Skip to main content
DePaul University Special Collections and Archives



Popular diagrams of acoustics from James Reynold's Diagrams of Natural Philosophy [1850]

SPC. 530.1 R463D1850 

What does it mean for knowledge to be useful?

The answer to this question continues to puzzle educational institutions and individuals alike. Posed as a broad philosphical problem or a concrete query, the question can be both elusive and definitive.

The notion of "usefulness" is further complicated by context. Existing knowledge creates new knowledge, and is thus, always shaped by social, political, or economic circumstances.


Diagram of chirurgie, or "surgery" in French, from Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers [1784]

CM. 034.1 E56

The European Enlightenment is widely considered the impetus for modern examinations of knowledge. Beginning in the late 17th century, intellectuals began to look beyond traditional or superstitious explanations. With an emphasis on reason and scientific method, they sought to reform society.

One of the movement's crowning achievements was the Encyclopédie. Compiled and published over the course of twenty-one years (1751-1772), this work comprised 35 volumes. It covered everything from philosophy to science, commerce, and for the first time, the mechanical arts. Contemporaries saw the Encyclopédie as a way to publicly capture and share the world’s knowledge.

Poor Richard improved

Book cover of Poor Richard Improved [1759] by Benjamin Franklin

SpC. 031.02 P823f1759

The thirst for knowledge soon spread to cities throughout Europe and beyond. In Britain's American colonies, Benjamin Franklin helped to foster these conditions. Due to his own acute curiosity, Franklin was quick to see the benefits of dispersing useful knowledge through any means possible.

With his encouragement, the colonies saw the emergence of intellectual gatherings and information exchange. Above all else, Franklin promoted scientific experiments and the mechanical arts.

Hogarth and His Works--No. VII.

Front page of the October 18, 1834 edition of The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

SpC 051 P416j

During the 19th century, knowledge and the quest for it continued to spread at American social gatherings and in public discourse. Societies and clubs presented new opportunities and venues for self-improvement. Lectures, debates, and demonstrations also aided the rapid spread of information.

Mechanical innovations, such as steam power and the printing press, made it possible to circulate knowledge more affordably. Printed publications helped to make these initiatives accessible further down the social ranks. The diffusion of useful knowledge became a cultural movement, and even gained a namesake Society.


Colored illustration of icebergs from Thirty Plates Illustrative of Natural Phenomena by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1846)

SPC. 500 T447s1846

This exhibit examines some of the intellectual movements and social organizations that sought to define and promote “useful knowledge” from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s.

While many of the methods used to convey knowledge, such as encyclopedias, lectures, and educational publications, are still widely used, the question of what makes knowledge worth pursuing continues to evolve.