On Reevaluations: Benjamin Franklin

2008 SAAP Paper Submission


This paper examines the process of reevaluating figures not traditionally considered philosophical and argues that such reevaluations must begin with the unique space of the figure under consideration.  I use the example of James Campbell’s reevaluation of Benjamin Franklin, who Campbell argues ought to be placed in the tradition of Pragmatism, indeed at its head.  While there are some striking affinities between Franklin’s work and Pragmatism, I argue that Campbell is not fully convincing, especially when we compare Franklin to the founder of Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Pierce.  More significantly, I argue that, by placing Franklin in the context of a philosophical tradition which follows him, Campbell fails to place Franklin within his unique space, a space of gentle irony at the service of moral ends.



The revival of interest in figures not traditionally considered “philosophical” is, while praiseworthy, dangerous.  Praiseworthy is the reevaluation of entire traditions overlooked by professional philosophers as “non-philosophical” simply because they do not easily accommodate a specific, narrow, understanding of philosophy.  Such a reevaluation was necessary to return even John Dewey, once America’s most prominent philosopher, to philosophy classrooms.  The revival of interest in Dewey was due, in part, to Richard Rorty’s announcement, in his 1979 American Philosophical Association presidential address, [1] that he was a pragmatist and a Deweyan, an announcement preceded by his grouping of Dewey with Heidegger and Wittgenstein as “the three most important philosophers of our century,”[2] in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  However, Rorty’s revival of Dewey also points out one of the dangers of this movement.  Dewey scholars have, to put it mildly, found Rorty’s interpretation of Dewey unorthodox; an interpretation suited more to fit Rorty’s interest in promoting his doctrine of “liberal ironism” than Deweyan conceptions of philosophy.[3]  Rorty’s revival of Dewey came with the price of misinterpretation.[4]

            This paper will attempt to come to terms with the recent reevaluation of a much older American thinker, Benjamin Franklin.  Generally, philosophers have seen Franklin as something of a narrow utilitarian with a strong sense of the Protestant work ethic, a view most famously expressed by Max Weber;[5] or, as a soulless proponent of the morality of the machine, as D.H. Lawrence’s argues.[6]  James Campbell, in his 1999 book Recovering Benjamin Franklin, challenges this view, arguing that Franklin would be better seen as a Pragmatist, in fact “at the head of the tradition that we now call Pragmatism.”[7]  More recently, Phillip Cafaro, in his forthcoming work American Virtue, argues for Franklin’s significance as a virtue ethicist.[8]  Both Campbell and Cafaro find that there is much of philosophical import in Franklin’s writings missed by Weber and Lawrence.

My paper examines these conceptions of Franklin as a philosopher, and argues for an approach to Franklin, and to the revival of intellectual figures in general, that I hope avoids the dangers of reevaluation while retaining its advantages.  I argue that such reevaluations must begin always with the thinker himself on his own terms, and not with our own projects.  That is, we need to open up a space of Franklin’s own, where his philosophy can be seen within its own time and place and speak for itself, unencumbered by subsequent developments in philosophy.  True, we may see discover in Franklin certain proto-pragmatic and proto-utilitarian tendencies, as well as a modern form of virtue ethics, but we will also see where Franklin departs from all of these schools.  It is where he differs that we will find what is interesting about Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy.


Weber and the “Traditional” View of Franklin:

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber finds in Franklin’s work the spirit of capitalism “in almost classical purity,” and at the same time free of any “direct relationship to religion.” [9]  This makes Franklin ideal for Weber’s general thesis, that the spirit of capitalism existed prior to the capitalistic economic order, and thus “To speak here [i.e., in Franklin’s New England] of a reflection of material conditions in the ideal superstructure [as would a traditional Marxist] would be patent nonsense.”[10]  Weber is not interested in Franklin as a philosopher as much as an exemplar of the spirit of capitalism.

Weber’s depiction of Franklin is derived solely from two texts, “Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich,” and “Advice to a Young Tradesman From an Old One,” and, in Weber’s footnotes, a few passages from Franklin’s Autobiography.  From these texts, we see the Franklin we are accustomed to, who advices that time is money, that the appearance of trustworthiness is essential to establishing credit, that to waste five shillings worth of time is the same as to throw five shillings into the sea, etc.  From these pithy sayings, Weber argues that Franklin’s “philosophy of avarice” takes the duty of increasing capital “as an end in itself.”[11]  Weber says “all Franklin’s moral attitudes are coloured with utilitarianism,”[12] a utilitarianism Weber finds particularly in what he takes to be Franklin’s conception of honesty. 

When Franklin says that actions such as working early in the morning or late at night, when heard by a creditor, “makes you appear a careful as well as honest man, and that still increases your credit,”[13] Weber takes him to be advocating the appearance of creditworthiness in the stead of its actuality.  Weber tells us that for Franklin “the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose” as honesty itself, and “an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would evidently appear to Franklin’s eyes as unproductive waste.”[14]  He concludes that Franklin offers a “strict utilitarianism” in which “the surrogate of mere appearance is always sufficient when it accomplished the end in view.”[15]

Weber finds the “summum bonum” of Franklin’s ethic “the earning of more and more money,” an ethic which is “completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, mixture.”[16]  Thus, “man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life.”[17]  Further, even though Weber has only considered a few selections from three of Franklin’s many writings, Weber assures us the utilitarian ethic he has described is expressed “in all his works without exception.”[18]

Campbell and Cafaro’s Reevaluation:

James Campbell challenges Weber’s understanding of Franklin as a utilitarian, arguing for Franklin’s status “at the head of the tradition that we now call Pragmatism.”[19]  Far from finding Franklin a paradigm of the philosophy of avarice, Campbell points out that Franklin, who retired from business at a relatively young age to pursue scientific pursuits, saw the pursuit of wealth as more a means to happiness than an end in itself.  For Franklin “happiness was directly related to the simple aspects of well-being rather than to the limitless accumulation of material wealth”[20]  He refers to Franklin’s well-known statement “I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.”[21]  As far as Weber’s criticism of Franklin’s honesty is concerned, Campbell says that “for Franklin appearances almost always supplement reality rather than replace it.”[22]  As Franklin himself describes his conduct as a young tradesman: “In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious, and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary.”[23]  Appearances matter because they have real consequences, such as affecting one’s credit, but this does not mean that appearances constitute the whole of reality, as Weber’s Franklin would have it.  In general, Campbell convincingly argues that Weber only criticizes one aspect of Franklin’s life and thought, one he has misrepresented.

Campbell considers Franklin the first of four thinkers he calls “benchmarks in the development of American Pragmatism,”[24] the others being Emerson, James and Dewey.  Each of these four figures, Campbell argues, present distinctly pragmatic approaches to science, religion, morality and politics.  Franklin gives us a science “tempered by fallibility and committed to public inquiry, as a tool in the advancement of humankind,”[25] a naturalized religion, a natural morality, and a politics concerned with addressing specific political problems rather than abstract theorizing.[26]  In general, Campbell finds four affinities between his four “benchmark” pragmatists: concern with understanding our natural place, the discussion of experience, the recognition of possibility, and the significance of community.[27]   Franklin’s engagement with each of these affinities places him, as the earliest pragmatist, at the head of the tradition.

Phillip Cafaro, like Campbell, challenges Weber’s utilitarian portrayal of Franklin, but argues that Franklin should be read as a virtue ethicist.  Cafaro’s argument is found in the first chapter of his forthcoming book, American Virtue, in which Cafaro more generally argues for the significance of virtue ethics in the American tradition.  His goal, as he states in his “Book Proposal,” is to follow the lead of recent popular historians, “using stories of moral failure and moral achievement to illustrate the nature of virtue, the need to wrestle with temptations and ambiguities in pursuing it, and the possibility of success.”[28]

These stories have their secular prototype in Franklin’s Autobiography,[29] in which he describes his plan for “moral perfection.”  This plan was to methodically work on perfecting thirteen virtues (e.g., temperance, silence, order, etc.) he found wanting in his character, one at a time.  Franklin initially believed that through strict adherence to such a project he could become “completely virtuous,”[30] but quickly discovered this lofty goal was not quite attainable.  He lists thirteen virtues he wishes to perfect, with the goal of habituating himself to the performance of each.  To do this, Franklin kept a notebook in which he marked a black spot for each violation of the particular virtue he was working on, the goal being to avoid violating that virtue for a full week, then moving on to the next, until he was completely virtuous, or repeat the cycle.  But he found complete virtue impossible – Franklin was particularly troubled throughout his life with the attainment of “order” – and he humorously consoled himself thus: “a perfect character might be attended with the incontinence of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.”[31]

In summarizing Franklin’s attitude towards virtue, Cafaro says “virtue, for Ben Franklin, is valuable, and it is valuable because it is useful,”[32] and “Franklin never wavered from this utilitarian conception of virtue.”[33]  Such statements could be read as supporting Weber’s thesis, but Cafaro is referring to a very different conception of utilitarianism than Weber’s.  For Weber, the problem is that Franklin has confused means with ends, and placed the acquisition of money, a means to happiness, as the end of happiness.  Cafaro’s utilitarian Franklin avoids this means-ends conflation in respect to money-making – for Franklin, money-making was clearly a means to the goal of happiness.  However, Cafaro’s Franklin does find virtue itself as both means and end – he says for Franklin “character development is no mere means, but our proper business as human beings.”[34]

In general, Cafaro reads Franklin as a virtue ethicist, and puts him, along with Jonathan Edwards, at the head of the American virtue ethics tradition, a tradition he would trace through such diverse figures as Jefferson, Thoreau, Addams, King and Bennett.  Franklin’s virtue ethics is not the “strict utilitarianism” Weber criticizes, but rather a call to a very practical program of self-improvement.


Evaluating the Reevaluation

            While Campbell and Cafaro provide compelling cases for Franklin’s affinity with pragmatism and virtue ethics respectively, they take the affinities too far.        Campbell argues for Franklin’s status as a pragmatist by showing his affinity with Emerson, James and Dewey.  While James and Dewey are clearly central to classical pragmatism, it is curious that Campbell labels Emerson a “benchmark” in the development of American pragmatism while almost entirely ignoring Peirce, the founder of pragmatism as a philosophical method.[35]  If we provisionally grant Franklin’s affinity with the pragmatism of James and Dewey (although I challenge this below), does Cafaro’s argument still hold when we add Peirce to the list of “benchmarks” in American pragmatism?

            Peirce develops pragmatism as a tool in a larger theory of inquiry, a theory which is explicitly metaphysical.  Pragmatism is not itself a philosophy, but a specialized method used for certain purposes in the development of a philosophical system.

 Peirce’s famous pragmatism maxim – “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”[36] – is a rule for clarifying ideas, not a rule by which a full-fledged philosophical system may be derived. 

Peirce was, without doubt, a metaphysician, and as such, it would seem, directly opposed to Franklin’s anti-metaphysical stance.  Peirce’s architectonic, based upon his triad of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, is clearly an attempt to provide a description of the basic traits of existence, i.e., it is a metaphysical system.  Franklin, as Campbell describes him, is the enemy of metaphysics.  Campbell says,

[F]or Franklin arguments about speculative topics like freedom (and immortality and the Divine) are ‘metaphysical’ because they begin without any initial agreement on the interpretation of evidence and they drag on unable to agree on what would constitute a decisive conclusion.[37] 


But Peirce is interested in such issues, he makes arguments about the nature of freedom and even gives an argument for the existence of God, and is thus metaphysical in Franklin’s sense.[38]  One could go so far as to argue that Franklin’s rejection of metaphysics is closer to that of A.J. Ayer’s sense of “metaphysical”[39] than any pragmatic criticism of metaphysics.  Given Franklin’s rejection of metaphysics and his refusal to engage in the brand of speculative studies Peirce was interested in, I find it difficult to label Franklin a Peircean of any stripe.  But could Franklin have been a pragmatist in the “attenuated” sense of James and Dewey?

            I set aside the knotty question of whether or not James and Dewey were metaphysicians, but do need to address whether the four characteristics Campbell attaches to them are adequate for our evaluation of Franklin.  My concern is with the four characteristics themselves – i.e., the attempt to understand our natural place, the discussion of experience, the recognition of possibility and the importance of community.  While these four characteristics, as Campbell has outlined them, accurately account for the concerns of all four thinkers, they are simply too broadly drawn.  Aristotle, for example, who was clearly not a pragmatist, could easily be placed under these four commonalities. 

            We may call Franklin a pragmatist, and will certainly find more affinities between Franklin and Dewey, say, than Franklin and Russell.  However, I am not sure how much we add to our understanding of Franklin by placing him under such a widely-drawn conception of pragmatism.  I have similar concerns with Cafaro’s use of Franklin, although Cafaro limits his thesis to one aspect of Franklin’s work, and does not attempt to place him in a tradition alien to Franklin himself.  That said, I again ask what knowledge of Franklin do we gain by placing him in this tradition?


A Space of Franklin’s Own

            My goal has not been to argue that Franklin was not a pragmatist or a virtue ethicist, but to question the value of locating Franklin within that field, or within any philosophical field at all.  While Campbell has done a service in reevaluating Franklin’s status as a philosopher, I am suspicious of such a direct identification of Franklin with a philosophical tradition developed half a century after his death.  And while I find Cafaro’s connection of Franklin with virtue ethics important for understanding the general progression of virtue ethics in the American tradition, it does not fully capture Franklin’s project, nor does pragmatism or, for that matter, utilitarianism.

In examining Franklin’s status as a philosopher, I argue that what is interesting about Franklin is not his commonalities with other and more recent philosophers, but rather where he diverges.  If our goal is to study pragmatism, we are much better off with James or Dewey than with Franklin – they were simple better pragmatists.  Similarly, if we wish to understand utilitarianism or virtue ethics, we ought to study Mill and Aristotle respectively, not Franklin.  Rather than attempting to place Franklin within a particular tradition, my goal in this section is to open up a space of Franklin’s own, where we see what Franklin himself had to offer that these other philosophers lacked, or at which Franklin was better.

Out of the many unique qualities Franklin’s work possesses, I only examine one space unique to Franklin, which happens to be rhetorical.  Outside of James, Franklin, I would argue, was clearly the most accomplished writer of any of those discussed, but his style was radically different than that of a typical philosopher.  In part, this is because his audience was different – Franklin wrote primarily for a popular, not an academic audience.   Even Franklin’s more “technical” writings, such as where he describes his findings concerning electricity, feature a simplicity and clarity lacking in most philosophers.  His goal was always to communicate and never to obfuscate.

Key to Franklin’s communicative skills was his sense of humor, especially his use of irony.  Franklin employs irony, not merely to get a laugh, but as a rhetorical device, one crucial to delivering his moral messages.  As Cafaro points out, it is his humor that keeps us from dismissing Franklin as an insufferable moralist – that “Franklin’s ironic sense of humor and willingness to poke fun at himself makes this preaching tolerable to most readers.”[40]   Franklin offers what we might call an ironic form of Socratic irony – i.e., an irony with a moral purpose, but one which has precisely the opposite effect of Socrates’ irony.  For, while Socrates’ brutal use of irony tended to upset his interlocutors and drive them away from him (for he was executed, above all, for being annoying), Franklin’s gentle irony[41] has the opposite effect of bringing his readers over to his point of view.[42]

One example of this use of irony may be found in Franklin’s description of the vice of pride from his Autobiography:

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.[43]


Here, we see Franklin employing irony to make a philosophical point about the nature of pride.  One could make this point without the use of irony – one could simply say that the attainment of humility carries with it the danger of feeling prideful over one’s humility – but Franklin’s approach is more effective in clinching the point.  Franklin’s irony has a logic which leads one to believe the conclusion is natural, not forced.  It is something we take out of Franklin insofar as he differs from pragmatists, utilitarians, virtue ethicists, etc.  It is part of his unique space.



The reevaluation of figures long marginalized by the philosophical mainstream is an important, if potentially dangerous, movement.  The danger lies in misrepresenting figures in order to fit them into one’s own projects, not allowing their own work to speak their unique truth.  I argue that we must be able to find a unique space for any figure we wish to interpret prior to arguing for such a figure’s affinities with other philosophers and philosophical movements.  If we cannot find such a space, perhaps we are considering a philosopher not worthy of reevaluation, a philosopher who cannot tell us something we do not already know.  If we can find such a space, then we should focus our work on that space, for that is this philosopher’s contribution.  In reevaluating Franklin, while his affinity with pragmatism and virtue ethics is striking, more striking is what he has to offer unique to his own project.




[1] Reprinted in Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism,” From Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1982) 160-176.

[2] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979) 5.

[3] For example, see James Campbell, “Rorty’s Use of Dewey,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 22, 1984, 175-187.

[4] The same could be said for Heideggerans unhappy with Rorty’s use of Heidegger.

[5] Max Weber, “The Spirit of Capitalism,” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958) 47-78.

[6] See D.H. Lawrence, “Benjamin Franklin,” Studies in Classical American Literature (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1961) 9-22.

[7] James Campbell, Recovering Benjamin Franklin (Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press, 1999) 1.

[8] See the online draft at http://www.american-philosophy.org/documents/bookproposal3.doc and http://www.american-philosophy.org/documents/chapter_one_Franklin___the_Pursuit_of_Perfection.doc.

[9] Weber, 48.

[10] Weber, 75.

[11] Weber, 51.

[12] Weber, 52.

[13] Weber, 49-50.

[14] Weber, 52.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Weber, 53.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Weber, 54.

[19] Campbell, 1.

[20] Campbell, 156.

[21] Campbell, 165.

[22] Campbell, 258.

[23] Franklin, Autobiography, 60. (Franklin’s Italics)

[24] Campbell, 35.

[25] Campbell, 255.

[26] Campbell, 257.

[27] Campbell, 270-271.

[28] Cafaro “Chapter One; Ben Franklin and Enterprise.”

[29] Although the tradition of English religious autobiography does back at least a far as Bunyan, whom Franklin read as a teenager. (See Autobiography, 12)

[30] Franklin, Autobiography, 75.

[31] Franklin, Autobiography, 82.

[32] Cafaro.

[33] Cafaro.

[34] Cafaro.

[35] As William James himself attests – see William James, Pragmatism (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003) 20.

[36] Charles Sanders Peirce, The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol. I, Ed. Peirce Project Edition (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998) 132.

[37] Campbell, 259.

[38] Further – Peirce does think we can, at least in the long run, come to agreement on these issues.

[39] See A.J. Ayer, Language, Logic and Truth (New York, NY: Dover Publication Inc., 1952) for Ayer’s “elimination” of metaphysics, the propositions of which he calls “literally senseless”(31).

[40] Cafaro.

[41] Note that I do not at here intend to refer to Rorty’s conception of irony, as in “liberal ironist.”

[42] So that I do not appear to be portraying Socrates as a sophist, I note that the comparison with Socrates’ use of irony with Franklin’s breaks down where we consider Socrates’ goal, which was not persuasion, but the truth. 

[43] Franklin, Autobiography, 85.