Ask Dr. Cobb

June 2007 Question

In your January '07 FAQ on Whitehead, you concluded with this paragraph, to which there has not been the promised followup: “Readers may be struck by the complete omission of Charles Hartshorne from this account. He, too, was a neo-naturalist. But he was so different from the Chicago school that none of my discussion of the relation of Whitehead to that school applies to him. I will take up the relation of Whitehead and Hartshorne next month.”

Dr. Cobb's Response

First my apologies for forgetting to follow through on the promise! Thanks for the reminder.

The Chicago school has endured from the late nineteenth century until the early twenty-first century. Few theological “schools” have lasted that long. It could not have survived so long if it had been monolithic. In fact it has taken many forms and has been pursued in many ways. The school existed and flourished long before Alfred North Whitehead wrote. Its first phase is referred to as the socio-historical school. Its two most prominent leaders were Shirley Jackson Case and Shailer Mathews. They understood Christianity as a social movement, which was to be understood in a fully historical way.

This interest gradually gave way at Chicago to radical empiricism. Here the focus was on the understanding of religious experience and locating God within experience. Henry Nelson Wieman was the leading exponent of this style.

Whitehead was of interest to both the socio-historians and the empiricists. The former believed that science and democracy were the defining features of the culture in which the Christian movement should articulate its convictions. They considered it of first importance to understand the implications of the new science for faith. Whitehead’s reflections attracted their attention. Wieman also followed the early thought of Whitehead with appreciation, and he taught Whitehead’s philosophy at Chicago. However, as interest in Whitehead increased, he became troubled by Whitehead’s speculative approach. He determined to limit theological affirmations to indubitable elements of human experience. He defined God as the event of creative interaction or transformation, and called for trust in God, thus understood.

Nevertheless, Whitehead became increasingly important in the Chicago faculty. The third phase of the Chicago school was the Whiteheadian one. Some of the faculty became close followers of Whitehead. Others emphasized that Whitehead should be seen as one contributor among others to the ongoing task of constructing theology. Bernard Meland taught generations of students to think in cultural-historical forms, drawing on Whitehead but also on may other sources. Thus, even when Whitehead was the central figure, there remained diversity in the neo-naturalist school.

None of these phases of the Chicago school focused on nature in distinction from human beings and human history. But all of them rejected any metaphysical separation of human beings from the natural world. In this broad sense they were all naturalist. However, none of them accepted the reductionism that typically accompanies the mechanistic metaphysics to which modern science bound itself. The Chicago faculty was very interested in scientific developments early in the twentieth century that pointed to a different understanding of nature, one that really could be inclusive of, or at least continuous with, human history. It is this new naturalism that in the years after World War II gave its name to the school. Whitehead provided its richest articulation.

Charles Hartshorne followed Whitehead extensively and emphasized just the side of Whitehead that Wieman turned against. Much of the influence of Whitehead in the Chicago school was due to him. But a quite different understanding of Whitehead was transmitted through the more empirically oriented faculty, such as Bernard Loomer, Bernard Meland, and Daniel Day Williams. Thus, even among those who followed Whitehead to varying degrees, there were considerable differences, and these continue to the present.

Although many students received their fullest exposure to Whitehead through Hartshorne, there are marked differences between them. Some of the difference is due to their approach to philosophy. Whitehead came to philosophy largely to understand the abstractions that are the subject matter of mathematics and to resolve problems emerging from new developments in physics. He finally concluded that he needed to consider the knower as well as the objects of knowledge. He was led by this to develop a cosmology, by which he meant a synthetic vision of all of nature, including human beings. In doing so, he sought to distinguish that which must be true in all circumstances from what is particular to the universe in which we find ourselves, and the necessary he called metaphysical.

Hartshorne, on the other hand, focused his primary attention on metaphysics from early in his life. He was drawn in this direction partly by purely intellectual interests, but also by religious concerns. He asked the traditional metaphysical questions and studied the history of their answers. He was sure that instead of declaring this discussion meaningless, as so many philosophers had decided to do, it was possible to advance the metaphysical project. For example, too often it was assumed that only two answers were possible to a metaphysical question. He showed that more were possible and that the best answer was often not among those from which metaphysicians had chosen in the past. This was a style of thinking quite different from anything that had been present in the Chicago school before Hartshorne came. It was also quite different from that of Whitehead.

What is surprising is that Hartshorne’s metaphysics so extensively overlapped with that of Whitehead and that it supported neo-naturalism. Neo-naturalism held, against idealism and dualism, that the human mind is continuous with the natural world.

Hartshorne’s metaphysics agreed. Neo-naturalism held, against materialism or any kind of pure physicalism, that nature was far richer and more complex than these reductionistic views allowed. Hartshorne’s metaphysics agreed. He taught what he called psychicalism, that reality at all levels was psychical in the sense of being composed of experiences. He implied what Thomas Berry has made explicit, that the universe is a communion of subjects rather than simply a multiplicity of objects.

Neo-naturalism at least implicitly, and often explicitly, criticizes the dominant scientific community for failing to break away from the older, materialistic, form of naturalism. Hartshorne made significant contributions to showing how the focus on subjects can contribute to the enrichment and advance of science. His first book was The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, a contribution to physiology and psychology that has still not been assimilated into those disciplines. Late in his career he wrote Born to Sing, a book about birdsong that many ornithologists appreciate, but few, as yet, follow. Both books were scientific expressions of a new naturalism. They are among the best examples we have of good science based on a much richer conception of nature.

Most streams of neo-naturalism avoided or minimized explicitly metaphysical questions. Whitehead and Hartshorne did not. Yet their approach to metaphysics was quite different. Whitehead moved from reflection on nature as science is now struggling to understand it to broader and broader generalizations. The broadest of these were metaphysical. In this way he was closer to the empiricist traditions that dominated neo-naturalism.

Hartshorne, in contrast, raised metaphysical questions directly and explicitly. This was so alien to the general style of neo-naturalists that the term is often not applied to him at all. He used various labels for his position, but perhaps the most useful is “neo-classical” metaphysics. His critique of classical metaphysics is intense, but he asks the same questions and argues in familiar ways. His positions have become part of the debate in that small company of philosophers who give major attention to metaphysics. In particular his work is in dialogue with traditional philosophical theology. In many of these discussions the novelty of his understanding of nature is not so much to the fore.

There is one respect in which Hartshorne’s thought is closer to that of the mainstream of neo-naturalists than is that of Whitehead. For Whitehead, abstractions, which are also pure potentials, play a large role in the description of the world. This reflects his mathematical orientation. He calls these “eternal objects.” Hartshorne, like the empiricist neo-naturalists belittles the eternal objects. He, too, wants to stay closer to the concrete actualities.

Hartshorne shared with Wieman a desire to establish truths about which there could be no significant doubt, whereas Whitehead emphasized the hypothetical or speculative character of his thought. But this represents less similarity than it might seem. Hartshorne found such certainties as Wieman established empirically of minor value or interest, and Wieman rejected the approach to truth through rational argument.

To summarize, the Chicago school through all its periods, and in all the forms it took in each period, can be called neo-naturalist. But the positions adopted by its members varied greatly, and today these differences persist   Hartshorne played the double role of encouraging exacting study of Whitehead and of providing a distinctive version of neo-naturalism. As we look to the future, the capacity of the Chicago school to survive in its diaspora rests in the diversity of traditions within it. This diversity is found even within the Whiteheadian branch of the movement.

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