A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine

By Karsten Friis Johansen | Go to book overview

29

SCEPTICISM

Almost from the very beginning it is possible to speak of sceptical currents in Greek philosophy. Xenophanes can be called the father of Scepticism, and with some justification Heraclitus has been counted among its ancestors. But scepticism is many things. An important tradition in Greek thought considers intellectual cognition certain, yet is sceptical about the possibility of valid sense cognition. This 'tradition' includes such different names as Parmenides, Democritus, Plato and Aristotle. A typical 'rationalist' counter-attack against general scepticism is the Aristotelian argument: even if I have no certain knowledge that this is an x, I know what it means to be x.

Confronting this were the epistemological subjectivism and relativism, often en bloc attributed to the Sophists. This is a simplification, although it is true that Gorgias represents an anarchic scepticism as it were, and that the principal Sophist, Protagoras, must be considered a main figure in the history of Western scepticism. Protagoras-but also empirical medicine with its disrespect for the speculative-are the most important precursors of Hellenistic Scepticism. Its more specific development was largely determined by the opponents: they were the ones to furnish the premisses to be contested.

Scepticism is often marked by a certain resignation: certain knowledge is desirable but unattainable. This is not the way of it in the Hellenistic age. Here Scepticism is not a regrettable necessity but a precondition for peace of mind or ataraxia-the key word of the day. As in all Hellenistic philosophy, epistemology and moral philosophy are linked to each other, but here in a manner that can be quite surprising.

Apparently this is true already of Pyrrho (c.365-c.270), whom a later tradition considered the founder of Scepticism. Only about twenty years younger than Aristotle and barely a generation older than Epicurus and Zeno, he stands at the threshold of Hellenistic philosophy; to us he seems to be quite close to the form of scepticism that Plato and Aristotle fought against. But he is an obscure figure; he wrote nothing, and the fact that from the first century BC he was considered the 'saint' of Scepticism makes it mandatory to be careful of concluding backwards from later 'Pyrrhonism'. He seems (Diog. Laert. IX 61) to have come from the Democritus tradition and to have studied Megarian logic; to this is added the information, no further specified, of ties to Indian and Persian philosophy. He did not found a real

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A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Presocratic Philosophy 9
  • 1 - Myth, Poetry and Philosophy 11
  • 2 - Ionian Natural Philosophy 20
  • 3 - Heraclitus 29
  • 4 - The Pythagoreans 36
  • 5 - The Eleatics 45
  • 6 - Post-Parmenidean Natural Philosophy 59
  • 7 - Medical Science 79
  • Part II - The Great Century of Athens 83
  • 8 - Pericles' Athens 85
  • 9 - Tragedy and View of History 88
  • 10 - The Sophists 99
  • 11 - Socrates 118
  • Part III - Plato 137
  • 12 - Life, Works and Position 139
  • 13 - What is Virtue? Can Virtue Be Taught? 160
  • 14 - Idea and Man 173
  • 15 - The Good Constitution of State and Man 198
  • 16 - The Late Dialogues: Knowledge and Being 213
  • 17 - The Late Dialogues: Nature, Man and Society 236
  • 18 - Plato and the Early Academy 254
  • Part IV - Aristotle 267
  • 19 - Life, Works and Position 269
  • 20 - Logic and Theory of Science 293
  • 21 - Natural Philosophy and Psychology 316
  • 22 - Metaphysics and Theology 343
  • 23 - Ethics and Politics 366
  • 24 - Rhetoric and Poetics 392
  • 25 - The Early Peripatetics 400
  • Part V - Hellenistic Philosophy 405
  • 26 - Science and Philosophy 407
  • 27 - Epicurus 423
  • 28 - Early Stoicism 442
  • 29 - Scepticism 471
  • 30 - Greece and Rome 484
  • Part VI - Late Antiquity 499
  • 31 - Imperial Rome 501
  • 32 - Plotinus 532
  • 33 - Late Neoplatonism 556
  • 34 - Early Christian Thought 569
  • 35 - Augustine 588
  • Abbreviations General 625
  • Bibliography 639
  • Index 663
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