Michel Foucault, L’herméneutique du sujet: Cours au Collège de France (1981–198). Paris: Éditions du Seuil-Gallimard, 2001; The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, trans. G. Burchell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 

In his first lecture on The Hermeneutics of the Subject at the Collège de France, January 6, 1982, Foucault raises an intriguing question for those who work in the area of early Hellenistic philosophy.  In Foucault’s view, the historiography of ancient Greek philosophy has not attached much importance to the notion of epimeleia heautou (“care of the self”).  When exploring questions concerning the relation between the self and truth in the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon and Plato, historiographers tend to emphasize Socrates’ invocation of the Delphic inscription gnôthi seauton (“know yourself”) and marginalize the Socratic principle of “care of the self.”  Foucault’s view of the historiography of ancient philosophy  is, and will certainly remain, contentious.  But there is one area of recent historiography that seems to illustrate the legitimacy of his view: the early Hellenistic Academy, and the transition in Academic teaching from Polemo to Arcesilaus.  

The prevailing view of these early decades of the Hellenistic Academy among recent historiographers attributes a “revolution” or “radical change of direction” to the Academy under the directorship of Arcesilaus.  According to current consensus, Arcesilaus initiates the change shortly after Zeno of Citium (ca. 333–264 BCE) begins to teach and attract his own entourage of disciples, in the stoa poikilê near the agora at Athens around the beginning of the third century BCE.  One scholar prefers the phrase “radical change of direction” to describe the attack Arcesilaus set in motion against Zeno’s doctrine of cognitive certainty.   From Cicero (Academica 1.43–6, 2.59–60, 76–8) and Sextus Empiricus (Adversus Mathêmatikos 7.150-158) we learn that Arcesilaus’ polemic with early Stoic theory was an important component of his philosophical activity, along with a return to a Socratic form of question and answer that typically ends in his own aporia.  Plato’s Socrates more than once said something to the effect that his own claim to knowledge would just be that he was aware of the fact that he did not know anything.   One important consequence of Socrates’ own personal quest for self-knowledge, of coming to know oneself, is that he claimed not to know anything.  Many scholars take Socrates to refer his scepticism to the issues discussed by the philosophers of nature, but also and more primarily to the issues concerning the ethical questions Plato presents him as discussing in his so-called early dialogues.  Arcesilaus’ position, however, seems to radicalize Socratic profession of ignorance.  Cicero infers that Arcesilaus went further than Socrates in denying what Socrates apparently claimed: the possibility of knowing that he knew nothing.  To many historiographers, it seems to be a reliable strategy to explain the Hellenistic Academy’s change of direction on the basis of evidence that illuminates his attack on the possibility of knowledge in general.  

The question of ethics in the relation between the self and truth, and with it the notion of care of the self, has almost no role in the study of the early phases of the Hellenistic Academy: from Polemo, the longest serving scholarch of the ancient Academy, to Arcesilaus, the scholarch who returns to the inconclusive and aporetic method of Socratic questioning in his polemic with Zeno and the Stoa.  Now it seems to me, in one specific area at least, that Foucault’s brief remarks on the historiography of ancient philosophy may be legitimate as it applies to Academic philosophy in the early Hellenistic period, even though he issued those remarks without having focused on the question of Academic ethics after Plato and prior to Carneades.  Now the question that Foucault compels us to ask is whether the fragmentary evidence for Polemo and Arcesilaus permits the marginalization of ethics in the Academy’s turn to skepticism that has become so standard in recent historiography.


You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *