The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America

Overview

Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries brought the Enlightenment to America—an intellectual revolution that laid the foundation for the political one that followed. With the “first Drudgery” of settling the American colonies now past, Franklin announced in 1743, it was time the colonists set about improving the lot of humankind through collaborative inquiry. From Franklin’s idea emerged the American Philosophical Society, an association hosted in Philadelphia and dedicated to the harnessing of man’s ...

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The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America

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Overview

Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries brought the Enlightenment to America—an intellectual revolution that laid the foundation for the political one that followed. With the “first Drudgery” of settling the American colonies now past, Franklin announced in 1743, it was time the colonists set about improving the lot of humankind through collaborative inquiry. From Franklin’s idea emerged the American Philosophical Society, an association hosted in Philadelphia and dedicated to the harnessing of man’s intellectual and creative powers for the common good. The animus behind the society was and is a disarmingly simple one—that the value of knowledge is directly proportional to its utility. This straightforward idea has left a profound mark on American society and culture and on the very idea of America itself—and through America, on the world as a whole.

From celebrated historian of ideas Jonathan Lyons comes The Society for Useful Knowledge, telling the story of America’s coming-of-age through its historic love affair with practical invention, applied science, and self-reliance. Offering fresh insights into such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and the inimitable, endlessly inventive Franklin, Lyons gives us a vital new perspective on the American founding. He illustrates how the movement for useful knowledge is key to understanding the flow of American society and culture from colonial times to the present day.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Benjamin Franklin famously counseled that knowledge is valuable in direct proportion to its utility. Unfortunately, Lyons’s (The House of Wisdom) repetitive cultural history of a shopworn subject will be of little use to anyone at all familiar with the topic. Still, like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, his approach is an engaging one—by exploring ideas through the people who thought them, he adds substance to an otherwise airy discussion. Franklin, along with Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, botanist John Bartram, and physician Benjamin Rush, all sought to foster utilitarian knowledge in hopes of enhancing the economic, political, and social character of colonial America. To that end, Franklin launched a kind of proto–think tank in 1727 that “combined the conviviality of a private drinking club with the advantages of a mutual-aid society, the moral and intellectual self-improvement of a discussion circle, and the altruism of a civic association.” Lyons’s obvious and unsurprising conclusion is that these prescient thinkers secured the values of the “mechanic, artisan, engineer, and inventor in American society.” Agent: Will Lippincott, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (June)
Library Journal
Lyons (Islam Through Western Eyes) here directs his attention to 18th-century America. His particular focus is Benjamin Franklin's role in developing the concept of "useful knowledge," with ideas judged by how well they apply to daily life. Lyons contends that this viewpoint originated in Europe, where knowledge had become moribund, lacking the vigor of American thinking. (He occasionally overstates the differences between American and European thought.) According to observers on both continents, the challenges of establishing a new society required useful skills that best served an enlightened people. Franklin exemplified and encouraged progress in many practical fields, ranging from science (e.g., his experiments with electricity) to political theory (e.g., his early advocacy of colonial union). His interests, from astronomy to education, in all cases related to the situations of everyday life. Lyons places Franklin at the heart of a transcontinental debate over the purpose of intellectual life, but readers may wish that he had directed more attention to the implications of this practical mode of thinking. Did the American emphasis on useful knowledge devolve into something akin to anti-intellectualism as it was more widely disseminated among the populace in later decades? VERDICT Those concerns aside, Lyons has raised important questions about the origins of "useful knowledge" in America that will have wide appeal. Recommended.—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato
Kirkus Reviews
The author of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2009) returns with an examination of transformative events in American cultural history--and of that great transformer himself, Benjamin Franklin. Former Reuters foreign correspondent Lyons has two principal and intertwined stories to tell: the career of Franklin and the rise of the useful and the practical in American education and society. He notes the insecurity colonial American intellectuals felt, the difficulty of scholarly collaboration (communication was both slow and unreliable) and the disdain that many European scientists and scholars showed for their rustic counterparts in the New World. The author describes the early career of Franklin and shows how he contributed to the view of practical/useful knowledge in Philadelphia--and how that notion spread, slowly, to the other colonies and (later) states. Franklin's successful experiments with electricity impressed the English, whose Royal Society gave him an award in 1753, and his influence soared, both in America and abroad. In Philadelphia, Franklin sought to create a university that would de-emphasize the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin and emphasize the practical. He found stiff opposition from conservatives and grumbled about it the rest of his life. Lyons introduces us to some other notables from the era, including David Rittenhouse (famed, among other things, for his improvement of the orrery) and Thomas Paine, who in 1787 joined Franklin, Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush and others in the Society for Political Inquiries. The author ends with a look at how we continue to revere those who make substantial practical contributions to American life--e.g., the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Lyons does not devote much space to the battle between the liberal and practical arts, which continues to rage in schools and colleges. Clear, focused snapshots of a movement and its celebrated leader.
From the Publisher
“Nothing was more crucial to America’s founding than the Enlightenment, and no one played a more important role than Benjamin Franklin in transmitting the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment to the wider public in the form of useful knowledge. Jonathan Lyons, an engaging storyteller and insightful scholar, conveys the breathtaking sweep of this crucial story with grace and flair, and in the process he provides a compelling and innovative perspective on the American Revolution and the new nation that emerged from that upheaval.” —John Ferling, author of The Ascent of George Washington

"Clear, focused snapshots of a movement and its celebrated leader." —Kirkus Reviews

"[A] highly readable account of the societies (the title one, later the American Philosophical Society, being the prototype), academies, mechanics’ associations, and other social institutions the group engendered that believed science and experimentation to be collective endeavors, Lyons illuminates a formative period in American cultural history." —Booklist

"Lyons has raised important questions about the origins of “useful knowledge” in America that will have wide appeal. Recommended." —Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608195534
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 799,825
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Lyons is the author of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). He served as editor and foreign correspondent for Reuters for more than twenty years. He holds a doctorate in sociology, and has taught at George Mason University, Georgetown University, and Monash University in Australia. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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