David Johnson: What Does Academic Skepticism Presuppose?

Although some have seen the skepticism of Arcesilaus and Carneades, the two foremost representatives of Academic philosophy, as being merely dialectical in nature, there is evidence that both philosophers held views definitive of their skepticism, views which are a direct consequence of a critique of Stoic epistemology and of a defense against the Stoic argument from apraxia. Moreover, both the critique and defense are articulated within the framework provided by Stoic epistemology. There is a strong case, then, to be made for the claim that Academic skepticism cannot stand alone, that it necessarily requires the terms, concepts and assumptions of Stoicism as an antecedent condition. In making this case I will treat the views of Arcesilaus and Carneades separately, since there are some important differences between them.

In order to see the way in which Arcesilaus presupposes dogmatic philosophy, we first have to address the question of whether the skepticism of Arcesilaus was merely dialectical, or whether he held definitive skeptical views of his own.[1] If Arcesilaus was a dialectician who limited himself to arguing against the views of others without proposing any of his own, then his skepticism would only presuppose the existence of opponents holding dogmatic views. Although his dialectical method could not subsist on its own, then, there is no reason why it should necessarily require as dialectical fuel the particular form of dogmatism found in Stoic philosophy. If, on the other hand, as I want to maintain, Arcesilaus held the three interrelated views that nothing can be known, that all people ought to suspend judgment, and that one can use the eulogon, or reasonable, as a practical criterion to guide action, then these views would be parasitic on Stoic philosophy in particular. The first two views presuppose Stoic philosophy because they are the consequence of a critique of Stoic epistemology. The third view presupposes Stoicism first, because it seems to have been developed as a response to the Stoic charge of apraxia, and second, because this defense is articulated using the terminology of, and within the framework provided by, Stoic epistemology.

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