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Sceptical Education in the Hellenistic Academy

Peter Osorio

Cornell University

I argue that at least some radical sceptics of the early Hellenistic Academy limited their methods in response to the following pedagogical view (PV): reducing the prejudicial effects of authority on one’s reasoning benefits one’s development in dialectical inquiry. This limitation occurred in two ways: in the first, Academics limited themselves to dialectic, as opposed to epideictic or monologic forms of exposition; secondly, within the realm of dialectic, they preferred the role of questioner: they gave arguments against theses or arguments provided by others, or they gave arguments for and against a thesis. In each case, there was an intra-dialectical limitation (IDL), according to which sceptical Academics did not posit or defend a thesis that they did not also then combat.

Critics tend to treat PV as an outgrowth of the mitigated scepticism of the late (Philonian) Academy (Brittain 2001: 111–14; Ioppolo 1993: 210; Long and Sedley 1987: 1:449). This tendency is partly due to the nature of the available testimonial evidence for PV. Since PV is only clearly articulated by late Academics like Cicero and Favorinus, and because it has been customary to think that Cicero and Favorinus are mitigated sceptics (e.g. Brittain 2007; Görler 1997; Ioppolo 1993; Thorsrud 2002), PV has become a criterion by which mitigated scepticism is further distinguished from the radical scepticism of Arcesilaus or Carneades. But there is no longer consensus that Cicero, if not Favorinus, is a mitigated sceptic (cf. Brittain 2016 and, most recently, Wynne 2019). If these later Academics were also radicals, then there ought to be an account of how PV is consistent with the suspicion of the powers of reason characteristic of radical scepticism. Part of my argument is to offer this account in outline.

First, I draw attention to textual evidence from Plutarch that Carneades supported PT (Plut. Quomodo adul. 10, 58f). The passage recalls Socrates’ description of his own method in Plato’s Apology (33a-b), but differs from the model of teaching suggested by Carneades’ analogy in the following way: whereas Socrates offers to question or to answer others, the Carneadean teacher can only question. I argue this is not accidental, for Carneades’ methods are made more coherent by assuming that IDL is informed by PV. I conclude by addressing a variant of a familiar objection to radical scepticism (cf. Obdrzalek 2006), that, since radical sceptics are suspicious of arguments, they couldn’t care less whether prejudices of authority influenced students or auditors. I respond by outlining what I take the project of the radical sceptic to be (viz. a research agenda), such that she may coherently wish for others to develop the norms of inquiry assumed by her project.

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