2. Works (Selected List)

The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation (1934); Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1937); Man's Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (1941, 1948); The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (1948); Reality as Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion (1953); Philosophers Speak of God (ed. with W.L. Reese, 1953); The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (1962); Anselm's Rediscovery: A Re-examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence (1965); A Natural Theology for Our Time (1967); Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (1970); Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970 (1972); Born To Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song (1973); Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion (1976); Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1983); Creativity in American Philosophy (1984).

3. Themes

Hartshorne’s Method and Position

Hartshorne's analysis of reality and of God looks promising for application to many other Christian doctrines, and process theologians have applied themselves to this task with great energy. Hartshorne himself, however, in so far as he can be regarded as a theologian at all, has concentrated on the doctrine of God and never really moved much beyond it in the direction of Christian theology. Even his theology is decidedly that of a metaphysician rather than that of one who has a commitment to a stance marked by confession or revelation. He is a metaphysician of the sort that is rather rare these days: an unapologetic, explicit, ontologically idealist, epistemologically realist one. As such, his work is extremely creative and both his results and his method merit comment. The following remarks may serve to go part of the way towards characterizing what is distinctive in his contribution to metaphysics.

First, with Whitehead, Hartshorne accepts that:

Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By this notion of 'interpretation' I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. (1962, pviii)

This marks out a huge field of endeavor for philosophers, the central aspect of whose task should to be metaphysics, according to Hartshorne; the search for necessary and categorial truths.

Second, metaphysics is not deduction from premises which are somehow unimpeachable. It is the attempt to describe our experience by leaving behind what is incidental and special and reporting as accurately as possible what it left: the general and universal. The premises of metaphysics are not assured and awaiting clever arguments to draw out their consequences. Rather they are tentative assertions whose meaning is disclosed as deductions are made which allow assessment of their adequacy. This is a method of abstraction and descriptive generalization on the one hand, and a testing of theory against experience on the other. It therefore appears to have at least some affinity with sophisticated versions of the hypothetico-deductive method.

Third, all metaphysical proposals are unavoidably provisional in character. It is obviously difficult for any human, given the specificity of their social and cultural situation, to achieve even a moderate degree of abstraction from experience. The effort is needed, however, for both the satisfaction it brings, and for the peace and well-being of humanity and the world.

Fourth, it is as well to note that Hartshorne assumes without apology that the structure of experience at the human level corresponds with the structure of experience at all levels of reality, both the much bigger, and the much smaller; the much more complex, and the much simpler. The price paid for denying this assumption to Hartshorne is, of course, the fundamental unintelligibility of the universe; this is his argument for making it.

Fifth, Hartshorne is an idealist, and proudly at that. He uses the term "panpsychism" (all-soul) to describe his view that "all things, in all their aspects, consist exclusively of 'souls', that is, of various kinds of subjects, or units of experiencing, with their qualifications, relations, and groupings, or communities." ([1941], p183) This sort of position represents a wholesale attack on metaphysical materialism and dualism alike, and it offers a possible way out of the problem of reductionism as it has developed under scientific materialism.

Sixth, unusually for the history of philosophy, Hartshorne wishes to defend, alongside his strict metaphysical idealism, a straight forward epistemological realism. Any object of knowledge is entirely independent of its being known by any particular subject.

Seventh, the whole universe is fundamentally societal in nature. The billions of momentary events which constitute the universe are in unfathomably rich interrelation with each other. This becomes the ground for Hartshorne's approach to social and organismic groupings. The idea of interrelatedness which it entails is all-pervasive in his thought.

Eighth, the human person has two poles: the psychical and the physical. The two interact on the basis of the fundamental psychical character of all matter. Thus Hartshorne offers his solution to the mind/body problem. The "soul" of the human person is the family of billions upon billions of events which are themselves psychical entities. For Hartshorne, continuance of the human soul after death is improbable, except as it is remembered by God.

Finally, though there is a lot of competition for the last item in this short list, it is appropriate to mention evil. In short it is both a genuine possibility and an actual reality, just as freedom is. There is no guarantee that humans will not encounter and even create for themselves tragedy again and again. There is plenty for the pessimists to be unhappy about. But Hartshorne's overriding awareness, in spite of the fact that he spent two years carrying broken and dead bodies on stretchers during WWI, seems to be one of joyful optimism. Humans - and the whole universe - really are free. They are in the process of self transcendence and God is with them, responding, acting and lovingly drawing them onwards towards greater fulfillment.


Hartshorne calls for a religion of contributionism (in which we contribute our feelings to each other). There are four main obstacles to this: (1) Atheism due to no valid arguments for God. (2) Atheism based on problem of evil created by traditional view of God. (3) The idea that our souls are immortal (which we must give up). (4) The idea of divine independence according to which God cannot receive from the world.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


For Hartshorne, unlike Whitehead, God is a series of actual entities rather than one event. This modification solved (so he thought) a logical inconsistency in Whitehead where one is influenced by the past when God is not past.  Making God a series makes God both present and past. Whitehead deals more with fundamental metaphysics of a relational world, Hartshorne focuses more on the reality of God within a relational world. This is a tendency that has been developed even farther by John Cobb.

Hartshorne is in fundamental agreement however with Whitehead on several important issues including the following. (1) Temporal atomicity (actual occasions). (2) Prehension. This key concept in process thought provided Hartshorne with the basis for portraying love as the clue to existence. Love is primarily "sympathy", feeling the feelings of another with another and thus bares a close resemblance to prehension. (3) Hartshorne is critical of classical theism’s "egoist" God and love, which betrays the Christian gospel’s view of love. (4) Panentheism: The universe is the body of God, and God is the mind or soul of the world, God and creatures can feel each other (perception not just through senses but occurs at the most fundamental level of reality); God is the source for cosmic order and the everlasting recipient and preserver of value. (5) Omnipotence: as usually conceived it is a false or absurd ideal. Only a God of infinite. 

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Cobb J. B. and F. I. Gamwell eds. 1984. Existence and Actuality: Coversations with Charles Hartshorne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cragg A. 1973. Charles Hartshorne. Makers of the Modern Theological Mind. Waco, Texas: Word Books.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1931-1935. Collected Papers of Charles Saunders Pierce. Edited with Paul Weiss. Harvard University Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1934. The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation. University of Chicago.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1937. Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature. Willett, Clark and Co.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1941, 1948. Man's Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. Willett, Clark and Co.; Harper.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1948. The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God. Yale University Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1953. Reality as Social Process: Studies in Metaphysics and Religion. Free Press of Glencoe.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1962. The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics. Open Court.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1965. Anselm's Rediscovery: A Re-examination of the Ontological Proof for God's Existence. Open Court.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1967.  A Natural Theology for Our Time. Open Court.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1970. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. Open Court.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1972. Whitehead's Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970. University of Nebraska Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1973. Born To Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song. Indiana University Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1976. Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion. Marquette University Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1983. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York Press.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1984. Creativity in American Philosophy. State University of New York Press.

Hartshorne, Charles, V. Lowe and A. H. Johnson. 1950. Whitehead and the Modern World. Beacon.

Hartshorne, Charles, and W. L. Reese, eds. 1953. Philosophers Speak of God. University of Chicago.

James R. E. 1967. The Concrete God: A New Beginning for Theology - The Thought of Charles Hartshorne. New York and Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. [Contains an exhaustive bibliography of Hartshorne's writings from 1929-1967

Peters E. H. 1970. Hartshorne and Neoclassical Metaphysics: An Interpretation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Reese, W. L. and E. Freeman eds. 1964. Process and Divinity: Philosophical Essays Presented to Charles Hartshorne. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court.

7. Internet Resources

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Hartshorne

Wikipedia article on Hartshorne

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on process philosophy

The Center for Process Studies website

8. Related Topics

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

John B Cobb, Jr. (1925- )

Schubert Ogden

Process Theology


Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material from Wesley J. Wildman (1988) and Mark Mann (1997)


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