Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.08.17

Richard Bett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xii, 380.  ISBN 9780521697545.  $33.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Eugene V. Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University, Russia (


The companion is very satisfying and instructive reading which I would certainly recommend to advanced students of ancient philosophy. Although a detailed analysis of the content is hardly necessary for introductory books of this sort, a few notes are still in order.

The book is subdivided into three parts. Quite naturally, the first part (pp. 11-142) consists of a series of chapters that outline ancient skepticism in its historical development, from its antecedents in early Greek philosophy to the late stages found in Sextus Empiricus. The second part isolates major topics and problems, such as skeptical attitudes to belief, action and ethical problems, contrasts Academics and Pyrrhonists, and discusses the Pyrrhonian attitude to medicine and liberal arts. The last part (“Beyond Antiquity”) outlines sceptical influences from Late Antiquity to Descartes. One is left to wonder, however, why the volume does not trace these influences one step further up to modernity and outline the contemporary trends in the scholarship on the subject, at least in a conclusion.

Even the most dogmatic theologian sometimes suspends his judgment, while the most austere skeptic in his attempts to avoid philosophy philosophizes. Still, with certain reservations, one can discern the elements of scepticism properly so speaking before the Hellenistic period, which is wonderfully done in chapter 1 (pp. 13-35). Here Mi-Kyoung Lee first analyses some sceptical arguments of metaphysical and epistemological nature in Early and Classical Greek philosophy (difficulties in determining how things really are; variability and conflicting appearances; contradictionism, flux and indeterminacy; and ‘proto-sceptical arguments’) and, then presents early objections to the sceptical ideas.

In chapter 2 (pp. 36-57), Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson addresses the little which can be safely attributed to the founder of skepticism, Pyrrho, and his immediate followers. Yet the figures that emerge from available testimonies are more then just distant historical sources for a developed version of skepticism introduced by Aenesidemus. Taken in its historical context, Pyrrho’s teachings appear to differ remarkably from the later developments.

The next two chapters are devoted to the skeptical Academy. In chapter 3 (pp. 58-80), Harald Thorsrud first introduces the dialectical method and ‘practical criterion’ of Arcesilaus (both of which emerged in polemics with the Stoics), and then considers dialectical and fallibilist interpretations of Carneades’ ‘practical criterion’, opting for the second, which in effect means that Carneades restricted the scope of epoche’, allowing fallible beliefs, thus paving the way for a prospective turn to dogmatism. Various external and internal circumstances, including the lack of authentic texts, brought the academy after long and productive scholarchate of Carneades to the period of decline. This complicated story is outlined by Carlos Le/vy in chapter 4 (pp. 81-104). I would notice, however, that Carneades, who had not written a philosophical work, is attested to produce certain letters, unfortunately, of unknown nature. At any rate his followers and epigones (Zeno of Alexandria and Clitomachus, etc.) did not add much to the tradition and all their literary production is lost. The controversial figure of Philo of Larisa has received recently much attention. Analysing his contribution, Lévy notes that Philo’s major innovation was clearly his shifting epoche from an absolute to a relative status, but, contrary to Tarrant and other scholars, he think that attempts to see the beginning of Middle Platonism in Philo are based on shaky ground (p. 88: ‘there is no indication that renewed the doctrine of Forms’). The chapter ends with ‘three non-standard cases’: Favorinus, Augustine, and Petrus Valentia.

Chapter 5 (p. 105-119) by R. Hankinson concerns Aenesidemus, whose attempt to distance his teaching from Academic skepticism resulted in a new Pyrrhonism: while the Academics make negative dogmatic claims, the sceptics suspend judgments about everything. But how can a sceptic can even express his own scepticism? The rest of chapter contains a detailed analysis of the evidence on Aenesidemus’ position in Sextus and ‘according to Heractitus’ (also in Sextus).

Chapter 6 (pp. 120-142) by Pierre Pellegrin is devoted to our major source for ancient scepticism – Sextus Empiricus. Having first the outlined life and work of Sextus, he turns to certain peculiarities of this highly problematic text, such as variant approaches to the sceptical suspension of judgment and major characteristics of sceptical discourse (non-assertive speech). The chapter ends with analysis of several discrepancies in the Sextan writings which put into question both the unity and relative chronology of the corpus.

The second part of the book opens with a paper by Casey Perin on scepticism and belief (ch. 7, pp. 145-164), first in Arcesilaus and the Academy and then in the Pyrrhonian literature. The so-called apraxia challenge (inability for a skeptic to act) is discussed in chapter 8 (pp. 165-180) by Katja M. Vogt. She first considers Academic approaches to the problem and then turns to Sextus and the Pyrrhonian way of life, which is certainly a good transition to the skeptical attitudes to ethics, further presented by Richard Bett (ch. 9, pp. 181-194). In her “Academics versus Pyrrhonists, reconsidered” Gisela Striker (ch. 10, pp. 195-207) engages in a detailed discussion of the criterion of action (the ‘inactivity argument’), only to reach a predictable conclusion that, because the Academics returned to a more or less dogmatic philosophy after Carneades, the Pyrrhonists had chosen to remain outsiders and take the extreme position well reflected in Sextus. The problems of belief and action belong, according to Paul Woodruff (ch. 11, pp. 208-231), to a more general problem of Pyrrhonian hygiene. He starts with general remarks on sceptical strategies, and then engages in analysis of all variants of the sceptical argumentative devices, such as the Ten Pyrrhonian Modes, the Five Agrippan Modes, and the Eight tropoi against causal explanation attributed to Aenesidemus, and proposes the Platonic or Socratic mode of refutation as a possible root of all the Pyrrhonian Modes.

James Allen’s contribution on Pyrrhonism and medicine (ch. 12, pp. 232-248) focuses on the polemics among medical schools in Antiquity: the Rationalists, the Empiricists and the Methodists. The texts discussed are Galen and Sextus. Chapter 13 (pp. 249-264), on Pyrrhonism and the specialized sciences, by Emidio Spinelli covers material touched upon elsewhere in the book only occasionally, and traces the ways Sextus tries to shake the theoretical foundations of various liberal arts (tekhnai).

If the reader now goes to chapter 14 (pp. 267-287), written by Luciano Floridi, she will be able to trace the history of scepticism among the medieval Greeks, Latins, and Arabs up to the Renaissance; the story is marked by an almost complete loss of memory and misrepresentation, especially of Pyrrhonian scepticism. This is obviously not the case with the Renaissance scholars and philosophers from Plethon and Filelfo (15th c.) to Henricus Stephanus and Montaigne (16th c.). The Renaissance rediscovery of scepticism in its ethical and religious dimension reached its completion with epistemological developments at the end of the period, and finally underwent a radical transformation in Cartesian philosophy, addressed in chapter 15 (pp. 288-313). Having distinguished nine major points of contrast between Sextus and Descartes, Michael Williams in his valuable paper then analyses what he calls a sceptical stance, its nature, structure, and the ways Descartes transformed the ancient skeptical models.

The book includes a bibliography that is very detailed, comprehensive, and perfectly structured (which is not always the case with such 'companions'); it lists and occasionally annotates the primary and secondary sources, major specialized articles, and reviews (pp. 314-345). I would not however omit Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Greek Philosophers of the Hellenistic Age (Authorized English translation by Gregory Woods; New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), which contains fine chapters on Scepticism.

In sum, the volume is very well written and produced. I have noticed only occasional misprints: p. 108: a comma is missing ("Democrites Plato, and probably Pyrrho as well"); p. 253: epecho instead of epoche. The companion is hardly an introductory book for unsophisticated reader: it is clearly directed to experienced students seriously interested in Scepticism and requires some knowledge of epistemology, logic and the history of Greek and Roman philosophy. It can therefore be recommended as a supplementary reading for graduate students, and will certainly be of value not only to specialists in the field but also to a broader readership with some interest and expertise in the history of philosophy.

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