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 in this course.

The Stoics and Academics are Hellenistic philosophers.

The Hellenistic Age is the period in the history of Ancient politics. It is roughly the time the death of Alexander the Great in 323 to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.

The philosophical schools in this period shared a feature that makes it reasonable to treat 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 Ancient philosophy use the name of the period 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 Ancient philosophy traditionally divides.

Cicero, 106 - 43 BCE
He writes about the Stoics and the Academics in the generation after the Academy's collapse.

Cicero was not primarily a philosopher, but he had a sophisticated understanding of the philosophy of his day. He attended Philo's lectures in Rome in 88-87 BCE (Brutus 306) and Antiochus's lectures in Athens in 79-77 BCE (Acaemica 1.14). Cicero also 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 to reestablish the "Old" Academy (Academica II.69).

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

The Latin academicus means "relating to the Academy, Academic." It transliterates ἀκαδημικός.

The Academica is a reconstruction from fragments of what modern editors have designated as Cicero's Academica Priora and Academica Posteriora. (The introduction to the Academica in the Loeb edition provides a helpful discussion.)

The Academica Priora names two books: Cicero's Catulus and Lucullus. Only parts of the Lucullus has survived.

The Academica Posteriora names Cicero's revision of the Academica Priora. It consisted in four books. Only part of the first of these four books has survived.

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

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

In his translation in On Academic Scepticism, Brittain arranges Cicero's Academica in an order in which Academica II is first.

Academics, Stoics, Pyrrhonian Skeptics:

Arcesilaus, 4th to middle 3rd century BCE.

He succeeded Crates (fifth head of the Academy Plato founded in 387 BCE) and changed the focus to the Socratic practice of questioning to expose the pretense to knowledge.

This 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 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.
His attempt to reestablish the "Old" Academy 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 (9th century CE) describes Aenesidemus's frame of mind. He 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.

"[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 school.

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

Sextus Empiricus (2nd or 3rd century CE).
He 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's 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) traditionally abbreviated as M.

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 about the nature and possibility of knowledge between the Stoics and the Academics is one of the most famous debates in the history of philosophy.

In this course, our interest in this debate is primarily historical. We want to know how it fits into the history of Ancient philosophy from Socrates to Sextus Empiricus.

Course Readings

Most of what the Academics and the early Stoics wrote has been lost.

For our knowledge of their debate, we depend primarily on the Roman orator and statesman, Cicero. In 46-44 BCE, toward the end of his life, wrote a series of works to present philosophy (which to this point had been written in Greek) in his native Latin. In one of these works he calls his "Academics," he sets out the debate between the Academics and the Stoics.

What has survived from this work is what we now call Cicero's Academica. We use this work to try to understand the debate between the Academics and the Stoics.

There is a lot of secondary literature about the Academics and the Stoics We read Charles Brittain's On Academic Scepticism. It sets out a now standard interpretation of the debate.

The Academy broke up in about 100 BCE. Out of this breakup, a new movement called Pyrrhonian Skepticism came to exist. For our knowledge of this movement, we depend primarily on Sextus Empiricus. We use his Outlines of Pyrrhonism to try to understand Pyrrhonian Skepticism and how it relates the Academic and Stoic debate.

There is a lot of secondary literature about Pyrrhonian Skepticism. We read parts of Benjamin Morison's entry on Sextus Empiricus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The entries in the SEP are attempts to report current thinking about parts of philosophy and its history.

In this syllabus, there are links to a set of lecture notes that (in the spirit of open access) I make avaliable on the internet. These notes are in the Tufte CSS style. Links are underlined, match the body text in color, and do not change color on mouseover or when clicked.

Course Assignments

The assignments for the course are all writing assignments. There are 6 discussion posts (24 points), answers to 6 prompts (60 points), and a bibliography project (16 points).

In the discussion posts (4 points each), 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.

For the prompts (10 points each), your answers should more formal. They should show that you understand the historical and philosophical issues the prompts raise.

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 you think is important.

I hold periodic group zoom sessions and meet individually with students by zoom.

Course Letter Grade

The letter grade for the course is a function of the point grades on the assignments.

I do not accept late work without good reason. If you are going to submit late work, 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.

I work with students on independent projects and on Honors Enrichment Contracts.

Course Schedule


The Stoics and the Academics looked back to Socrates, but they saw different things. To understand why, we need to look at the picture Plato paints of Socrates.

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 reality.

Lecture Notes 2

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


The Academics engage in dialectic with the Stoics. They 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


The rules of dialectic do not require the questioner to have any specific beliefs, but Carneades said it was possible to assent to impressions in terms of their persuasiveness.

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 movement 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

Email: blackson@asu.edu

Academic Webpage: tomblackson.com
History Webpage: history-of-ancient-philosophy.com
Old Academic Webpage: www.public.asu/~blackson