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Summary Article: Hartshorne, Charles (1897-2000) from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

Charles Hartshorne was one of the 20th century's most distinguished philosophers of religion and metaphysicians. He received his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he was a student of Alfred North Whitehead. Hartshorne taught at the University of Chicago, at Emory University, and at the University of Texas. His ideas about time were influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, and Henry Bergson, as well as by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

Hartshorne rests his philosophy on two bases: Its internal coherence and its adequacy in interpreting the facts of experience. Hartshorne believes that the appeal to observation is the sole possible basis of rational knowledge, which includes the purely mathematical. Therefore, the starting point of one's worldview should be one's daily experiences. The world is full of discontinuities, which are measurable as being greater or lesser. One can see them against a background of continuity, such as the continuity of space, time, and color qualities. Since our direct connection to matter is via sensation, the identity of mind and matter is the clue to the nature of things.

Hartshorne agrees with Baruch Spinoza and Whitehead that the primary physical data are within people. However, there is a veil between us and the “external world,” and this veil is physiological. Hartshorne himself calls his philosophy psy-chicalism. This means that his philosophy was not derived from physics, but rather from phenomeno-logical observations of sensations as a special class of feelings. The natural sciences tend to abstract from the mind and experience, even though they are (ultimately) derived from experience. But it is not only science that abstracts; even experiences based on the senses are enormous simplifications of the perceived world. Knowledge is not complete until these abstractions are overcome.

What is given to people has two main forms: previous experience by the same person, and other types of events that are not obvious but nonetheless may still be experiences as well, though not experiences by the same person.

The first form occurs in what we usually call memory; the other in what we call perception the data that always include events in the series of events that have constituted one's own body.

Experiences are directly conditioned by their immediate data, which temporally precede the occurrence of experiences. They must follow and thus may not occur simultaneously with their data. This one-way dependence is a key to time's arrow and to causality: In contrast to classical determinismwhich regards the world as a single, tightly interlocked system in which everything causally implies everything else, backward and forward in timeawareness, as in perception or memory, implies the selective and asymmetrical dependence of experience upon the experienced. In memory and perception the experienced events are temporally prior to the experiences.

This directionality of becoming is lost within classical physics. All conditioning involves the temporal priority of the conditions. The conditions are the data, the directly experienced factors. An experience is never identical with its data. No observation could establish an absolute simultaneity. Our categories are positively applicable only in temporal terms. Determinism destroys the structure of time by negating the asymmetry of becoming. The laws of physics that have given an explanation of time's arrow are stated as statistical approximations. Facts of experience give us direct evidence of the reality of contingency.

What the future distinguishes from the present and the past is that future experiences are characterized by their lack of distinct detail: “The future is in principle a rough blueprint, the past a photograph in full color.” But the question must be asked as to whether this asymmetry is essential to time or whether it is merely a fact of human psychology. Hartshorne shows that the “not yet” of the future may have a meaning only for a mind not in full enjoyment of all details of what is to come. The future is that in which full consciousness is lacking. We conceive the unity of the different aspects of timepast, present, and futurein the way illustrated by our experiences of memory and anticipation. Without memory and anticipation, “past” and “future” would be meaningless words.

What is the nature of the relation between the past and the present? One explanation is that the cause is past but the effect is present. The cause is the predecessor of the effect. What, then, is the relation of causality? An objective serial order does not require that there be strictly deterministic causal relations. Whitehead, James, Bergson, Immanuel Kant, and others have all answered David Hume's problem in psychological terms. The simplest positive answer furnished by experience is memory. An objective temporal order is explicable if all reality is some form of experience, with each unit endowed with some form of memory. Hartshorne agrees with Whitehead, who has shown how “extension” as well as temporal succession can be described in psychic terms. For Hartshorne there is a world, a temporal-causal process. Things either intrinsically refer to other things, for example, to past events, or they contain no such internal reference to other things. If there is such reference, then it is at least as if the thing perceived or remembered or felt has existed or even still exists. This means that the world is a temporal-spatial network of events. If there is no such reference, then the world has no real connectedness. There would be no world, no real succession of cause-effect at all. Therefore, either everything must be as if idealism were true, or else as if there were no world, no real temporal-causal system. The subject of experience is a wholeness, which is temporally extended through the “specious present” (James), or the quantum of psychic becoming. Spatially, it is one through the voluminous rather than punctiform character of its perspective, or dynamic relationship with other entities.

See also

Bergson, Henri, Consciousness, Heidegger, Martin, Hume, David, Husserl, Edmund, Idealism, Kant, Immanuel, Memory, Metaphysics, Spinoza, Baruch de, Whitehead, Alfred North


  • Hartshorne, C. (1932). Contingency and the new era in metaphysics (I). Journal of Philosophy , 29, 421-431.
  • Hartshorne, C. ( (1937).). Beyond humanism—Essays in the philosophy of nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Hartshorne, C. ( (1997).). The zero fallacy and other essays in neoclassical Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court.
  • Klose, Joachim
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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