Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.13

Anna Maria Ioppolo, La testimonianza di Sesto Empirico sull’accademia scettica.   Napoli:  Bibliopolis, 2009.  Pp. 273.  ISBN 9788870885743.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Diego E. Machuca, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (Argentina) (

Table of Contents

Anna Maria Ioppolo is probably the scholar who has worked the most on so-called Academic skepticism in the last three decades. The present book synthesizes, develops, and reinforces the views and arguments expounded in some of the learned studies she has published in this span of time. Its aim is to offer a detailed critical examination of the testimony on the philosophy of the skeptical Academy found in one of our two chief sources, Sextus Empiricus. It should be noted, though, that Ioppolo does not provide an analysis of all of Sextus’ references to the Academic skeptics. Rather, she focuses on the major part of the testimony on the two main representatives, Arcesilaus and Carneades. She thus does not examine Sextus’ arguments against astrology, some of which in all probability go back to Carneades (e.g., Adversus Mathematicos [AM] V 88-95), the series of sorites arguments against the existence of gods which he ascribes to Carneades (Adversus Dogmaticos [AD] III 182-90), or the brief but important report on the position of Philo of Larissa (Πυρρώνειοι Ὑποτυπώσεις [PH] I 235). Ioppolo’s task of critically analyzing the Sextan texts bearing upon the Academic skeptics is not an easy one. This is not only because ancient authors in general were not as concerned with historiographical objectivity and accuracy as we are, but also because Sextus takes pains to distinguish Pyrrhonism from other stances (e.g., PH I 1-4, AM I 1-6, V 49). In particular, he is interested in distinguishing pure, authentic Pyrrhonian skepticism from the positions of philosophers and schools that seem to bear strong similarities with Pyrrhonism in order to emphasize the originality of the Pyrrhonian philosophical outlook (PH I 210-41). Such an interest is all the more relevant in the case of the skeptical Academy, given the strong philosophical similarities and the historical connection between Academic and Pyrrhonian skepticism. The problem addressed by Ioppolo is thus whether Sextus is a reliable source for the actual outlooks of Arcesilaus and Carneades or whether, in reporting them, he is biased by his aim of showing the novelty of Pyrrhonism.

Besides a short introduction, the book’s main discussion is divided into three chapters: the first deals with the testimony on the skeptical Academy found in the first book of PH, while the second and third chapters explore, respectively, the testimony on Arcesilaus and Carneades found in the course of Sextus’ discussion of the criterion of truth in the first extant book of AD. The work also contains two appendices: in the first, Ioppolo argues that the view that all things are uncertain reported in Cicero’s Lucullus 32 is to be ascribed to Arcesilaus, while in the second she reproduces a paper on the interpretations of Socrates’ stance in the ancient skeptical traditions.1

Sextus devotes a long section at the end of PH I to explaining the differences between Pyrrhonism and its “neighboring” philosophies. In the first chapter, Ioppolo examines in particular the parts of this section dealing with the positions of the New Academy of Carneades and Clitomachus and the Middle Academy of Arcesilaus. But she also tackles at some length Sextus’ discussion of whether Plato can be deemed a “pure” skeptic. I will here focus on her analysis of Sextus’ treatment of the Academic skeptics.

With regard to the testimony on Carneades and Clitomachus (PH I 226-31), Ioppolo maintains that it is contaminated by Sextus’ intention to misrepresent a philosophy which bears a close resemblance with Pyrrhonism, with the sole aim of showing the latter’s originality. Despite what Sextus says, τὸ πιθανόν is not adopted by Carneades and his followers as an epistemic criterion, i.e., they do not claim that the appearances they regard as persuasive or probable are so objectively speaking. Rather, τὸ πιθανόν is only a practical criterion which they adopt for the conduct of life; it is their response to the ἀπραξία or inactivity objection, something which Sextus himself makes clear at AD I 166. Hence, the degree of credibility of appearances is entirely independent of objective truth or falsehood. The same distortion is found in Sextus’ claim that, when the members of the New Academy are persuaded by something, they give their assent to it, for he overlooks the Clitomachean distinction between assent and approval, the latter involving no commitment to the truth of the appearance regarded as persuasive.

As for Arcesilaus, Ioppolo is one of the few interpreters who recognize that Sextus accepts in propria persona the almost total identity between the Arcesilean stance and Pyrrhonism (PH I 232). Despite what some scholars persistently affirm, nowhere in PH does Sextus maintain that Arcesilaus was a dogmatist. For instance, he merely remarks that “someone might say” that a difference between the Skeptic and Arcesilaus is that the former says that partial suspensions of judgment are good and partial assents bad in accordance with the way things appear to him, whereas the latter says so in reference to the nature of things (PH I 233). There is, however, a certain unfounded vacillation in Ioppolo’s interpretation of Sextus’ attitude towards Arcesilaus. Not only does she claim that Sextus intends to present Pyrrhonism as utterly original and does not recognize any precursors in other schools (p. 12), but also that Sextus levels the charge of dogmatism against the whole Academy with the “ambiguous exception” of Arcesilaus (p. 13). She even considers it possible that Sextus reports the testimony on the esoterism of Arcesilaus (PH I 234) with the aim of diminishing or eliminating altogether the affinity between the Pyrrhonian and the Arcesilean philosophies (p. 52, cf. 79-80). However, as has just been noted, Sextus acknowledges that the Arcesilean stance is almost the same as Pyrrhonism and does not subscribe to the dogmatic interpretations of Arcesilaus.

The second chapter thoroughly examines Arcesilaus' criticism of the Stoic criterion of truth as it is presented in AD I 150-8. Ioppolo argues that, although Arcesilaus’ argumentation against the Stoics is described as being ad hominem, suspension of judgment is presented not only as the state the Stoics are forced to adopt if, as follows from their own doctrine, all things are inapprehensible, but also as a state which Arcesilaus adopts in propria persona. Indeed, the Sextan text says that “it will follow also according to the Stoic that the wise person suspends judgment” (AD I 155, my italics). The text also points to a difference between the ἀσυγκαταθετεῖν περὶ πάντων, which is the attitude the Stoic sage is forced to adopt if he does not want to hold opinions and which rests on a voluntaristic theory of assent, and the Academic ἐπέχειν περὶ πάντων, which presupposes no such theory (AD I 157). Ioppolo thinks, however, that Sextus’ testimony is intentionally ambiguous in not emphasizing this difference, thereby not clearly distinguishing between the dialectical anti-Stoic strategy and Arcesilaus’ own outlook. The same happens in the case of the report on Arcesilaus’ criterion of action, i.e., “the reasonable” (τὸ εὔλογον), since therein Sextus makes no reference to nature, which plays a key role in Plutarch’s account of Arcesilaus’ reply to the ἀπραξία charge in the Adversus Colotem.2 Since nature also plays a crucial part in the Pyrrhonist’s own response to that charge, Sextus would want to omit such a reference to nature in Arcesilaus in order to emphasize the originality of Pyrrhonism.3 A problem I see here is that, just as Sextus does not refer to nature, Plutarch does not refer to τὸ εὔλογον. So why think that the former is purposely leaving out part of the explanation of Arcesilaus’ practical criterion rather than, e.g., drawing from a source different from the one used by Plutarch? Let me finally note that Ioppolo maintains that the account given at AD I 150-8 is not, as usually thought, incompatible with that found at PH I 232-4, since in the former passage, too, Sextus seems to acknowledge that Arcesilaus is much closer to Pyrrhonism than the other Academics.

In the third chapter, devoted to the account of Carneades’ outlook on the criterion, Ioppolo points out the differences between this account and that of Arcesilaus’ stance. For example, whereas Arcesilaus directs his arguments against the Stoics, Carneades aims his at all philosophers, and whereas the former makes no concession to the Stoic criterion, the latter accepts the requirements for the criterion set by the Stoics. Ioppolo thinks that Sextus deliberately constructs his account of Carneades so as to show the differences between the two Academics rather than the similarities. In both cases, however, the argumentative strategy is exclusively dialectical. In addition, like Arcesilaus, Carneades felt the need to put forward in propria persona a criterion for the conduct of life and the attainment of happiness, namely, τὸ πιθανόν. Now, Ioppolo insists that the section AD I 159-89 gives an inconsistent account of Carneades’ outlook, since at times the πιθανῆ φαντασία is presented as a practical criterion and as something one simply “follows”, but at other times it is presented as an epistemic criterion and as something to which one “assents as being true”. Ioppolo thinks that this ambiguity is due both to Sextus’ deliberate attempt to misrepresent Carneades’ outlook and to his use of two different sources, the one expounding Clitomachus’ interpretation of Carneades and the other the interpretation defended by Philo and Metrodorus.

Ioppolo maintains that, whereas in PH I Sextus’ purpose is to distinguish Pyrrhonism from the positions of the different phases of the Academy, in AD I he presents Arcesilaus and Carneades as “negative dogmatists” (pp. 28, 34). I think this latter claim is unfounded. In the case of Carneades, the accusation of negative dogmatism is found only at PH I 2-4 and 226 in relation to the affirmation of the ἀκαταληψία of things; in the case of Arcesilaus, nowhere in the extant Sextan writings does one find the claim or the implication that he is a negative dogmatist. Ioppolo sees the position of negative dogmatism quite often. For instance, she claims that the dogmatic stance which, according to PH I 233, someone might ascribe to Arcesilaus amounts to negative dogmatism (pp. 52, 79), but we saw that in this passage there is no reference to a negative dogmatic position. She also sees a link between Sextus’ accusation that certain Academics are negative dogmatists and the fact that they accept τὸ πιθανόν (pp. 33, 39, 185). This is surprising because the mere claim that certain appearances are persuasive/probable is not by itself a piece of negative dogmatism.

This reference to the notion of τὸ πιθανόν allows me to make a final critical remark: Ioppolo talks indiscriminately of that which is “probable” and “persuasive” and of “probability” and “persuasion”. This seems problematic insofar as the choice between these terms depends upon the sense of τὸ πιθανόν, namely, whether it refers merely to what appears persuasive to someone or to what is probably true, i.e., likely to be true. Given Ioppolo’s insistence that Sextus’ criticism of Carneades is unfounded because the notion of τὸ πιθανόν is not epistemic but refers to merely subjective persuasiveness, I find it misleading to talk about “probability”. And I do not think this is solved by Ioppolo’s claim that the probable appearance is that whose subjective persuasiveness and credibility are increased on the basis of past experience (pp. 160, 172).

The production quality of the book is quite good; I have noticed a couple of errors in the dates of some of the works cited and a dozen typos, most in quotations of English passages. To conclude, just let me say that this is a must-read book for anyone concerned with Academic skepticism or its philosophical connections with Pyrrhonism, or with Sextus as a source.4


1.   “Socrate nelle tradizioni scettico-accademica e pirroniana”, in G. Giannantoni et alii (eds.), La tradizione socratica (Napoli: Bibliopolis, 1995).
2.   Ioppolo finds this difference problematic because she maintains that Arcesilaus put forward τὸ εὔλογον as a practical criterion in propria persona.
3.   Ioppolo claims that, in both PH I 23-4 and AD V 162-8, Sextus refers to nature in his explanation of the possibility of action without assent (p. 126). There is, however, no reference to nature in the latter passage.
4.   I would like to thank a BMCR editor for his useful suggestions.

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