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The New Academy's Appeals to the Presocratics

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Members of the New Academy presented their sceptical position as the culmination of a progressive development in the history of philosophy, which began when certain Presocratics started to reflect on the epistemic status of their theoretical claims concerning the natures of things. The Academics' dogmatic opponents accused them of misrepresenting the early philosophers in an illegitimate attempt to claim respectable precedents for their dangerous position. The ensuing debate over the extent to which some form of scepticism might properly be attributed to the Presocratics is reflected in various passages in Cicero's Academica. In this essay, we try to get clearer about the precise nature of the Academics' historical claim and their view of the general lesson to be learned from reflection on the history of philosophy down to their own time. The Academics saw the Presocratics as providing some kind of support for the thesis that things are non-cognitive, or, more specifically, that neither the senses nor reason furnishes a criterion of truth. As this view is susceptible to both 'dialectical' and non-dialectical readings, we consider the prospects for each. We also examine the evidence for the varied functions both of the Academics' specific appeals to individual Presocratics and of their collections of the Presocratics' divergent opinions. What emerges is a better understanding of why the Academics were concerned with claiming the Presocratics as sceptical ancestors and of the precise manner in which they advanced this claim.

Affiliations: 1: Dept. of Classics, Cornell University; 2: Dept of Philosophy, University of Florida


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