Ol' Ben Franklin the pragmatist? Campbell and Pangle on the philosophical credentials of an american founder
David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Ezio Di Nucci
Jack Alan Reynolds
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Is Benjamin Franklin the old Dewey or the new Socrates? James Campbell embraces the view that he is the old Dewey, or, at least, following the late H.S. Thayer, a nascent pragmatist of a Deweyan stripe. Lorraine Pangle, among others, defends the view that Franklins thought and writings are distinctly Socratic. I would like to accomplish two objectives in this essay that might initially appear incompatible, one, to question the premise of the question and, two, to assume the premise's acceptability for the sake of exploring the claim that pragmatism is quintessentially American, or as Colin Koopman puts it, a corollary to the experiment of American democracy. If indeed pragmatism has its roots in the American experience, then we would expect to find a heavy deposit of pragmatist ideas in America's formative experience, especially in the thinking of its Founders and revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and John Adams, among others. While Franklins writings surely have philosophical significance, giving them a gloss based on the insights of other philosophical figures, such as John Dewey and Socrates, means reconstructing them for other purposes, and thus risks distortion by reading them through a foreign filter, what I call the filtering strategy. Still, if we accept the premise that this American founder possesses philosophical credentials that would make him resemble one figure more than the other, greater evidence can be found to support the conclusion that Franklin is the old Dewey, rather than the new Socrates. The upshot of this thesis is that the claim that pragmatism is quintessentially American gets off the ground. Furthermore, this claim has the resources to withstand a familiar criticism, namely, that pragmatism reflects philosophically shallow American values, such as practical know how, pioneer like ingenuity and the capitalist spirit.
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