How Sceptical were the Academic Sceptics?

  • Dorothea Frede
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


Arcesilaus said that there is nothing that can be known, not even that residuum of knowledge that Socrates had left himself — the truth of this very dictum: so hidden in obscurity did he believe that everything lies.... His practice was consistent with this theory — he led most of his hearers to accept it by arguing against the opinions of all men, so that when equally weighty reasons were found on opposite sides on the same subject, it was easier to withhold assent from either side. They call this school the New Academy...(Cicero, Academica I.45)


Logical Truth Perceptual Impression Implicit Recognition Weighty Reason Invalid Syllogism 
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  1. 1.
    A very lucid and informative summary is provided by David Sedley in his article “The Motivation of Greek Scepticism,” in The Sceptical Tradition (hereafter ST),ed. M. Bumyeat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 9–29. For a short bibliography, see Doubt and Dogmatism (hereafter DD),eds. M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, and J. Barnes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 311–313.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Arcesilaus (c. 318–242 B.c.), Carneades (c. 213–129 B.c.); Clitomachus (c. 187–110 B.c.) seems to have written protocols of his master’s speeches for and against a given thesis (see Diogenes Laertius, Vita (D.L.) IV.67).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The purpose of Cicero’s Academica (hereafter, Ac. volume. page) is to confront the neo-dogmatism of Antiochus of Ascalon with the sceptic stance of Philo of Larissa (both had been his teachers at some time) (see Ac. I.1). It is a matter of controversy whether Cicero was a “re-convert” to scepticism and had for a time adopted Antiochus’s leaning toward Stoicizing dogmatism, or whether he had always followed Philo of Larissa’s line (see Ac. I.13). While his partner Vano treats Cicero’s defection from antiochus as a recent affair, Cicero claims to have been “out of touch for a long time” (Ac. I.43). See J. Glucker, “Cicero’s Philosophical Affiliations, in The Question of ”Eclecticism“,eds. J. Dillon and A. A. Long (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 34–69; W. Burkert, ”Cicero als Platoniker and Sceptiker,“ Gymnasium 72 (1965): 175–200.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Philo’s special version tried to combine rigorous scepticism (“nothing can be known”) with a probabilist account of “approaching the truth” (cf. Ac. II.7, 18, 67). This mixture of negative dogmatism and fallibilism seems to be a degeneration of the earlier, purely dialec--’ tical, position of Arcesilaus and Carneades. That Carneades’s own emphasis on the “plausible” as a guideline for life has to be sharply distinguished from probabilism is argued by M. Burnyeat in an (unfortunately, still) unpublished paper. “Carneades Was No Probabilist.”Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cicero seems at times to be quite aware of the distinction (Ac. II.78, 98ff., 137, 139). For an explanation of this wavering in Cicero, see. D. Sedley, “The End of the Academy,” Phronesis 26 (1981): 67–75.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    P H I.1: “Clitomachus and Carneades and other Academics treat it (sc. truth) as inapprehensible: the Sceptics keep on searching.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On Cicero and St. Augustine, see. Ch. Kirwan, “Augustine against the Sceptics,” ST,205–223.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The chief protagonists of differing positions are M. Burnyeat, “Can the Skeptic Live His Skepticism?” DD,20–53: and M. Frede, “The Skeptic’s Beliefs,” Essays in Ancient Philosophy (hereafter EAP) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 179–200; and “The Skeptic’s Two Kinds of Assent”, EAP,201–222. While Bumyeat takes it that the Sceptic refrains from any commitment, even in everyday matters (“Can the sceptic…”), Frede holds that it is only reasoned beliefs (“theoretical beliefs”) that are ruled out. For further discussion of the issues, see. G. Striker, “Sceptical Strategies”, DD,54–83; J. Barnes, “Ancient Scepticism and Causation,” ST,149–203.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    This “dialectic” interpretation of the sceptic position was first maintained by V. Cuissin in “Le Stoicisme de la Nouvelle Académie,” Revue d’histoire de la philosophie 3 (1929): 241–276 (a translation is provided in ST,31–63).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Cicero. (Ac. I.33) is aware of the importance of this change in the Academy: “Aristotle was the first to undermine the forms….”Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    The Sceptics here under discussion are therefore almost exclusively the Academic Sceptics, i.e., Arcesilaus, Carneades, and their more or less faithful successors down to Cicero. I leave aside the question of the relationship between Academic and Pyrrhonian scepticism. See. esp. G. Striker, “fiber den Unterschied zwischen den Pyrrhoneern and den Akademikern,” Phronesis 26 (1981): 153–171.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Plato makes us believe that this was true even for Socrates’s more sophisticated opponents, the Sophists.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    I am not referring to interrogations like the “mathematical experiment” in the Meno,but rather the kind of “suggestions” that trap, e.g., Polemarchus in Rep. I., when he is confronted with such unwanted conclusions as the expert in justice is also that best embezzler.Google Scholar
  14. 14.That the Academic Sceptic’s positions are merely “reactive” on Stoic dogmatism is often confirmed, see. Ac.1.44 “Cum Zenone… Arcesilas sibi omne certamen instituit.” Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Not only did Epicurus scorn logic; the Epicurean practice of giving more than one possible explanation made it sometimes difficult to pin a definite doctrine on them.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    An extensive discusion of this subject is given by G. Striker in her monograph Kptrtjptov tfig d7,.rleEfas, Nachr. d. Akad. d. Wiss. (Göttingen, 1974 ). I. 2.Google Scholar
  17. 17. Ac.11.18.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See. Ac.II.19–20, where the need for training and the assurance of optimal conditions for observation is explained: Experience and reasoning then lead to such general cognitions as, e.g., “if it is a human being, it is a mortal animal, capable of reason.”Google Scholar
  19. 19. Ac.II, 22: “videremus.” Geometry is mentioned as providing examples for such perceptions by the soul which are also the first principles of the productive arts.Google Scholar
  20. 20. Ac.1.26. On the importance of reasoned inferences and logic in general. See. Ac. II.30: from clear sense-perception through memory, conceptions (“notions”) are formed. “When there to there has been added reason and logical proof (eo cum accessit ratio argumentique conclusio) and an innumerable multitude of facts, then comes the clear perception of all these things, and also this same reason, having been by these stages made complete, finally attains wisdom.” See also Ac. 1.31: The mind employs the senses and creates the sciences as “a second set of senses.”Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    On the question of the different kinds of impressions, see. M. Frede, “Stoics and Sceptics on Clear and Distinct Impressions,” EAP,151–176. “Impressions” include, e.g., proofs of theorems. For the Stoics all impressions are true to the extent that they are guaranteed by the truth of perceptual impressions.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    See. G. Striker, DD,73 n49: “One should not let oneself be taken in by the Academic trick of making it appear that Academic conclusions follow from Stoic premisses alone.”Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See. M. Frede, “Stoics and Sceptics,” “the sceptics fail to show that cognitive and non-cognitive impressions do not differ from each other qualitatively (175).”Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    According to M. Frede even higher order assumptions are not maintained as beliefs but only to counterbalance dogmatic views (e.g., “life without beliefs is possible”) See. The “Sceptic’s Beliefs,” 184.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    For a summary of Aristotle’s discussion of the first principles of all sciences See. esp. APo.I.10. That the assumption of certain basic principles (such as the meaning of concepts) is necessary for any reasonable discussion had been painstakingly established by Aristotle against the extreme Heracliteans in Metaphysics T’.4–7. That the denial of the need for undemonstrated first principle shows lack of education is stressed by Aristotle here (1006a6) and elsewhere. Even if Aristotle’s writings were no longer studied from the third century on, such insights cannot simply have vanished.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    For a discussion of the sceptics’ treatment of mathematics see Ian Mueller, “Geometry and Scepticism,” in Science and Speculation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1982), pp. 65–95. He deals mainly with Pyrrnonian arguments against the inconceivability of geometric objects, not the validity of the mathematical inferences themselves.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    See. M. Frede, “Stoic vs. Aristotelian Syllogistic,” EAP,99–124. He goes as far as to say quite generally that: “Greek logicians barely had a notion of logically or formally true propositions” (107).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    See. Aristotle’s definition of the syllogism in APr. I.24b18: “A syllogism is a logos in which when certain things are being assumed, something else besides the assumptions follow with necessity because these are the case” (k ävótyKrlç ßvµßaívet ‘rcp mina etym.). Aristotle is generally rather unconcerned about form; he moves from formal characterizations, “being predicated,” to material ones, “belonging,” and back. This supports the claim that Aristotelian syllogisms are arguments, not schemata. For reasons against the assumption that Aristotle’s syllogisms are logical theses or formulas see Frede, “Stoic vs. Aristotelian, Syllogistic, pp. 111ff. Aristotle mentions logical necessity a few times (see. APo II.11. 94a21; Phys. II.195a18–19; Met. A 5), but interprets it as (or at least approximates it to) a kind of causal necessity. The point is not that he did not see any difference, but that he was concerned with knowledge ”why, for scientific demonstration, which would not be satisfied by formal necessity.Google Scholar
  29. 9.
    See. Al. Aphr. In an pr.373.18–35: and Galen IL 19 5 ff. in connection with the discussion of hyposyllogistic arguments or unmethodically concluding arguments (see. Alexander 345.13ff.). But although they had the terminology necessary to make the distinction we make nowadays between validity (ov8èv ltepaívet) and soundness (oïrx irytéç), they did not do so systematically.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Alexander Aphr. In an pr. 265.13–17 discusses purely hypothetical arguments and states that though they are sound (hygies) they are useless for proof (ttpòç Set tv) and thus not syllogistic (ov Idly Kaì crukkoytatLKil äv arck wç péyotso).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    For further evidence see. M. Frede, “Stoic vs. Aristot. Syllogistic,” p. 117: The validity of arguments itself is not the aim but how one can know something to be true or false. The feature is even more marked in the Peripatus than in the Stoa: cf. Alexander’s claim: a syllogism has to establish something as being the case,not just draw on an assumption.Google Scholar
  32. 32. Ac.I.30–32: “quae erat (sc. pars) in ratione et in disserendo.” Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    As D. Sedley’s comments on this aperçu by the Stoic Aristo of Chios: “behind his formal pose as Plato’s heir in the Academy lay Pyrrho’s philosophy, while Diodorus’s dialectical technique held the two heterogeneous creatures together” (ST,15).Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    There is, not surprisingly, an abundance of syllogisms employed by the Sceptics (see. Ac.II.67, about the wise man’s withholding assent). Especially Carneades who seems to have revelled in subverting Chrysippean chain-syllogisms by denying the conclusion (see. the argument in ND III.29–31).Google Scholar
  35. 35. “tantum abesse dicebat ut id consentaneum esset, ut maxime etiam repugnaret.” Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    si enim dicent ea de quibus disserent se dilucide perspicere...“ (Ac.I.44).Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    The first of these arguments is that there is such a thing as a false presentation; the second that a false presentation cannot be perceived; the third that of presentation between which there is no difference, it is impossible for some to be able to be perceived and others not; the fourth that there is no true presentation originating from sensation with which there is not ranged another presentation that precisely corresponds to it and that cannot be perceived.“Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    E.g., Ac 1.101: Cicero here pits the Stoics and Epicureans against each other, but the inference is the Sceptic’s: “What follows? Without any word of mine, logical inference of itself declares that nothing can be perceived” (“conclusio ipsa loquitur nihil posse percipi”). See. also the argument in 109, or the syllogism in 128 proving that since “accepting as true” does not permit differences in degree, it does not allow for truth at all: “for in fact it is impossible for them to say that one thing is grasped more or less than another since there is one definition of mental grasp in relation to all objects.”Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Cicero expresses the same sentiment about the function of logic elsewhere: In De or II.157–158 he asserts about dialectic that it “contains no directions for discovering truth, but only for testing it.”Google Scholar
  40. 40.The Stoics seem to have tried to evade the problem by practicing prudent suspension of judgment in such borderline cases, but that does not, of course, solve the problem: the proponent of the sorites will press on and query about which point they will start their silence, e.g., whether someone is bald or not. This is an (acknowledged) embarassment for the Stoics because not only can they not claim to “perceive” the truth because of a problem with external or internal conditions of sense-perception, but because there is no perceptible solution under any circumstances; even reason by itself cannot come to a decision.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    This question is pursued by Cicero at quite some length. He gives a reformulation of the Liar’s paradox that makes it conform to the pattern of Stoic syllogisms (where nothing follows because of an impossible antecedent). “If you say that you are lying and speak the truth, you are lying; but you do say that you are lying and speak the truth; therefore you are lying.” The Sceptic, so Cicero indicates, is in the fortunate position that Chrysippus had admitted that he could see no solution to the paradoxes (96).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    It is highly unlikely, since the Stoics rejected such a “falsification-principle” for the sense-perceptions; it was the Epicureans who maintained it and therefore tried to defend that all our impressions are true (Ac. 1I.79–80, 84). In this case the sceptic clearly tries to follow the tactics of setting up different dogmatist schools against each other: “fight it out with Epicurus” (101).Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Diodorus emphasized temporalized truth-conditions to define conditionals, while Philo argued for the simple material implication. Chrysippus introduced strict, formal implications, but used the negation of conjunction to express Philonian implications. So there is no real Sta4wvta about validity, but only about terminology!Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    This agrees well with Barnes’s depiction of the later Sceptics’ argumentation against the validity of Stoic syllogisms (“Proof Destroyed,” DD,151–185): they show that Stoic syllogisms are not valid on their own terms because of redundancy in the premises, not because there is no validity as such. A critic will point out that this is scepticism at its best, putting the dogmatist at odds with himself. Nevertheless, it is significant that the perspicuity of logical reasoning itself is not questioned anywhere.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    The text at 126 (128) suggests that it is rather the Sceptics’ opinion of the view that the Stoics ought to hold with regard to such calculations; there is no sign that they actually had any such conscientious religious objections.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Cicero was quite aware of the strength of the mathematician’s claim: see Fin. V. 9: “ut non modo multa probabili argumentatione, sed etiam necessaria mathematicorum ratione concluderent”; see. also Tusc. I.40.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Just as Sextus Empiricus never tires of reminding us that if he uses “is” he wants to be understood in the sense of “appears,” e.g., PH I.135 et pass. That he regards this as a matter of great importance is confirmed by the chapters dedicated to the clarification of the non-dogmatic use of basic sceptical assertions (187ff.). For expressions like “not more this than that,” “non-assertion,” “perhaps,” possibly,“ ”I suspend judgment,“ or ”I determine nothing,“ etc., the good Sceptic does not even assert dogmatically that something is non-evident, but only that given his present state he can neither affirm nor deny (197). And ”all things are non-apprehensible“ must be understood in the sense of ”those which I have investigated appear to me….“ Sextus does assert the principles of non-contradiction (M 8.36) and of excluded middle (M 1.11; 13), as my colleague Ezequiel de Olaso kindly reminded me. It is not clear how strong such assertions are supposed to be however.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    The Sceptics used, for example, a kind of sorites-argument to show that since a God can send us dreams that are very like reality, he may also send us dreams that are indistinguishable from reality. It is true that the argument makes use of the Stoic presupposition that Gods send dreams, but it is the sceptics’ addition that they can send dreams exactly like reality, which are, thus, indistinguishable from what is real, though false (49). The Stoics grant resemblances but not indistinctness; it is, thus, the sceptics who have to beg the issue here to succeed in their argument.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Here, Cicero presents the Sceptic’s well: no more than an appearance of such divine craftsmanship need to be granted. But the further arguments of Cicero’s Sceptic against clear perceptions once again sound dogmatic, for the uses of what looks like the Stoic argument in reverse. From the empirically plausible assumption that there are lots of impressions in dreams or madness which we take to be real when we experience them, he draws the general conclusion that there are no distinguishing marks. “But all these things are brought forward in order to prove what is the most certain fact possible, that in respect of the mind’s assent there is no difference between true presentations and false ones” (90).Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    That there are eggs or bees extremely like one another is, as the dogmatist points out, no argument to the contrary, nor are identical twins, for the Stoics could insist that one has to work hard to find what ISítuç itoîóv differentiates them. Since a difference is assumed, it should at least in theory be possible to find it. Simply to assert the opposite is negative dogmatism.Google Scholar
  51. 51.The need for counter-assertion is an objection also made by Epictetus Diss.II.1–3. “Even those who contradict them necessarily make use of the valid and evident propositions and this is the strongest indication that there is something evident (ivap*).” Google Scholar
  52. 52. Ac.II.60.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    For another case of higher order dogmatism, see Cicero’s assertion for Arcesilaus that “it was possible for a human being to hold no opinions, and not only that it is possible but that it is the duty of the wise man; but Arcesilaus deemed this view both true and also honorable and worthy of a wise man” (Ac. 1I.77). The Sceptic will, no doubt, regard this as a mere recommendation, but the endorsement is rather too strong for that!Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    The proof of the Stoics runs as follows: “If there is change without cause, not every proposition will be either true or false; for what does not have efficient causes, that will be neither true nor false; but every proposition is either true or false, therefore there is no change without cause. But if that is so, everything happens from preceding causes; and if this is so, everything comes about by fate. Thus it follows that everything that happens, happens according to fate” (20–21).Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    The Stoics had further doctrinal reasons to maintain such a connection, but it would take us too far to pursue this question here. In each case, the Sceptics would have to counter these further reasonings by counter-claims. I have gone into this question in “Fatalism and Future Truth” which is scheduled to appear in the Proceedings of the Boston Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy (1989).Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    A solution which had been anticipated by Aristotle (see. Met.E 2–3), but no mention is made of the Peripatetic doctrine. The Aristotelian conception of contingency seems to have been forgotten early on in Hellenistic philosophy; Cicero mentions Aristotle as one of the “necessitarians” (Fat. 39)Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    See, for example, Frede, “The Sceptic’s Two Kinds of Assent”: “... they not only did not want to be committed themselves to the truth of the premises and the conclusions of their arguments, they also did not want to be committed to the validity of their arguments” (204).Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    For a description of the event, see. Cic. Rep. 3.9; Lactantius Inst. V. 14.3.5. See. Glucker, “Cicero’s Philosophical Affiliations,” 65–66, and his Antiochus and the Late Academy ( Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1978 ).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    For such a tactical endorsement of a position, see. also Plut. Stoic. Rep.10. 1037c: “they (sc. the sceptics) accept neither but try to argue for both under the assumption that if anything can be grasped, then recognition of truth can be achieved only or most of all in this way.”Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Even after such emendations one may, of course, still reject the theory itself by expressing reservations about the actual truth of one of its premises. This is quite common practice. But no such repair work can be done with reservations about the tools used for it.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    There were all sorts of metaphors that were designed to show the feasibility of dialectic’s self-elimination: the octopus eating his own tentacles (Stob. Ed.II, 220), dialectic destroying its own web like Penelope (S.E. M. 8.481).Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    On the self-refutation of the Sceptics, see. Clem. Al. Strom.8 5 15.2–16.3: even suspension of judgment presupposes truth (the truth of the claim that there is no truth), and there should be suspension concerning suspension.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    The Pyrrhonists, in fact, explicitly incorporated the possibility of suspending judgement on the ground that even if a theoretical truth seems irrefutable, some counter-argument might be produced at a later time (S.E. PH 1.33–34). No such antidogmatic provisos are reported for the Academics however. It stands to reason that the Pyrrhonists saw such unguarded assertions as major flaws in their Academic predecessors’ stance.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    In the case of the “Sea Battle” problem there may indeed be strong reasons for either side; but we cannot continue to apply the reservations to the reasons for the reasons on either side.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    I have refrained from discussing the question for the Pyrrhonists. M. Burnyeat has raised a similar objection to the coherence of the Sceptics’ position as far as Pyrrhonian self-detachment is concerned: “that, too, is subject to the complication that the abandonment of reason is itself the result of argument, i.e., of the exercise of reason” (“Can the sceptic…,” DD,23).Google Scholar

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  • Dorothea Frede

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