Ancient Scepticism (Ancient Philosophies)

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To judge from the occurrences in Sextus of the phrase Ainesidemos kata Herakleiton , his interest in Heraclitus extended beyond this; the topics at issue there are the location of thought dianoia , M 7.

A. A. Long

But this too carries no implication as to his having adopted a Heraclitean position or considered Heraclitus himself to have been a sceptic. Why, then, is the Heraclitean connection so objectionable to Sextus? Merely establishing that Heraclitus was not a sceptic is not enough for him. It looks as if he simply wants no association with Heraclitus at all. Still, despite this more conciliatory tone, the overriding focus is on the differences rather than the similarities.

His response to the claim is twofold.

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The Cyrenaics may have interesting resemblances to the figure of the sceptic in modern philosophy. In this case we have evidence, quite distinct from that considered in section I, that shows a debate concerning whether or not their philosophy is the same as Pyrrhonism; we should begin by considering this, since I left it aside earlier in the interest of simplicity.

Senses and applications

First, we should note that Aenesidemus founded the later Pyrrhonist movement in large part as a reaction against the Academy, of which he was originally a member. As we shall see, this is one of the main points Sextus uses to distinguish himself from some Academics, and there is other evidence for this reading of the Academics e. Gellius does not tell us who thought this, nor who, if anyone, opposed the view that they differed in this way.

Since he has just mentioned Favorinus In any case, the extent of the discussion on this question makes clear that the view that the two philosophies were essentially the same had a continuing attraction for some. As in the case of Democritus, there is an admission of some common ground, but this is framed in such a way as to maximize the impression of difference.

The digression is unexpected in that Xenophanes had nothing to do with the Academy. First, these Academics assert as a definite conclusion that everything is inapprehensible, which makes them negative dogmatists. It is not clear that either of these claims is fair to the Academics. There is, then, at least a possibility that Sextus is forcing the evidence so as to maximize the sense of a difference between himself and the New Academy.

Skepticism - Wikipedia

However, he immediately goes on to mention two other interpretations that put Arcesilaus in a different light. One is that while they say much the same things, Arcesilaus says them in a dogmatic register, so that on his view suspension of judgement is by nature a good thing and assent by nature a bad thing PH 1. The other is that Arcesilaus was really a secret Platonist and used sceptical argumentation as a test to see who was ready to receive the true philosophy of Platonism PH 1.

Here Sextus, himself an Empiricist, appears to reject an identification between scepticism and the Empiric school PH 1. He makes this conditional on the Empiricists affirming that unclear things are inapprehensible, which would mean that they were negative dogmatists. The issues here are very difficult and cannot be discussed on this occasion.


Sextus is in general extremely resistant to claims of identity or even similarity between his brand of scepticism and other philosophies. This is true even when the common ground was suggested by an earlier Pyrrhonist, as we saw in the case of Aenesidemus and Heraclitus. In addition, throughout his work he is notably reticent about appealing to predecessors within his own Pyrrhonist tradition. In both respects Sextus is strikingly different from the sceptical Academy.

As I mentioned at the outset, these Academics look back to Socrates and Plato, and this is no surprise; but they also appeal to numerous Presocratics as predecessors. What might explain this seemingly extreme attitude? Another way to express this point is that scepticism is not a philosophy at all, at least as that term is frequently understood. Although Sextus opens Outlines of Pyrrhonism by distinguishing three main kinds of philosophy, of which scepticism is one PH 1.

For convenience let us call this philosophy D. This is not, of course, the only conception of philosophy, which is why Sextus does not simply reject the term as applied to scepticism; but it is one that might well be considered to be dominant in the Hellenistic period and later antiquity. If that is what philosophy is, at least according to a widespread conception, then it is understandable that he would want to make clear that he is doing something fundamentally different, and therefore that he would want to reject all associations with those who do qualify as philosophers in that conception.

Thus, if Sextus wants to distance himself from all associations with philosophy D , this may point to a further explanation for his rejection of claims concerning predecessors to his own school. It is not just that the comparisons to which he is responding were made between scepticism and philosophers D ; the very appeal to predecessors may itself have come to be connected, in his mind at least, with the notion of doctrinal succession, and hence with philosophy D.

However, as I said, the Academy, including in its sceptical period, has no trouble with appealing to predecessors, Plato prominently included. Both because he has legitimate reason to consider Plato at least in some moods as a philosopher D , and because to him the appeal to predecessors may itself have the feel of philosophy D , this could have prompted Sextus to paint all of them, or almost all, as quite distinct from the Pyrrhonists. Even in the one case, Arcesilaus, where he cannot avoid admitting that there is a lot of common ground, he will not simply say so, but puts this alongside non-sceptical interpretations of his thought and hence creates uncertainty about what he has just said.

If being part of a tradition itself has a suspect air for Sextus, this makes good sense in light of his qualified willingness to acknowledge Arcesilaus as a kindred spirit. First, they would not generally be counted as philosophers of any sort , and so the risks involved in being associated with philosophers would not have applied in their case.

Second, whether or not the Methodists were in fact free from all doctrine, 57 Sextus focuses exclusively on their role as practitioners who follow the way things appear; while, as we saw, he does not suggest that they are exactly the same as the sceptics, he takes the trouble to paint them in a light that will make them look as little like philosophers D as possible. Allen , J. Bett ed. Annas , J.

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Barnes ed. Outlines of Scepticism , Cambridge, Bett , R. Kamtekar ed. Vogt ed. Reed ed.

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