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Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


CARNEADES

(c. 213 — c. 129 B.C.)

 

SCEPTICISM

Founder of the New (Third) Academy Carneades was born in Cyrene (now in Libya). He was famed as a disputant and orator. He was noted also for his powers of concentration, often to the neglect of his food and appearance. He was sent on a political mission to Rome in 156, where his brilliance in argument and oratory made a considerable impression on the youth of the city. As a philosopher he is seen as an important critic of the Stoics and Epicureans, but he left no writings; we learn of his philosophy through later commentators such as Sextus Empiricus.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ RELIGION

[1] Carneades maintained a sceptical position in relation to all claims to knowledge [a]. Sense-experience is unreliable; we can never be sure whether a presentation is real, a dream, or an illusion. And because our concepts are grounded in experience and are 'affected' by the mind we cannot appeal to reason to judge between true and false representations. All arguments must likewise be suspect, because the premisses are questionable. He therefore also rejected Stoic proofs for the existence of 'God' [b]; assumptions of a popular consensus that the universe is animate, or that there is a universal Reason, Spirit, or Designer, are all unprovable. Indeed the very notion of an animate yet material, virtuous, omniscient, and providential God is incoherent. If 'God' can feel and sense, he must ultimately disintegrate. How could he be courageous? How can he allow man, whom supposedly he endowed with reason, to misuse that faculty? If the omission was deliberate, such a being could not be virtuous: if it was unintentional he could not be the infinite reason. A Nature which is characterized by regularity must include evil — and this is real for man; a providential God could not be exonerated for its existence [c].

[2] Carneades rejected the idea of a complete suspension of judgement (the epoché) [a] and proposed a theory of probability which involved successive grades or approximations to the truth — depending on the number and kinds of supporting reasons. Certainty, however, can never be attained [b][b]. He also rejected determinism, arguing (1) that given the large number of chance events in Nature complete predictability is not possible; and (2) that human action stems from a will which is cause of itself and not subject to external physical chains of causality [c].

 

ETHICS

[3] Carneades says that virtue, understood as conformity to nature, is not an end in itself; and there are many other things which are not bad or morally indifferent (adiaphora) and which are desired, for example, reputation, pleasures [a]. He therefore advocates the "art of living", which involves the use of common sense and probabilities to satisfy impulses and desires [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The strength of Carneades' scepticism lies in his attacks on dogmatism in both epistemology and metaphysics. His recognition that total suspension of judgement is not possible and his introduction of a doctrine of probability went some way towards answering the criticism that a thoroughgoing scepticism would be liable to undermine human ethics and action. However, there is some dispute as to whether this probability should be understood in an epistemological sense rather than a purely psychological one, as the Greek term (to pithanon) can be translated as 'persuasion' as well as 'likelihood'. It is possible also that, while able to argue for any position, Carneades had no positive views of his own.

 

READING

[Carneades:] Long and Sedley, op. cit., chs 39-42; 68-70 passim.

General

J. Annas and J. Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism.

Collection of essays

M. F. Burnyeat (ed.), The Sceptical Tradition.

 

CONNECTIONS

Carneades

 

[1a 2b] Scepticism; probability and certainty

   Plato

   Pyrrho

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Plutarch

Sextus

Augustine

[4b secs 6-8]

[1a]

[1a]

[2a]

[1c 2a]

[2c 2d]

[2a b]

[1a d 2b]

 

[1b] Existence and nature of God — proofs

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Plutarch

Augustine

[3h]

[1d]

[1a b 2d]

[3a c]

 

[1c] Evil and providence

   Chrysippus

Augustine

[4b]

[5a b]

 

[2a] Partial suspension of belief (epoché)

   Pyrrho

Sextus

[1b]

[2c]

 

[2b] Probability and approximation to truth

Plutarch

Sextus

   Nicholas of Cusa

   Popper

[2c]

[2b]

[1b]

[1b c]

 

[2c] Freedom and action; rejection of determinism

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

Posidonius

Cicero

[2b]

[4a]

[3b]

[1b]

 

[3a] Virtue — nature

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

Cicero

[11d]

[4a]

[6c]

[2b]

 

[3b] Virtue — acquisition    Plato [11a b g]