Hartshorne, Charles

Charles Hartshorne
Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne (pronounced Harts-horne—as in “deer’s horn”) (June 5, 1897-October 9, 2000) was the 20th century’s leading exponent of process theism. In his long career of more than 70 years, he vigorously defended the thesis that God presides over an everlasting universe as its eminent creative power and is supremely open to creaturely influence. Hartshorne navigated between what he considered the Scylla of traditional theisms and the Charybdis of atheistic humanisms. He maintained that his philosophy, which he called “neoclassical theism,” is logically more coherent than these rivals, more sensitive to human and non-human values, and in better agreement with the sciences.

Hartshorne shared the atheist’s objections to traditional theology, especially to the Thomistic conception of God as the unmoved mover. He criticized failure to rethink God as the “most and best moved mover.” He found anticipations of neoclassical theism in the writings of numerous philosophers, of the East and of the West, and especially in the work of the 16th century reformer, Faustus Socinus. Hartshorne believed that Unitarians, in their focus on Socinus’ anti-Trinitarianism, had failed to note the Italian’s most significant theological innovation—God as both temporal and eternal, in different respects.

Early religious influences on Hartshorne were Quaker and Episcopalian. His paternal grandparents were Quaker but, for reasons unknown, became Episcopalian. His father, Frances Cope Hartshorne (1868-1950), was an Episcopal minister. His mother, Marguerite Haughton Hartshorne (1868-1959), was the daughter of a Protestant minister and granddaughter of a Swiss Protestant minister. Hartshorne grew up with a liberal Christianity: the Scriptures were inspired but not infallible; evolution and theism were not contraries; and divine love was more important than divine power. Hartshorne’s father rejected the notion that God determines every detail of the universe—an absurdity, he felt, that leads to a quagmire of absurd defenses of evil and suffering. Hartshorne incorporated all these ideas into his philosophy. He distanced himself at an early age from Christian orthodoxy on the subjects of miracles, plenary inspiration of the Bible, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and rewards and punishments after death.

The second of six children, Hartshorne spent his childhood in Kittanning, Pennsylvania. In 1908 the family moved to Phoenixville. Later, he and his brother Richard attended Yeates Boarding School, 1911-15, in Lancaster County. (His brother Richard (1899-1992) became a well-known geographer and was, for many years, Treasurer of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin.)

At Yeates, Hartshorne read Chester A. Reed’s Song and Insectivorous Birds East of the Rockies. The book sparked a life-long interest in ornithology. His twelfth book was Born to Sing: A World Survey and Interpretation of Bird Song, 1973. He also read Emerson’s essays and Matthew Arnold’s Literature and Dogma. After reading Emerson, Hartshorne resolved to “trust reason to the end.” He characterized his response to Arnold’s book as “almost like an explosion in my mind.” Persuaded by Arnold’s discussion, he abandoned any serious interest in Christology, even as the great commandments to love God wholly and to love one’s neighbor as oneself never ceased to be central to his philosophy.

Hartshorne attended Haverford, 1915-17, a Quaker college. There he studied with the philosopher Rufus Jones. A careful reading of Josiah Royce’s The Problem of Christianity convinced Hartshorne of the vacuity of self-interest theories of motivation. In his philosophy he put love of one’s future selves on a par with love of others; he felt he could thus logically do justice to the injunction to love others as one loves oneself.

He served as a volunteer for 23 months in the Army Medical Corps in France, and then completed his formal education at Harvard, 1919-23.

During the Great War, while looking at a beautiful French landscape, Hartshorne was convinced that mere matter, devoid of feeling, is not a datum of experience but an abstraction from it. In his spare time he read H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. These books set him to considering how he might ascribe finitude to God without diminishing divine perfection. At Harvard, W. E. Hocking convinced him that the perfection of omniscience requires that God know the past as settled and the future as partly to be settled by further choices. Unchanging in God is the formal attribute of omniscience: God always knows what exists and the manner in which it exists. By the time Hartshorne graduated—with a Ph.D. in philosophy and a minor in English literature—he had articulated an early version of what he would come to call dipolar theism: an understanding that God is, in different respects, changing and immutable.

Charles Hartshorne
Charles Hartshorne

As a Sheldon Traveling Fellow, 1923-25, Hartshorne studied with some of the century’s greatest European philosophers, including Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. (In 1929 he reviewed Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit—in English, Being and Time—for Philosophical Review.) On his return to Harvard, Hartshorne was given Junior Faculty status. He was assigned to teach a class, to grade papers for Alfred North Whitehead (who arrived from England in 1924), and to edit the papers of C. S. Peirce. (Paul Weiss later joined him in editing the Peirce papers.)

In simultaneous engagement with Whitehead and Peirce, Hartshorne firmed up the main themes of his philosophy. With Whitehead and against Peirce, he understood nature as a theater of interactions among ephemeral centers of creative activity. With Peirce and against Whitehead, he understood the future as a continuum of possibility made definite by creaturely decisions in the present moment. With Whitehead and Peirce, he accepted the reality of chance, even for God. The reality of multiple centers of creative activity makes possible both cooperation and conflict, and also makes tragedy inevitable. Hartshorne diverged from Whitehead and Peirce in conceiving God’s relation to the cosmos as analogous to the relation of a person to the cells of his or her body. Or, as he would later say, “The world is God’s body.”

In 1928 Hartshorne joined the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. From 1947 to 1955 he held a joint appointment as professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary.

In 1928 Hartshorne married Dorothy Eleanore Cooper (1904-1995), a Wellesley student he had met while at Harvard. Dorothy was raised attending Universalist churches and the couple wed at St. Paul’s Universalist Church in Chicago. Hartshorne never ceased to thank his wife for her part in his career. She assisted him in countless ways, as editor, proofreader, correspondent, bibliographer and travel agent. The Hartshornes’ only child, Emily Hartshorne Schwartz, was born in 1940.

Hartshorne considered himself primarily a philosopher, not a theologian. He was unhappy that he attracted more students from the seminary than from the philosophy program. In 1955 he moved to Atlanta to take a post at Emory University. In 1962, at the invitation of John Silber, Hartshorne moved to the University of Texas at Austin. The University named him Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy Emeritus.

Hartshorne published continuously from his early years in Chicago. He authored twenty books and more than five hundred articles and reviews. In later years he regularly wrote letters to the editor opposing, eg., equal time legislation for creation-science, high definition television and spanking and in support of, e.g., higher taxes, feminism and abortion rights.

Which of Hartshorne’s many books should count as his “most important” depends on one’s field of interest. As a historian of philosophy, in Philosophers Speak of God, 1953, in Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, 1983, and in Creativity in American Philosophy, 1984, Hartshorne importantly called scholars’ attention both to unnoticed insights of great thinkers and to great insights of unnoticed thinkers. In The Logic of Perfection, 1962, and Anselm’s Discovery, 1965, he greatly elucidated the ontological argument for God’s existence. Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism, 1941, and The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God, 1948, are considered classics; these works incorporate the best of traditional ideas about God and avoid their worst defects. The professional philosopher might, however, consider most important his highly technical and most systematic book, Creative Synthesis and the Philosophic Method, 1970. Those who value lay access to philosophy might well think his most important work to be Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, 1984, written for a non-academic audience, or The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy, 1997. The latter, published in the author’s 100th year, includes interviews with the philosopher which give the reader a sense of Hartshorne’s charming personality, and also a fine editor’s introduction to his thought. The UUA Department of Ministry includes, on its required reading list for students in preparation for the ministry, Reality as Social Process, 1953.

Throughout his career, Hartshorne traveled widely and often. He taught or lectured in Germany, France, Australia, Belgium, Canada, India, and Japan. He was a member of eleven professional societies, five of which elected him as president. An anecdote from 1974 illustrates the breadth of his reputation and the demand for his services. Persons from the philosophy department of the University planned to meet him at the Melbourne airport, but members of the Australian Ornithological Society heard of his impending arrival and whisked him away to their meeting. The philosophers eventually found and retrieved him.

Hartshorne did not always identify with a Unitarian congregation. In Chicago his daughter regularly attended services of the First Unitarian Church and once asked why he did not. Dorothy answered that he had more important things to do. In Atlanta and Austin he did attend UU services on a regular basis, at his wife’s urging, and joined the church in Austin. He was fond of the sermons and befriended the congregations’ ministers, perhaps especially Fred Wooden in Austin. The only churches Hartshorne supported financially in his adult life were Unitarian. In his last decade, he contributed less, when his wife was confined to a nursing home and he himself required assistance of a live-in companion.

In 1981 Hartshorne said in a sermon at the First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City, “I hesitate to label myself Unitarian.” He explained that he was not raised Unitarian and that many of those to whom he felt closest religiously were in other churches, synagogues, and even a branch of Hinduism. He was fond of Peirce’s expression “Buddhisto-Christian.” For him the term referred to a blending of Buddhist teachings about dependent origination and the unreality of a permanent self with the central Jewish-Christian commandments to love God and others. The most inclusive love is love of God, for only God encompasses all “others.” According to Hartshorne, “God’s possession of us is our final achievement, not our possession of God.”

Hartshorne assuredly expressed the spirit of Unitarians in his advocacy of freedom and reason and in his suspicion that exclusive loyalty to any book, church, or person is idolatrous. His liberal theistic philosophy is in keeping with the oldest and long standing traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. He graciously accepted invitations to speak from the pulpits of even quite small Unitarian Universalist churches within driving distance of his University, e.g., in Beaumont, Texas, and he delighted those in attendance at a Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network seminar at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in 1994 with his lively, extemporaneous answers to their questions, at age 97.

Hartshorne often quoted a line from a Jewish ritual, saying God will “endow our fleeting days with abiding significance.” Fittingly, he died on Yom Kippur, a day of solemn prayer and reflection.


Hartshorne’s philosophical papers and letters are deposited at the Center for Process Studies, in Claremont, California. This collection includes a list of letters to the editor of various newspapers, compiled by Randy Ramal and Donald Wayne Viney and e-mail from Emily Hartshorne Schwartz on her parents’ relationship with Unitarian Universalism. Hartshorne’s ornithological papers and letters are deposited at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida. Two collections of Hartshorne’s letters have so far been published: Hartshorne and Brightman on God, Process, and Person: The Correspondence, 1922-1945, edited by Randall E. Auxier and Mark Y. A. Davies (2001) and “Charles Hartshorne’s Letters to a Young Philosopher: 1979-1995,” edited by Donald Wayne Viney, Logos-Sophia, Journal of the Pittsburg State University Philosophical Society (Fall 2001). The most extensive bibliography of Hartshorne’s philosophical works—including books, articles, and reviews—is “Charles Hartshorne: Primary Bibliography of Philosophical Works,” Process Studies (Fall-Winter 2001), compiled by Dorothy C. Hartshorne, revised and updated by Donald Wayne Viney and Randy Ramal. This contains over five hundred entries. The best bibliography of Hartshorne’s ornithological works is Dorothy C. Hartshorne, “Charles Hartshorne: Primary Bibliography,” in Lewis Edwin Hahn, editor, The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne (1991).

Hartshorne published a number of autobiographical pieces or articles from which biographical details can be gleaned. These include the following: “The Development of My Philosophy,” Contemporary American Philosophy: Second Series, edited by John E. Smith (1970); “Charles Hartshorne’s Recollections of Editing the Peirce Papers,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (Summer-Fall 1970); “Pensées sur ma vie” or “Thoughts on my Life,” Bilingual Journal, Lecomte du Nouy Association (Fall 1973); “How I Got That Way,” Existence and Actuality: Conversations with Charles Hartshorne, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Franklin I. Gamwell (1984); The Darkness and the Light, A Philosopher Reflects Upon His Fortunate Career and Those Who Made It Possible (1990); “Some Causes of My Intellectual Growth,” The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, Library of Living Philosophers, Volume XX, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn (1991); “Communication from Charles Hartshorne,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, (November 1991); and “Thoughts on the Development of My Concept of God,” The Personalist Forum (Fall 1998).

Chapter 1 of Eugene Peters’ Hartshorne & Neoclassical Metaphysics (1970) contains the earliest biographical treatment of Hartshorne. Recently, the closest thing to a biography of Hartshorne is the entry by Donald Wayne Viney in American Philosophers Since 1950, volume 270 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (2003). The electronic version of this article is at the Harvard Square Library.  Several obituary notices appeared after Hartshorne’s death, some of which contained erroneous information. By far the most accurate obituary was Ralph K. M. Haurwitz’s for The Austin American-Statesman (Wednesday, October 11, 2000).

Article by Donald Wayne Viney
Posted July 15, 2002