Idealism, Metacritique and Ancient Skepticism

  • Philip Walsh
Part of the Renewing Philosophy book series (REP)


Scholarly interest in ancient skepticism has been resurgent in recent years. What had previously been dismissed as an obscure and eccentric offshoot of Stoic teachings has now come to be accepted as a subtle and challenging set of doctrines that has exerted a considerable, if somewhat hidden, influence on the course of modern philosophy1 This general revival of interest in the three main schools of Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism reveals, perhaps, as much of the character of our own age as it does of the Hellenistic age itself.2 Nevertheless, and in spite of the revived attention, ancient skepticism still remains resistant to our historical and philosophical understanding,3 due to several factors, not the least being that contemporary skepticism as a philosophical topic is generally considered to be the theoretical province of the analytic tradition, and this tradition is not renowned for its historicist or hermeneutic sensitivities. The key doctrines of ancient skepticism have often been presented with an inadequate respect for the historical context within which they arose and evolved; sins of interpretation already identified by Hegel in 1801 in his own investigation and interpretation of ancient skepticism.


Critical Theory Ordinary Experience Natural Consciousness Kantian Critique Hellenistic Philosophy 
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  1. 2.
    The resurgence follows especially the work of Alisdair MacIntyre, and the continuing attention accorded to Hannah Arendt’s focus on Greek ethics. Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), as I show here, has been influential in drawing attention to neglected aspects of Hellenistic philosophy in general.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    There is significant disagreement regarding the most basic tenets of ancient skepticism. Probably the most widespread understanding is that it represents a form of phenomenalism, as Frede and Stough both argue (see Michael Frede, Essays in Ancient Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995) pp. 179–225Google Scholar
  3. and Charlotte Stough, Greek Skepticism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969) pp. 67–97). For a criticism of this interpretation, in which it is attributed directly to historical insensitivity, see Burnyeat, “Can the Skeptic Live his Skepticism,” p. 127.Google Scholar
  4. Cf. Gisela Striker, “Skeptical Strategies,” in Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy, ed. by M. Schofield, M.F. Burnyeat and J. Barnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 54–83.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Axi note (a). For a review and critique of Schulze’s arguments in Aenesidemus, see Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 266–84.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current (New York: Viking, 1980) p. 9.Google Scholar
  7. Hamann is also the subject of a separate late essay by Berlin , The Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1994). On the influence of Hamann on later idealism, Cf. Beiser, The Fate of Reason, pp. 39–43.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    See J.G. Fichte, “Review of Aenesidemus,” in Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. by Daniel Breazeale (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 59–77.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    G.W.F. Hegel, “On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy, Exposition of its Different Modifications and Comparison of the Latest Form with the Ancient One,” in Between Kant and Hegel, trans. and ed. by H.S. Harris and G. DiGiovanni (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985), pp. 313–14.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in Hume’s Enquiries, ed. by L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 159.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. by Shierry Weber Nicholson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 57.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    See Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. and ed. by R.G. Bury (London: Heinemann, 1942), pp. 23–6.Google Scholar
  13. 27.
    Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 20.Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    See David Sedley, “The Motivation of Greek Skepticism,” in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. by Miles Burnyeat (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), p. 17.Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    Michael Forster, Hegel and Skepticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 33.
    Ibid., p. 13. Cf. Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd edn (London: Duckworth, 1982), p. 148.Google Scholar
  17. 43.
    Cicero , Academica, trans. by H. Rackham (London: Heinemann, 1933), p. 561.Google Scholar

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© Philip Walsh 2005

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  • Philip Walsh

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