Hellenistic Epistemology

Syllabus. PHI 420: Topics in Philosophy. Hellenistic Epistemology

Instructor: Thomas A. Blackson

PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) or its equivalent is helpful but not necessary to do well (get an A) in this course.

The Stoics and Academics are Hellenistic philosophers.

The Hellenistic Age is the period in the history of politics from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.

The philosophical schools in this time shared a feature that makes it reasonable to refer to them as a group. They were united in their opposition to what they thought of as the excesses of the prior philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. To refer to the schools as a group, historians of philosophy use the term from the history of politics.

In about 100 BCE, this opposition to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle disintegrated as non-skeptical forms of Platonism underwent a resurgence and eventually gave rise to early forms of Christianity. This resurgence marks the end of the Period of Schools, the second of the three periods in which historians traditionally divide Ancient philosophy.

Cicero, 106 - 43 BCE
He writes in the generation after the collapse of the New Academy.

Cicero heard Philo's lectures in Rome in 88-87 BCE (Brutus 306) and Antiochus's lectures in Athens in 79-77 BCE (Acaemica 1.14). He knew and studied with Posidonius (Tusculan Disputations II.61).

Antiochus joined the Academy at about the time Philo became head, was a follower of Philo, but later broke with him (Academica II.69).

Cicero takes himself to follow the philosophy of the New Academy and says he has explained this philosophy in his "Academics" (On Duties 2.8).

The Latin academicus means "relating to the Academy, Academic." It is a transliteration of the Greek adjective ἀκαδημικός.

The Academica is reconstructed from fragments of two of Cicero's works. The first is the Academica Priora. The second is the Academica Posteriora.

The Academica Priora consisted in the now lost Catulus and in the Lucullus. The Academica Posteriora was Cicero's revised edition of the Academica Priora. It consisted in four books and was entitled the Academic Books. Only part of the first of the Academic Books has survived.

Academica I is the surviving part of book I of the Academic Books. It contains Varro's speech on the history of philosophy according to Antiochus (Academica I.15–42) and Cicero's alternative from an Academic point of view (Academica I.43-46).

Academica II is the Lucullus. It contains Lucullus' speech on Stoic epistemology (Academica II.10–62) and Cicero's speech in reply from an Academic point of view (Academica II.64–147).

Academics, Stoics, Pyrrhonian Skeptics:

Arcesilaus, 4th to middle 3rd century BCE.
He succeeded Crates (fifth head of the Academy, the school Plato founded in 387 BCE) and changed the focus to the Socratic practice of questioning to expose the pretense to wisdom.

Arcesilaus' headship marks the beginning of the "New" Academy.

Carneades, late 3rd to late 2nd century BCE.
He is Arcesilaus's most distinguished successor.

Clitomachus, early 2nd to late 2nd century BCE.
He succeeded Carneades.

Philo of Larisa, middle 2nd to early 1st century BCE.
He was the last head of the New Academy.

In 88 BCE, during the Mithridatic War, Philo fled Athens and took refuge in Rome. In 86 BCE, Sulla destroyed the grounds of the Academy in his siege of Athens. Philo died a few years later. After his death, the Academy (whose grounds had already been destroyed) disappeared into two rival factions.

Antiochus, late 2nd to middle 1st century BCE.
He broke from Philo and tried to reestablish the "Old" Academy. This contributed to the renewed interest in non-skeptical forms of Platonism that marks the end of the Period of Schools.

Aenesidemus, late 2nd to middle 1st century BCE.
He broke from Philo to found a new skeptical school under the name of Pyrrho (middle 4th to early 3rd century BCE). This new school continued into about the 3rd century CE.

Photius reports that Aenesidemus (in a now lost work) says that "the Academics, especially the ones now, ... appear to be Stoics fighting with Stoics" (Bibliotheca 212.170a)

Pyrrho (middle 4th to early 3rd century BCE)
He seems to have pursued a skeptical way of life but wrote nothing and established no school.

Photius (9th century CE) reports that Aenesidemus (in a now lost work) says that "the Academics, especially the ones now, ... appear to be Stoics fighting with Stoics" (Bibliotheca 212.170a)

"[This school of thought is called] 'Pyrrhonean (Πυρρώνειος)' from the fact that Pyrrho appears to us to have applied himself to Scepticism more thoroughly and more conspicuously than his predecessors" (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I.1.7).

Photius was Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. His Bibliotheca consists in notices of works in his library, almost half of which are now lost. Notice 212 is for "the eight books of Pyrrhonian Writings (Πυῤῥωνίων λόγοι) by Aenesidemus" (Bibliotheca 212.169b). Photius states the purpose of the work and describes the contents of each book, and he includes some extracts in these descriptions.

Βιβλιοθήκη means "library, collection of books."

Zeno of Citium, late 4th to middle 3rd century BCE.
He founded the Stoic school in about 300 BCE.

Cleanthes, late 4th to late 3rd century BCE.
He succeeded Zeno as head of the school.

Chrysippus, early 3rd to late 3rd century BCE.
He was the third and most influential head of the Stoic school.

The Stoics take their name from their initial meeting place in the Ποικίλη Στοά ("Painted Stoa"). A στοά is a roofed colonnade. The adjective ποικῐ́λη means "many-colored." The Ποικίλη Στοά took its name from the paintings that decorated its walls.

Sextus Empiricus (2nd or 3rd century CE) was a physician (in the empirical tradition) and philosopher (in the Pyrrhonian tradition).

In a list of Empiricist physicians, Diogenes Laertius mentions "Sextus the Empiricist" (Σέξτος ὁ ἐμπειρικός) (Lives of the Philosophers IX.116).

Sextus Empiricus reports that he wrote a (now lost) set of discourses on Empiricism (Against the Grammarians, 61).

Sextus Empiricus' Outlines of Pyrrhonism the primary source of our knowledge of Pyrrhonism.

Sextus Empiricus is also the author of eleven books preserved under the title Against the Mathematicians (Adversus Mathematicos).

These books have separate titles:

Against the Grammarians      (M I)
Against the Rhetoricians        (M II)
Against the Geometers           (M III)
Against the Arithmeticians     (M IV)
Against the Astrologers          (M V)
Against the Musicians           (M VI)
Against the Logicians I, II     (M VII, M VIII)
Against the Physicists I, II     (M IX, M X)
Against the Ethicists              (M XI)

Some Online Resources:

ASU Research Databases: Philosophy
ASU Research Databases: Classics

On Academic Scepticism, Charles Brittain
Essays in Ancient Philosophy, Michael Frede

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Ancient Skepticism
Philo of Larissa
Sextus Empiricus
The debate on the nature and possibility of knowledge between the Stoics and the Academics is one of the most famous debates in the history of philosophy. Our interest in this debate is historical. We want to know what these philosophers thought and how their thoughts fit into the history of Ancient philosophy.

Course Readings

Our knowledge of what the Stoics and the Academics thought depends heavily on Cicero. In 46-44 BCE, toward the end of his life, he wrote a series of works to present the philosophy of the schools (which had been written in Greek) in his native Latin. Cicero talks about the debate between the Stoics and Academics in a work from this period he calls his "Academics." What we now call his Academica is what has survived of this work.

There is a lot of secondary literature on the Stoics and Academics. We will consider Charles Brittain's interpretation in his On Academic Scepticism. This work sets out a now standard understanding of the debate.

The Academy broke up in at 100 BCE, and one faction regrouped under the name of Pyrrhonian Skepticism.

We will consider Michael Frede's interpretation of Pyrrhonian Skepticism as Benjamin Morison sets it out in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Sextus Empiricus. The entries in the SEP are attempts to report current thinking about parts of philosophy, and Morison argues that Frede's interpretation is correct.

In this syllabus, there are links to the lecture notes for the course. These notes are in the Tufte CSS style. Links in this style are underlined, match the body text in color, and do not change color on mouseover or when clicked.

In the spirit of open access, I make the lecture notes for this course available to anyone on the internet. The cloud service provider I use is Digital Ocean. The server I rent from them is located in San Francisco.

Course Assignments

The final grade is a function of the points for discussion posts, prompts, and a bibliography project.

In the discussion posts (4 points for each unit), you are to call attention to something in the reading for the unit you found interesting and you are to explain why you found it interesting. These posts must be thoughtful. Discussion posts written with little apparent care and attention to detail will not receive full credit.

For the prompts (10 points for each unit), you are to demonstrate that you understand the historical and philosophical issues in the prompts. The best way to demonstrate your understanding is to provide answers to the prompts that would be helpful to someone who is not already familiar with these issues. Take this advice seriously. Answers short on explanation of the historical and philosophical issues will not receive full credit.

In the bibliography project (16 points), you are to analyze three journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature in the history of Ancient philosophy on issues related to points we discuss. Academic journal articles and book chapters can cover a lot of ground and be hard to understand. Your analyses need not discuss everything in the article or book chapter. Focus on the thesis and a main point in the argument.

Course Letter Grade

The assignments in the course total to 100 points. I am happy to work with students on independent projects, but there is no possibility for extra credit in this course. I do not accept late work without good reason. I accept more reasons as good reasons if you contact me before the due date for the assignment.

The point total for the assignments determines the letter grade: A+ (100-97), A (96-94), A- (93-90), B+ (89-87), B (86-84), B- (83-80), C+ (79-77), C (76-70), D (69-60), E (59-0). I give incompletes only to accommodate serious illnesses and family or other emergencies, which you must adequately document.

I work with Barrett students on Honors Enrichment Contracts. Email me the first week in the semester.

Course Schedule


The Stoics and the Academics looked back to Socrates for their inspiration, but they saw different things. To understand why this is true, we need to look at the picture Plato paints of Socrates in his dialogues.

Lecture Notes 1

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #1


The Stoic theory of knowledge is part their conception of human beings and their place in the world.

Lecture Notes 2

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #2


The Academics try to show the Stoics that their own beliefs are inconsistent with their theory of knowledge.

Lecture Notes 3

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #3


Lecture Notes 4

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #4


There was a dispute in the Academy about how to understand Carneades.

Lecture Notes 5

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #5


Aenesidemus broke from the Academy to found a new skeptical school under the name of Pyrrho

Lecture Notes 6

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #6
Bibliography Project

Contact Information

Thomas A. Blackson
Philosophy Faculty
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356
PO Box 874302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-4302
Academic webpages: tomblackson.com, history-of-ancient-philosophy.com, www.public.asu/~blackson