Charles Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead
Philosophers of Process
The general, or popular, notion of “process” goes back at least as far as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who declared that all things flow, and who came up with an analogy so memorable that it has become part of our common vocabulary: you can’t step into the same river twice.
Process philosophy, however, as conceived by Alfred North Whitehead, one of the most profound and original thinkers of all time, is a unique creation of our era. Whitehead’s thought is of such quality that it has been characterized as “. . . some of the most careful and elegant thinking in the history of Western philosophy.” Whitehead made significant contributions not only in philosophy but also in mathematics, physics, and formal logic. When quantum physics dematerialized Newton’s billiard-ball atom into a vibrational “structure of activity,” it took a genius of Whitehead’s breadth to glimpse that such a structure could be further dematerialized into a non-substantial “unit of experience,” and to conceive the entire universe in terms of dynamic units of living process. From this new process perspective Whitehead was able to upgrade the saying of Heraclitus by making a rather startling statement. He said that “no thinker thinks twice.” No thinker thinks twice. Hold that thought—it will become clear as you read my essay, “The Adventurous Frontier.”
Process philosophers today differ among themselves in how they accommodate, or oppose, the complex metaphysical system conceived and developed by Whitehead. Some, like Nicholas Rescher, try to distance themselves from Whitehead. Others are more intent on refining and advancing the intellectual task that Whitehead initiated.
Such a philosopher is Charles Hartshorne who independently came up with some of the same ideas he later found in Whitehead. Hartshorne originated electrifying new insights himself, clarified many process ideas, and corrected some of Whitehead’s oversights. It can hardly be overstated how much Hartshorne has done to strengthen the case for process philosophy. Among 20th-century philosophers, Hartshorne stands out as one of the premier metaphysicians and the most influential proponent of the process conception of God.