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  • Ole Ben Franklin, the Pragmatist?On the Philosophical Credentials of an American Founder
  • Shane J. Ralston

Was Benjamin Franklin the old John Dewey or the new Socrates? While this might strike the reader as an absurd question, scholars have supplied plausible answers. James Campbell takes the position that he was the old Dewey—or, at least, a nascent Deweyan pragmatist. Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson agrees, claiming that Franklin "laid the foundation for the most influential of America's homegrown philosophies, pragmatism" (491). Lorraine Pangle, on the other hand, defends the view that Franklin's thought and writings were distinctly Socratic. I would like to accomplish two objectives in this article that might initially appear incompatible: one, to doubt whether the question is a good one and, two, to assume the question's acceptability for the sake of exploring the claim that pragmatism is quintessentially American—or, in Colin Koopman's words, "a corollary to the experiment of American democracy" (113). If indeed philosophical pragmatism has its roots in the American experience, then we would expect to find a heavy deposit of pragmatist ideas in the formative years of that experience, especially in the thinking of America's Founders and revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and John Adams. While it is difficult to deny the philosophical significance of Franklin's life and works, reading them through the lens of ideas from more recent or older philosophical figures, such as John Dewey or Socrates, poses a real danger of distorting the originals. Still, if we accept the premise of the question, viz., that this American Founder possesses the philosophical credentials that would make him resemble one philosopher more than another, greater evidence can be found to support the conclusion that Franklin was the old Dewey, not the new Socrates. The upshot of the Dewey-Franklin comparison is that the claim that pragmatism is quintessentially American gains newfound traction. Furthermore, this claim has the resources to withstand a familiar criticism, [End Page 6] namely, that pragmatism reflects philosophically shallow American values, such as practical know-how, pioneer-like ingenuity, and the capitalist spirit.

The paper is organized into six sections. The first section presents what most philosophers believe is Benjamin Franklin's legacy for philosophy, generally, and moral philosophy, specifically: namely, his virtue project. In the second section, we learn from Gregory Pappas why Dewey would reject Franklin's method for cultivating the virtues. The third section examines Pangle's equivocal claim that Franklin was a Socratic figure. In the fourth section, we consider Campbell's reasons for why we should see Franklin in a more Deweyan light. The fifth section examines how the American Revolutionary War, similar to the revolution of ideas initiated by American pragmatists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shaped pragmatism in distinctively American and European ways. In the sixth and concluding section, I share a final caveat about reconstructing the literary legacies of historical figures on the model of more recent philosophical approaches and theories.

Franklin's Virtue Project

Most philosophers with an interest in Benjamin Franklin's legacy claim that his major contribution to philosophy, generally, and moral philosophy, specifically, was his method for cultivating excellences of character, or the virtue project.1 Although at the age of nineteen, he wrote a pamphlet on free will and moral responsibility titled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, he would later reject its main argument (Flower and Murphey 100-07). The virtue project, on the other hand, stood without alteration or repudiation until his death. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recalls that in the 1730s, he "conceiv'd the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection" by methodically cultivating a set of virtues (Autobiography 157). Similar to Aristotle (and Dewey), Franklin understood virtues as habits or skills, and the way to improving them as analogous to physical training or to the familiar saying "practice, practice, practice . . . makes perfect!"2 In a notebook, he "allotted a page for each of the virtues" and on the horizontal axis of a table he placed the first letter for each day of the week and on the vertical axis the first letter...


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