Course Description

The Hellenistic philosophers (the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academic Skeptics) take their name from the Hellenistic Age, the period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 to the end of the Roman Republic in 31 BCE. This is not a period in philosophy, but the Hellenistic philosophers share a feature that makes it reasonable to think of them as a group within the ancient philosophical tradition. They are united by their critical reaction to what they thought were the excesses of the prior classical tradition, the tradition of Plato and Aristotle. This critical reaction begins to disintegrate around 100 BCE as non-skeptical forms of Platonism undergo a resurgence and eventually gives rise to Christianity. This disintegration traditionally marks the end of the Period of Schools.

The primary subject of this course is the debate between the Stoics and the Academic Skeptics about the nature and possibility of knowledge. Zeno of Citium (334-262) founded the Stoic school in about 300. The name comes from their meeting place in the Ποικίλη Στοά. Academic Skepticism begins in 265 BCE with Arcesilaus, who succeeded Crates as the sixth head of the school Plato founded in 387. Zeno and his followers changed the emphasis in the school. The focus in the Academy had been on the details of the otherworldly perspective that Plato explores in parts of the corpus. Zeno returned to the viewpoint of Socrates. The Stoics also thought of themselves as followers of Socrates, but they understood Socrates differently. Socrates' questioning seemed to show that nobody had the knowledge required for a good life, but he did not resign himself to his ignorance. The Stoics thought this knowledge was difficult to obtain but possible, and in working out this view they thought of themselves as following Socrates. The Academic Skeptics were skeptical about the possibility of this knowledge. They pressed the Stoics in questioning in the way Socrates questioned his interlocutors.

(A στοά is a roofed colonnade. The Ποικίλη Στοά was a particular roofed colonnade that derived its name from its murals. It was located at the north-west corner of the Agora, the central square in Athens.)

Steps of the Poikile Stoa
West end steps of the Ποικίλη Στοὰ. In the foreground is part of the foundation
for the Hellenistic Gate, which allowed access to the Agora from the north.

This course is a study of the reasons the Stoics and the Academic Skeptics had for their positions. The primary emphasis is historical, but we will also explore some of the connections between the ancient dispute and contemporary epistemology. In addition to the dispute between the Stoics and the Academic Skeptics, we will consider the line of thought according to which knowledge is to be understood in terms of memory. This line of thought is part of the empiricist tradition that Plato and Aristotle mention and that it is tempting to see in the Epicureans.

Course Details

The final grade for the course is a function of participation in the seminar (50%), a bibliography project (25%), and a final paper (25%). Participation consists in presentations posted to the class for each of the units in the class. The presentation is an analysis of an aspect of one of the readings for the unit. The bibliography project is a summary of the arguments in five journal articles or book chapters connected to the reading in the seminar. You will need to use a library or other resource to find these articles or book chapters. The paper is a research project. You must state and argue for thesis in connection with a problem or argument from the reading. Participation in the seminar and the bibliography project are preparation for the paper. Each of the 5 presentations is worth 10 points, so the presentations are worth 50 points. The bibliography project is worth 25 points. The paper is worth 25 points. There is no extra credit. The point total determines the final letter grade: A+ (100-97), A (96-94), A- (93-90), B+ (89-87), B (86-84), B- (83-80), C+ (79-77), C (76-70), D (69-60), E (59-0).

Incompletes are given only to accommodate serious illnesses and family emergencies, which must be adequately documented.


Course Itinerary

Unit 1. The Stoic theory of knowledge.

Excerpts from The Hellenistic Philosophers (A.A Long & D.N. Sedley)
"Stoic epistemology" (Michael Frede)
"Stoics and Skeptics on Clear and Distinct Impressions" (Michael Frede)


Unit 2. The Academic Skeptics.

Excerpts from The Hellenistic Philosophers (A.A Long & D.N. Sedley)
"The sceptics" (Michael Frede)
"Academic epistemology" (Malcolm Schofield)
"Introduction," On Academic Scepticism (Charles Brittain)


Unit 3. Belief and knowledge in skeptical tradition.

Excerpts from The Hellenistic Philosophers (A.A Long & D.N. Sedley)
"The Skeptic's Beliefs" (Michael Frede)
"The Skeptic's Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge" (Michael Frede)

"Does the skeptic have any beliefs" (3.4) from "Sextus Empiricus," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Unit 4. What Clitomachus might have had in mind.

"Epistemolgical Nonfactualism and the Aproricity of Logic" (Hartry Field)
"Apriority as an Evaluative Notion" (Hartry Field)


Unit 5. The rejection of the classical notion of reason.

"An empiricist view of knowledge: memorism" (Michael Frede)



Contact Information

Thomas A. Blackson
Philosophy Faculty
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356
PO Box 874302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-4302
blackson@asu.edu, tab.faculty.asu.edu, www.public.asu/~blackson