Charles Hartshorne




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Transcription of a letter from
Charles Hartshorne

724 Sparks Avenue
Austin TX 78705
Mid-April 1994

[Colored italic script is Hartshorne's handwritten corrections or additions to his typed letter.]

Dear Dr. Voskuil:
                           What a pleasant surprise to receive your communication. Your understanding of Whitehead's philosophy and of mine seems excellent. I'm embarrassed that your name does not help me to recall you from my Emory classes. What year or years (can it have been more than one?) were you a student of mine? Your fascinating speculative views about the cosmic mother are a welcome plus. They make sense to me,[sic] I have never cared for the idea of God as a father, although, and I am aware of no good reason for this, during most of my career I have unthinkingly, like nearly all the other men, used the male gender in referring to God or to our species; but about two decades ago I did begin to think about, and began avoiding, this practice. Women are too important to be treated as secondary. Long ago I learned about an English sociologist whose view was/is (I'm not sure he is still alive) that women are the primary human persons, not men. His name? Ashley Montagu.
 Perhaps you know that elephants (there are two species, one in Africa, one in India) are matriarchal. With both species, so far as I know, friendships are ‘for life.’

Still more surprising is the fact, which I recently learned, that in a species of hyena the females are larger than and dominate the females [he meant males]. I learned about this from E. 0. Wilson's Sociob[i]ology. These animals are carnivorous, not vegetarian like elephants.

I was pleased by your reference to Dorothy C. Hartshorne, my superbly helpful wife--until two terrible diseases, first viral pneumonia, the one no medicine helps, and then, after an all too brief interval, Alzheimer's with which, after a year or two of slow decline, ending in a shocking accident, all agreed that she could not be cared for at home. So now I am responsible for many things she used to have well in hand. Luckily there are four other people in a medium sized and a small building on the two city lots


she and I own, people from a foreign country who have little money; they pay no money for rent but are friends and give me help when I need it. At least three of the four Dorothy knew and liked before her mental collapse.
I am unable to identify a reference of yours to a piece of writing labelled [sic.] by the letters MSEN. About circumcision, the only serious mistake my parents made about me was in that. The effects you specify


I can identify in my case, except that it was so different from all the other things my parents did that some of the shock to the child-parent relationship was mitigated. The diminution of the pleasure I believe did occur and in my marriage eventually caused some trouble. In my years of being unmarried perhaps it was helpful. But on the whole I agree such things should not be done to either sex. My sex has a lot of misbehavior to answer for. Our species is both the best and the worst of the earth's animal species, the wisest and the most foolish. Our radical superiority in linguistic power is a somewhat self-destructive advantage.
   Dechonstructionism [sic.] manages to overstate this truth, but with proper qualifications the truth is there. We can through words think abstractly much more fluently than the other species can, but how easily such thinking can go wrong! Only outright human idiots (I've met one) have no words at all.
                                         For examples of thinking more or less well take letters to the editor, their degrees of good sense vary widely. And not nearly all adults in our country, sadly enough, can write print-worthy letters in our officially accepted language. My favorite economist at the U[n]iversity of Chicago, Henry Simon, predicted that immigration of foreigners aware of and eager for our flourishing economy would be a problem; I don't recall that he knew what the solution might be. He did one recom[m]endation, that we should legally limit the amount of advertising that is done. It is to me a mystery that people do not realize that they, collectively, as consumers, are paying for all the printing, and voicing on radio and television. They clamor against being taxed to help the unfortunate, but say not a word against the money taken from them to produce all that slaughtering of trees, for paper and all that printing, speaking, picturing. Some of what is advertised I would not take as a gift but how long can our environment stand the strain of our ever-more-humanly-over-crowded world? Simon thought our co[u]ntry was overcrowded then, he would have


shuddered could he have known our present population, fifty years later. Simon also thought there should be limitations on the size of corporations and that ownership of institutions should be private only if genuine competition by them is feasible. He thought railroads should be owned governmentally. He also approved of consumer cooperatives. Unluckily his private life was apparently in trouble. I think his rather late marriage was unhappy and his death was apparently by suicide. The loss was for the whole country. His pamphlet, A Positive Program for Laissez Faire, made sense to me, he believed in it; I knew him well, but not the wife he finally married. Unfortunate marriages have happened to quite a number of important people I have known about, most of the others survived this, but Simon was one of two who did not. My favorite psychologist of that time did not. In both cases the suicide diagnosis is uncertain, the psychologist fell from or jumped off, a cliff. The ambiguity could have been intended in both cases. A third case was a wealthy man, but the ambiguity effort failed. Great wealth makes one a public figure. He died but everyone interested knew how, deliberately. This man I learned about only through a friend. By the way, you put a price on your pamphlet. I would like a couple more copies and you may bill me for the expense. if [sic.] I have never been poor nor really rich, and never wanted to be either. I would have a higher opinion of my country's men and women if they had a lower opinion of billionaires, or even millionaires. Are women better than men in this respect? I hope so. They could hardly be worse. This has been my view as to women in politics, surely they could scarcely make worse mistakes than male polititions [sic.]: the task is monstrously difficult, however, women are in some ways forced to understand people better than men do, they know more about the critical early stages of


careers, they are also forced to try hard to understand male bosses in jobs, including often their jobs as housewives. They are, I must think, less likely to regard a fetus as in the full sense a person, that is, a user of a language. A pregnant woman is the only person in abortion cases -- though I suppose the potential mother could be almost an idiot, certainly a low grade moron, but not in most cases.
     The big human differences in value are not between men, all men, and women, all women, but between this man and than man, this woman and that woman, or this woman and that man. On the other hand, large age differences also count. Even twenty years ago in my very long active life I did not yet know important things I do now. What did I know as a fetus? I have never been a fetus, if words are used with their normal meanings. I've not even ever been an infant. I've been a child, yes indeed, I remember being that. To insistently call a fetus, or even an infant, a child is to lie, or else to be not very bright. These verbal differences are there for excellent reasons. To despise or trivialize them is to despise intelligence or again to show yourself not very bright. What qualitative differences are there on this planet greater than those between a relatively mindless prepersonal though human animal, below a half-grown chimpanzee in intelligence, and a child already able to speak grammatically in a language. My daughter could do this at the age of 2 1/2; at the age of one she could say doggy at sight of such an animal, but not much more. At birth she could do little but cry or be silent, after some months she could babble, which means make speech-like sounds. Our daughter would babble "leather, leather, leather." Immature song birds do not babble, they sing imperfectly for their species. This is why my book Born to Sing has that title. A reader, fond of birds though he was, missed the point. He said it sounded as though the book were about the career of an opera singer. Singing is less purely instinctive in people than in birds called Oscines or True Songbirds, nearly 4000 of them. Speaking is our primary human instinct. Poetry is more instinctive in us than music-making, though both are everywhere people are, so the difference is not absolute. Very few dif[f]erences are, but they may be important, and indeed important and unimportant are themselves matters of degree. Zero importance is not worth looking for. To find a zero of elephants is fairly easy but of


small insects or bacteria more difficult. (A zero of mind in any and all forms whatsoever I defy anyone demonstrate.) The best bird song compares better with human music than any so-called language of non-human animals in their wild state does with any known human language. Speech is our most distinctive ability and there is now at long last a book on that subject. It is called Language and Species. When I saw that title I sa[i]d to myself, that author goes to the point. I read the book and found that he did.
     Song is widespread among animals of widely different kinds and sizes. Insect songs are simple rhythmic patterns, a few seconds at most in length, but not tuneful, for definite pitch contrasts can scar[c]ely be made or heard by their organs; but amphibians, frogs, toads and large lizards or geckos have some primitive sensitivity to and ability to make pitch differences. At the opposite extreme a Humpba[c]ked Whale has a twenty minute or longer song pattern with wide pitch contrasts, a group of these animals sings this same pattern with freedom as to individual details but the same outline is sung by an entire group (of males if I remember correctly), but the females are there too, and the young. The outline is a fixed series of themes, the freedom is that each theme is reiterated several times, the number of repeats being somewhat open. Also a new pattern is sung each year. Nothing else at all like this seems to be known in any other species. It shows what a brain in a large mammal can do that no brain in any bird or small mammal could do. No group of people could behave in this way, we are too individualistic for that. Twenty plus minutes is like the length of a symphony, but musicians in an orchestra are never all the mature human males living in a given area, as in the whales.
      Of course my dna was once in a fetus, but if I had been a twin that still would not have made it me. To say the second cell division would give the fetus a self seems to me frivolous, though Paul Weiss did say this. He may have changed his mind on that topic. His daughter ag[r]eed with me about abortions.
     The howling of wolves, but not their growls or snarls, is functionally and in sound qualities song, not just because it is more pleasant, even to our ears, but because it is communication at a distance. The greatest single discovery about bird song is its territorial function. Three ornithologists discovered this but failed to


communicate their insight effectively until a business man in England whose hobby was studying birds wrote The Role of Territory in Bird Life. Suddenly everybody began to think rightly on this matter. The evidence had always been plentiful, but nobody sat down and thought carefully in the matter. I had not thought about it until that book but never ceased to take it into account thereafter. It was not only in ornithology that the change occurred. All sorts of animals are highly territorial. They need to be at home in a portion of space, and unless they are highly gregarious, they need to keep track of mates and rival males at some distance. Put a domestic cat in a new house what happens? It explores the house with great care. An animal has to know the locations of danger from preditors [sic] and of other animals or suitable plants for food, also where actual or possible mates or sex-rivals or rivals for feeding in certain special ways are. Animals differ enormously in their gregariousness or the opposite. The most gregarious birds sing least well, the most conspicuously visible birds in their natural habitats also sing least well. "Song is the way an otherwise inconspicuous creature makes itself conspicuous." This is a quotation. My contribution was to assemble a great mass of facts supporting the idea. Why do some families of birds have high percentages of good singers, others low percentages? The double need for an habitually invisible and highly, individualistic creature, foraging apart from rather than close to others of its kind to signal by distinctive sound made by its own muscles explains the distribution of highly developed song and minimally developed song.
     The objection that "good" song is hopelessly subjective and anthropomorphic I believe I have shown to be a red herring. The way to distinguish highly developed song from the opposite is to consider zero song. House sparrows sing, but only in a barely perceptible sense, and they are gregarious and live in open well-lighted places. When a male sings it just chirps harshly somewhat more steadily than the females or immature males. Gulls are gregarious and highly visible, who wants to praise their songs? Similarly with hawks. But Owls obviously sing, with the one easily explicable exception of the Barn Owl. Why do owls sing? Obviously because they are active in extremely poorly-lighted portions of the day, whereas hawks and eagles function in the well-lighted portions. Songbirds are mostly


small or a long way from really large -- think of ostriches. The smaller the animal the more likely it will not be noticeable visually, or hidden in grass or foliage. Whales are not small but how visible are they to one another[?] Light travels poorly under water, or when there are waves, but sound travels four times better under water than through atmosphere, and finally the territory of a group of whales has to be very large. The strange thing to me is not that a species of whale sings but that only one does. Back to house sparrows, other species of weaver finches than Passer Domesticus are more gregarious and conspicuous and have only minimalistic songs, the least different from no song. But one least gregarious forest weaver finch is more obviously a singer than the others.
      Another explanation is entirely my discovery, and it is that the best or most highly developed, the farthest from zero song, are sung more in a year than the poorest songs. Attempts to refute me on this have not succeeded. A few American sparrows have minimalistic songs, one contains five notes only. It is sung in less that a second with long pauses between. Its song season is not long. The annual total of an individual’s singing would be minimal. Some american sparrows sing well and much.
      Most good singers have long song seasons and high continuity (short pauses between sounds). In many cases others than I have selected the names of the good, middling, and poor singers, and the facts about seasons of abundant singing, the correlations between song-development and annual totals are still high. In still another way the correlations hold, in off seasons when most species scarcely sing at all voluminous singing is by middling or above[,] all excellent singers. The Nightingale in England has a short season there but its continuity is high, it sings daily and partly nocturnally, and it sings while migrating and in its African winter home. In quantity it outdoes a host of minimalistic singers. Also it is not the most highly musical singer in England, and this contention is far from original with me. Its sounds are somewhat chirpy, as shown by slow playing. What a bird does much of[,] it does well, swallows, flight is obviously faster and more dexterous than that of ordinary birds who spend much less time in the air; the fastest flyers are the swifts. No such birds are great singers; their habits make them conspicuous, and they are not putting anything like as much energy into singing as into


flying. My one published book on bird song, published in 1973 and reissued in 1992, has been ignored by many ornithologists but not by those who specialize in song. The new edition is available in ppb.
Once more, thanks for introducing me to your work.

Letter from Hartshorne, May 1977

[page 2]

Charles Hartshorne
724 Sparks Avenue
Austin, Texas 78705
[Postmarked May 22, 1997]
[Transcription of the two-page letter above written in very shaky handwriting]

Dear Prof. or Dr. Voskuil,
     Thanks for your letter and Essay on Change and the Unsurpassable.
     You are indeed a brilliantly original and resourceful person. I regret that you are, as it seems, no longer teaching philosophy classes.
     There is, if I may say so, one difference between your philosophy and mine. I emphasize positive concepts, you negative ones, e.g., Unsurpassable.[*] My basic concept is the worship worthiness of God as universally sympathizing with the creatures. Thus in the Galaxy or Island Universes there may be, and I believe are, numerous sapient creatures other than homo sapiens. How little we know about all this!
      Indeed how little we know about ourselves! Several times a second we have experiences and most of these we have no distinct memories of. The final, concrete realities or truths are known only by God. Charles Peirce knew some aspect of this, but also missed an aspect by his excessive continuity ism or "Synechism." E. D. Wilson, the sociobiologist, is the greatest living genious [sic] I see in the present world.
      My final book, The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays is now available. I don't know if it would help you. I cannot, and perhaps no one can, at present, solve all the problems you wrestle with. But I have discovered some definite answers to some definite questions. See my and Reese's Philosophers Speak of God. Also the Zero Fallacy book. I hope it is getting into libraries and stores
     I see you mention Epicureanism [in Appendix 2], but only on pleasure, not on cosmology.
     I repeat, you are brilliant.

      And thanks for your kind remarks to me, poorly reciprocated I fear.
*[The emphasis is only verbal. The "Unsurpassable" is shorthand for the longer positive expressions like: "God/dess, the Fully Worshipful, Loveable, Loving, All-Inclusive, Supremely Free, All-knowing, Relative of All, Who at each moment experiences the most happiness and sadness, Influencer of All, Infinitely Flexible in the ability to be influenced and Infinitely able to create new richness.]


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