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Article abstract: Hartshorne advanced the idea of process theology, which held that process or change was the basic characteristic of all beings, including God. This concept had a major influence on American Protestant theology.

Early Life

Charles Hartshorne’s father was an Episcopal clergyman, and his mother was the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman. Hartshorne began his college education at the Pennsylvania Quaker college Haverford, from which his father had graduated, spent 1917-1919 in the U.S. Army, and then went to Harvard. At Harvard, he studied with R. B. Perry, W. E. Hocking, and C. I. Lewis and wrote a dissertation on “the unity of all things in God.” He spent 1923-1925 as a postdoctoral student in Europe, where he attended lectures by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, then became a Harvard instructor and research fellow during the years 1925-1928. He taught at the University of Chicago from 1928 to 1955, where he was a colleague of Rudolf Carnap and Richard McKeon. He was part of the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta from 1955 to 1962 and the University of Texas in Austin from 1962 to his retirement in 1978. He continued lecturing and writing after his retirement and was the subject of a volume in the Library of Living Philosophers, the prestigious series founded by Paul Arthur Schilpp.

Life’s Work

Influenced most by the logician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead, as well as by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Charles Sanders Peirce, Hartshorne developed his own variety of process philosophy. In this complex and wide-ranging system, the theory of reality is a version of idealism that is similar to many Buddhist traditions in its fundamental metaphysical stance. It posits momentary entities as the ultimate constituents of the world. However, Hartshorne’s view is unlike Buddhism because Hartshorne claims that the existence of God is a logical necessity.

Under mind-body dualism, minds are self-conscious beings and bodies are spatially extended beings. No thing can be both essentially self-conscious (as are minds) and essentially non-self-conscious (as are bodies). Minds and bodies interact. Under materialism, however, there are spatially extended things and no other kind of things. Minds are simply capacities of more complicated physical organisms. No issue of interaction arises.

Hartshorne partly reverses materialism. A materialist holds that every mental state is identical to a physical state. For Hartshorne, however, what are commonly called material states are mental states, or at least like them. A materialist also holds that many material states are not identical to any mental states at all; a large number of states are not mental in any sense or to any degree, which rules out, the materialist holds, any chance of reducing matter to mind.

Hartshorne rejected the idea that many material states cannot plausibly be thought of as mental rests because of his views concerning the fundamental constituents of the world. The basic or simple entities, he holds, are active items; anything inert is composite. These active basic entities are not perceptible as simple things because no simple item can be sensed; only composites are perceptible in the sense of being observed by sight, taste, touch, hearing, or smelling. Hartshorne holds that to be active is to be mental, to some degree and in some manner. Simple active entities are experiences or like experiences. Only in the case of our experiences are individual entities available to observation—to introspection, not sense perception.

Typically, mind-body dualists and materialists agree that however many kinds of items there are, the items there are kinds of are substances. A substance possesses qualities but is not itself a quality; it can, and typically does, endure through time and remains the same despite change of its nonessential qualities. Trees and persons are substances. Hartshorne denies that there are any substances; what appear to be substances are merely collections of simple active entities. His view, then, is not dualism or materialism, but idealism. It is not like Bishop George Berkeley’s idealism, for which (roughly) to exist is to be either a mind or a thought in a mind. It is an idealism for which to exist is either to be a simple item that is somehow and to some degree an experience or feeling, or to be a composite of such simple items. Minds for Hartshorne do not have but are composed of ideas.

According to Hartshorne, then, the ultimate constituents of reality are momentary concrete events, each being to some degree an experience. He holds that there are no positive properties that can be ascribed to material events that cannot be properly ascribed to mental events, and his view is idealistic rather than materialist or dualistic. His form of idealism, however, is one for which conscious and self-conscious beings are conceived of as made up of momentary experiences. In his process theory of reality, processes are composed of one momentary event after another. In a substance theory of reality, an event is simply an enduring substance coming to have a property it did not previously have or losing a property it possessed; there can be no events and hence no processes without there being something to which the event occurs or something that endures through the process. Events or processes that occur to nothing do not occur at all. A substance philosopher will argue that Hartshornian events, processes, or concrete occasions are momentary bearers of properties; they differ from substances only in their lack of endurance through time.

Another central feature of Hartshorne’s metaphysic is his rejection of determinism. He understands every simple or basic entity to be active in a sense that entails its being creative and interprets its being creative to mean its being in some sense free. The notion of creativity is best understood in contrast to standard views of causality that hold that whatever comes into existence has a cause and that a cause of something is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of that thing. Hartshorne holds that the only necessary and sufficient condition for some item X is simply X itself; while the conditions that precede something constrain what can occur, they do not require that exactly the thing that occurs come into existence. Any set of conditions in which some thing X comes to be are conditions in which something else, Y, might have come to be—actually might have, under exactly the same conditions. Determinists will object that in this view, everything that occurs is a chance occurrence. Hartshorne responds that “chance is the negative side of what Peirce called spontaneity, others call freedom.” Those who accept libertarian freedom hold that free human actions lack necessary and sufficient determining conditions; Hartshorne holds that every event lacks necessary and sufficient conditions.

Hartshorne’s view of freedom requires a rejection of the traditional doctrines of divine omnipotence and omniscience. His view, rejected by most of those who accept the doctrine that God is omnipotent, is that God’s being omnipotent entails lack of power and libertarianly free uses thereof on the part of created persons. He also holds that if God is omniscient and therefore knows the future, the future is hence determined, a view controversial among those who hold that God is omniscient. Hartshorne holds that unless something has already occurred, no one can know that its occurrence is something that will be part of the history of the world. Thus in Hartshorne’s view, God’s knowledge grows moment by moment, as does God’s mind generally, for God is viewed as affected and enriched by all that occurs. The theological core of process thought is its doctrine of God, which is developed in sharp contrast to classical Christian doctrine.

Hartshorne holds that either it is logically impossible that God exists or it is logically necessary that God exists and that the former is false and the latter is true. However, while it is logically necessary that there is a God, it is not logically necessary, so to speak, that a particular God exists. The world might have been different, and if it had been different, because the world affects God (it is properly thought of as God’s body), God would then have been different. Hence there is a necessary, timeless aspect of God and a contingent, temporal aspect of God. Relative to God’s necessary, timeless aspect, God is unsurpassable; relative to God’s contingent, temporal aspect, God is surpassable only by God.

Hartshorne denies that the existence of evil is evidence of God’s existence. Evil occurs given freedom. Freedom is present where there is creativity, and it is logically impossible that there be a world whose constituents are not creative; to exist at all is to be active and have the power to be creative and to be free. Thus it is logically impossible that there be a world without evil. Further, he claims that “the risks of freedom are justified by the opportunities freedom makes possible.”

It is controversial whether one can give a coherent and defensible account of persons, personal identity, choice, responsibility, and memory within the type of metaphysic that Hartshorne favors. This dispute is cross-cultural, occurring (for example) among Cartesians and Humeans in a European context and between Jains and Buddhists in an Indian context. The issue is whether the free choices that Hartshorne prizes can really be processes that are themselves made up of momentary processes and are a person’s choices only in the sense that they take place in a context of other momentary processes.

The relevant issues are moral as well as metaphysical. Hartshorne offers the view that later stages of oneself—which will be composed of momentary states that occur later in the series of states to which one belongs and that are numerically as distinct from the states that now compose oneself as are any states that now compose someone else—are as much objects of one’s altruism as are the states of others. There can be no such thing as self-interest relating to one’s future states. Correspondingly, however, if nothing that is not a composite lasts more than a moment, all joy as well as all pain lasts for only nanoseconds. If there are no enduring things, then whatever value resides in beings is lost. Historically, ethics based on respect for people have been associated with belief in enduring persons—with self-conscious substances—and utilitarianism has been associated with the idea of momentary states being the locus of genuine worth. It is not at all clear that this linkage is not conceptual as well as historical, and if it is, a process thinker such as Hartshorne is not entitled to appeal to an ethic based on respect for people.


Hartshorne developed an influential theory of process theology in which God is constantly growing and affected by other beings. His views were in part developed as an alternative to classical theology, which holds that God is eternal (timeless), immutable (incapable of change), and not capable of being affected by anything. Although Hartshorne’s theory did not make deep inroads into American philosophy, it had a greater impact on American Protestant theology, though in this field, too, it was a minority view, competing with both traditional orthodoxy and views in which God is conceived as a temporal being capable of suffering but also as an enduring substance not composed of momentary elements.

Additional Reading

Bainger, David. Divine Power in Process Theism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. A critique of process thought, especially regarding its notion of divine omniscience.

Cobb, John, and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. An explanation of process theology by two of its leading proponents.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. Analytic Theism, Hartshorne, and the Concept of God. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. An important look at Hartshorne’s contribution to theism.

Hahn, Lewis, ed. The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne. La Salle, Ill: Open Court, 1991. Twenty-nine essays on Hartshorne’s philosophy with his replies and his intellectual biography.

Pailin, David A. God and the Processes of Reality. London: Routledge, 1989. A presentation and defense of Hartshorne’s views.

Pittenger, Norman. Process Thought and Christian Faith. New York: Macmillan, 1968. An introduction to the thought of Hartshorne, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. A defense of a view that is close to classical theism, much closer at any rate than is process theology.

Towne, Edgar A. Two Types of New Theism: Knowledge of God in the Thought of Paul Tillich and Charles Hartshorne. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. A detailed examination into the thought of Hartshorne and Tillich.

Wierenga, Edward. The Nature of God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. An excellent discussion of the divine attributes that defends an essentially classical standpoint.