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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 1-18

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Cicero on his Academic Predecessors:
the Fallibilism of Arcesilaus and Carneades

Harald Thorsrud

IN AN IMPORTANT PAPER, Couissin 1 argued for what has come to be called the dialectical interpretation of Academic skepticism. On this interpretation, Arcesilaus and Carneades practiced the same, purely dialectical method--they would elicit assent to premises characteristic of their interlocutor's position and then derive unacceptable consequences exclusively on the basis of those premises. This method allowed them to remain uncommitted to the premises as well as the conclusions of their arguments. They would simply draw logical consequences from their opponents' own premises for the sake of refutation. This is in keeping with the current consensus that an ancient skeptic is one who has no beliefs, or at least no beliefs of a problematically dogmatic sort. 2 Consequently, the methods of ancient skeptics, including Academic skeptics, are thought to be strictly negative, seeking only the elimination of belief.

So when we come to Cicero's Philonian 3 version of Academic methodology and find that it explicitly includes provisions for the acquisition of fallible beliefs, it [End Page 1] is no surprise that commentators who are sympathetic to the dialectical interpretation tend to view Philo's position as a degeneration into what Michael Frede has called "dogmatic skepticism" 4 and Gisela Striker, apparently following Couissin, "skeptical Stoicism." 5 The dogmatic skeptic may assent to some beliefs, not, of course, claiming to know that he knows, but rather with a more modest, fallibilistic attitude. But once we let in such beliefs, according to Frede, there remains only a thin line separating so-called skeptics from dogmatists--"both have views on how things are, one believes that the kind of justification or knowledge which would establish the truth of a view is available and the other that it is not." 6

But is this such a thin line after all? Admittedly it is not the gulf separating those who allow themselves no beliefs, the classical skeptics, from those who do, but still it is a crucial distinction. The dogmatist holds his views on "how things are" without ever seriously considering the need to revise them since he thinks of them under the description "beliefs that I know to be true." He believes that he has more than simply good evidence or plausible arguments, but reasons or proofs that he knows to be conclusive. The Academic (dogmatic skeptic), on the other hand, holds his views on "how things are" with the ever-present prospect of revision since he thinks of them under the description "beliefs that are most likely to be true." Consequently, the Academic continues to inquire. His target is to determine whether some argument establishes what its proponent claims that it establishes, i.e., whether or not the reasons offered in support are conclusive. The acquisition of fallible beliefs need not hinder this process. Quite the contrary: the aim of acquiring more reasonable beliefs provides a reasonable motivation for engaging in the dialectical practice of refutation, for it is the same skill that enables us to discern the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a position (Luc. 60). 7

Recently, commentators have objected to the dialectical interpretation or sought to modify it. 8 The central concern here is what to do with Arcesilaus's and [End Page 2] Carneades' practical criteria, to eulogon (the reasonable) and to pithanon (the plausible) respectively. In both cases, the Academics were apparently responding to the apraxia objection, which claims that suspending judgment on some issue will render one inactive with respect to it (see Plutarch, Adversus Colotes 1122a-c). For example, if one suspends judgment as to whether or not it is right to pay taxes, she will experience no inclination (the Stoic term is impulse) one way or the other and will end up doing nothing. Not paying taxes in this case should not be considered an action at all. So Arcesilaus and Carneades presented their criteria, at least in part, to show...


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