‘Creative Synthesis’: A Peek Under the Hartshornian Hood

After some time agonizing over how to best start discussing Hartshorne’s work and discarding a couple ideas, his posthumous work Creative Experiencing: A Philosophy of Freedom (2011), provided the structure we’ll use. During their discussion of that book’s origins, the editors note that it was viewed by Hartshorne as “his final contribution to technical philosophy,” which probably explains why in this book he fleshes out his opinions on and relationships with “analytic philosophy and phenomenology”* to a new degree (vii-iii). The other books to which Creative Experiencing was supposed to be, and now is, the capstone of were the books Creative Synthesis & Philosophic Method and Wisdom as Moderation (vii, xii). This shines a new light on these three books, since we now know that Hartshorne saw these three works as a kind of trilogy. This post will be over Hartshorne’s “Fellowship of the Ring,” and since he says that chapter 1 (1-18) encapsulates the overall argument that’s where we will look, taking one small bite of that apple to discuss experience and his concept of “creative synthesis.”

Given that this book is “an essay in systematic metaphysics,” it is hardly surprising that Hartshorne opens this chapter and book by stating what he sees as “a first principle”: creativity. “To be is to create,” Hartshorne argues, and according to Greg Boyd creativity “is in Hartshorne’s system, as it was in Whitehead’s… the final all-inclusive category of metaphysical explanation.”** In chapter 1 of Creative Synthesis we see the basic nature of creativity and its relationship to experience. (xiii, 1)

Hartshorne begins by arguing that "creativity requires a proper understanding of the basic dynamics of how experiences are made." According to Hartshorne we are continually creating our experience out of a variety of materials. It is something that we actively do, it is not merely “produced in us.” As Hartshorne argues, “A person experiences, at a given moment, many things at once, objects perceived, past experiences remembered… Causal explanations are incurably pluralistic.” In other words, there are a seemingly never-ending number of factors that contribute to our experiences, so that has to be taken into account when defining the term. (1-2)

Hartshorne also correctly notes that “experience is one, not many.” There is a “synthetic moment” wherein we see “the unity of all the factors and aspects.” The synthetic moment is rooted in the freedom (a key Hartshornian concept) to make sense of, characterize, and respond to the multitude of factors that surround us. In discussing this freedom and self-determination Hartshorne emphasizes the emotion attached to it, its “emotional colouring.” This emotional component is key because even though action is required in determination “the first stage of free action is the way in which one interprets or experiences the world.” Self-determination is the “how” dimension, the way we unify variables into a singular interpreted experience, which emits an unique emotional frequency as a part of the self-determining act. Moreover, the uniqueness of this frequency also serves as evidence that our experiences are not merely “produced.” All of that said, the various types of “data” or “factors” within that experience, the “what” dimensions of experiences, remains pluralistic, and to some degree given to us, not chosen. (2-3) Therefore, to put our unique stamp on an experience as this experience (see below), we must “blend” all of the above into “a single complex sensory-emotional-intellectual whole.” (1-6) Daniel Dombrowski has pointed out that this is also the moment of filtering out, of prioritizing, of limitation. Though a bit lengthy this quote sums all this up nicely:

From a, b, c, d… one is to derive the experience of a, b, c, d…, and not just an experience of them, but precisely this experience. There can be no logic for such a derivation. The step is not logical, but free creation. Each experience is thus a free act, in its final unity a ‘self-created’ actuality, enriching the sum of actualities by one new member. Here is the ultimate meaning of creation – in the freedom or self-determination of any experience as a new ‘one,’ arising out of a previous many, in terms of which it cannot, by any causal relationship, be fully described. (Ibid)

At least two points follow from all this. First, for Hartshorne creative synthesis serves as a paradigm for how to address the problem of the one and many. In his “experiential synthesis” they “complement, and do not exclude, each other.” All the factors that are integrated into a single experience via self-determination remain unique factors; if they didn’t the this-ness of the experience would be lost, because part of what makes it this experience are those components. And yet, the specificity, the “concrete unity” is also lost if the act of self-determination is lost. (3) I may say more on this down the road, as in his writings Hartshorne is careful to note that his thinking is not Hegelian, though it may appear to be.

Second, we can already see how the notion of process derives from this model. The new unity not only contains plurality, but also adds to it by “enriching the sum of actualities by one new member (2-3).” According to Dombrowski, in process thought “The saying is that the many become one, and then are increased by one.” The next experience to immediately follow will of course take all of what just created and interacted with and enact the same dynamic, and again and again and again… Thus we arrive at an understanding of reality where process is unavoidable. There are a ton of gaps that have to be filled in here obviously, but the basic logic already seems evident. We will fill in some of those gaps in future posts, but here we’ve already been able to peek under the hood and get a look at the engine for Hartshorne’s thought.***

* Fun tidbit: Hartshorne wrote the first review of Sein und Zeit in English (viii).

** Greg Boyd's doctoral dissertation on Hartshorne, Trinity and Process, 71.

*** In this paragraph I’m drawing on Whitehead, Hartshorne, and their commenters too, but am unable to recall specifics at the moment. Also, I want to thank Dr. Daniel A. Dombrowski, author of several books on Hartshorne, for discussing the topic of this post with me.


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