Carneades (214–129/8 BCE)

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(214129/8 BCE)

Carneades became scholarch of the Academy (Plato's school) sometime before 155 BCE, when he was sent to Rome along with the leaders of the Stoa and the Peripatos (Aristotle's school) to represent the interests of Athens before the senate. It was during the embassy to Rome that the most notorious episode in his life took place. According to tradition, Carneades delivered public lectures on succeeding days, defending justice on the first and arguing that it is a form of folly on the second day.

He was renowned in antiquity above all for the argumentative virtuosity that he displayed in the skeptical examination of views of other philosophers. For this he was indebted to the example of Arcesilaus, who had inaugurated the skeptical turn in the Academy in the third century BCE, which saw the examination of other schools' theories, especially the Stoa's, replace the elaboration of its own positive doctrines as the school's principal occupation. By common consent, Carneades brought this practice to its highest level. Until the dissolution of the school, which probably occurred under the scholarch Philo of Larissa, who left Athens for Rome in 88 BCE, philosophy in the Academy and among the philosophers in its orbit was dominated by Carneades and his legacy. He also stimulated Stoics such as Antipater of Tarsus to modify and refine their positions.

Carneades and the Academy

Like Arcesilaus and Socrates before him, Carneades wrote nothing, but exerted an influence on his students and contemporaries through his teaching and in-person practice of philosophical debate. What is known of him depends ultimately on works written by those who were in a position to observe him, especially Clitomachus, his student and, after an interval, successor as head of the Academy. None of these works have survived, but they were mined extensively by authors such as Cicero and Sextus Empiricus, whose books are available.

Carneades was credited in antiquity with founding the third or New Academy, which succeeded the second or Middle Academy of Arcesilaus and the old Academy of Plato and his immediate followers. Two new characteristics appear to set Carneades apart from his middle Academic predecessors. Ancient philosophers and modern historians of philosophy have credited him with a less skeptical attitude toward the possibility of well-founded beliefs, if not of certain knowledge. And the evidence shows that he tackled and sometimes defended views about a wider range of issuesnot only epistemology, but logic, ethics, natural philosophy, and theology as well. If the first of these is correct, the second comes as no surprise. A moderation of the Academy's skepticism would have opened the way for the suitably circumspect adoption of views in ethics, natural philosophy, and other areas.

Caution is in order, however. The Academics' arguments were in the first instance dialectical. They aimed to deduce conclusions unwelcome to an opponent from assumptions to which that opponent was committed, either because they were already explicitly incorporated in the opponent's theories or because they were for some other reason difficult for the opponent to reject. Without committing their authors to a position themselves, such arguments expose difficulties within the opponent's position and show that the opponent's claims to knowledge were not secure.

Carneades's practice of defending positive views, which at first appears to be a departure from the Academic tradition of dialectical argument, may instead be viewed as a continuation of it by other means. Arguments between the Academy and other schools often reached an impasse. The powerful case brought by the Academics against Stoic epistemology, for instance, elicited a formidable response. If the burden of proof belonged to the Academy, it had not proved its case; the Stoics were not obliged to concede all the premises of the Academy's arguments on pain of self-contradiction. On the other hand, by rejecting those premises, the Stoics often committed themselves to theses that were highly disputable and implausible. And they were not content merely to exhibit the consistency of their theories; they claimed that these theories were true, and that open-minded and intelligent auditors could be persuaded of this.

To this end, the Stoics now argued that the consequences of rejecting their position were unacceptable and that no alternative could do justice to the relevant considerations. If an argument of this kind were successful, the Stoics' opponents would be compelled to reevaluate their doubts. At a minimum, Carneades's positive proposals served to counter arguments of this kind by showing that there remained alternatives that his opponents were not in a position to exclude. Thus, although they were his in the sense of being his creations, Carneades's proposals need not have been his in the sense of expressing his convictions. Some of his theories seem to have been meant only to serve polemical purposes, others were considerably more substantial and deserve to be taken seriously in their own right. It is obvious that some of Carneades's successors did adopt positions of his; It is obvious that some of Carneades's successors adopted some of his theories as their own positions; it is less clear whether Carneades committed himself to these or any other theories.

Carneades's Skeptical Arguments

Like his Academic predecessors, Carneades argued for the two epistemological propositions for which ancient skepticism is most famous: that nothing can be known and that one ought therefore to suspend judgment about all matters. Strictly speaking, they argued that there are no cognitive impressions. The cognitive impression (kataleptikē phantasia ), the Stoics' criterion, is a perceptual impression that arises in conditions that both ensure that it is true and impart to it a clarity and distinctness that belong only to impressions produced in this way. By confining one's assent to cognitive impressions, one can avoid accepting any false perceptual impressions. Because this is a necessary condition for knowledge according to the Stoa, if there are no cognitive impressions, it follows for anyone who accepts Stoic epistemological views that nothing can be known. The Academy made its case by arguing that the special character of clarity and distinctness allegedly peculiar to the cognitive impression was not, in fact, confined to impressions that had arisen in the ideal conditions specified by the Stoa, but could in fact also belong to false impressions, which were therefore indistinguishable from impressions with the required truth-guaranteeing origin.

Carneades probably added to the stock of skeptical arguments that he had inherited, but the contribution to the debate for which he is best known came in response to the Stoics' counterarguments. In answer to their contention that, without cognitive impressions, human beings would be deprived of a basis for rational action as well as the possibility of wisdom, he developed a theory of probable impressions (from probabilis, that which invites approval, Cicero's Latin for the Greek pithanos, persuasive). The theory describes how one may discriminate among impressions by checking to see whether an initially persuasive impression agrees with one's other impressions or if there is anything about the conditions in which it arose that casts doubt on it. Depending on the amount of time available and the importance of the matter at issue, one may perform more or fewer such checks. No amount of checking is sufficient to eliminate the possibility of error, but it will be possible to achieve the degrees of confidence required in different circumstances to make rational action and theoretical inquiry possible. The theory is an early instance of fallibilism.

This account of probable impressions is behind the views that Carneades defended about assent. Sources reveal that he sometimes argued that the wise person will withhold assent, but be able to act and inquire by going along with probable impressions in a way that does not amount to assent; whereas on other occasions, Carneades maintained that the wise person will assent and so form opinions, but with the proviso that he may be wrong. The first view, championed by Clitomachus, is the classical skeptical stance that influenced the other ancient school of skeptics, the Pyrrhonists. The second, which was favored by Philo of Larissa among others, gave rise to a form of probabilism, which is the other legacy of the New Academy.


In ethics Carneades was famous for describing a framework that allegedly classified not only all the views about the goal of life that had been held, but also all those that could be held. He starts with the assumption that practical wisdom must have an object, and one toward which human beings have a natural impulse. He identifies three possibilities: pleasure, freedom from pain, and natural advantages such as health and strength. The principle of virtue is to act with a view to obtaining one of these. There are six simple views, depending on whether the goal is merely to act with a view to obtaining one of the three candidate objects or actually to obtain it. Three further combined views take the goal to be a combination of virtue and actually obtaining the corresponding object. The Stoic position, that virtue is the only good, appears third on the list as the view that the goal is acting with a view to obtaining the natural advantages whether one obtains them or not. At different times Carneades defended the view that the goal is actually to obtain the natural advantages or the view that it is a combination of virtue and pleasure. His aim seems to have been to challenge the Stoics by showing that the considerations captured by the framework do not all point to their view. Carneades's division influenced his successors and through Cicero the understanding of Hellenistic ethical theory.

Other issues that attracted Carneades's attention include Stoic and Epicurean views about fate and moral responsibility and Stoic theology, against the last of which he used a series of Sorites arguments to show that the Stoics could not consistently set any bounds to the divine, so that on their view everything threatened to become divine.

See also Ancient Skepticism; Arcesilaus; Greek Academy.


texts of carneades

Mette, H. J. "Weitere Akademiker heute Von Lakydes bis zu Kleitomachos." Lustrum 27 (1985): 39148.

studies of carneades

Algra, Keimpe. "Chrysippus, Carneades, Cicero: The Ethical Divisiones in Cicero's Lucullus." In Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero's Academic Books, edited by Brad Inwood and Jaap Mansfeld. Utrecht, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Allen, James. "Academic Probabilism and Stoic Epistemology." Classical Quarterly, n.s., 44 (1994): 85113.

Allen, James. "Carneadean Argument in Cicero's Academic Books." In Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero's Academic Books, edited by Brad Inwood and Jaap Mansfeld. Utrecht, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Bett, Richard. "Carneades' Distinction between Assent and Approval." Monist 73 (1990): 320.

Burnyeat, Myles. "Gods and Heaps." In Language and Logos: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy Presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Malcolm Schofield and Martha Craven Nussbaum. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Frede, Michael. "The Sceptic's Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge." In Philosophy in History, edited by Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Reprinted in Michael Frede's Essays in Ancient Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Frede, Michael. "Stoics and Skeptics on Clear and Distinct Impressions." In The Skeptical Tradition, edited by Myles Burnyeat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Schofield, Malcolm. "Academic Epistemology." In The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, edited by Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld, and Malcolm Schofield. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Striker, Gisela. "Sceptical Strategies." In Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, edited by Malcolm Schofield, Myles Burnyeat, and Jonathan Barnes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

James Allen (2005)