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Sounds Plausible? The Philosophy of Carneades

Will Buckingham
6 min readApr 5


The philosopher Carneades advocated giving up on ideas of truth and the good life, arguing that we should focus instead on what is plausible.

Obsession and self-medication

The philosopher Carneades was born in Cyrene, home of the Cyrenaic philosophers, sometime around 214 BCE. Like many philosophers of his day in the Greek-speaking world, he moved to Athens so that he could further his studies.

Contemporary accounts of Carneades paint him as an obsessive, single-minded type. He was so engrossed by his studies that he didn’t cut his nails or his hair, and he had to be persuaded to eat because otherwise he would simply forget. Other accounts (not necessarily reliable, but entertaining all the same) say that before engaging in debate, he would lightly poison himself with a dose of hellebore, a toxic plant, so his mind could be sharper.

In Athens, Carneades became a student of the Stoic philosopher Diogenes of Babylon, a pupil of the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. Carneades was profoundly influenced by the work of Chrysippus and the doctrines of the Stoics, but eventually, he found his philosophical home in the Platonic Academy.

Don’t try this at home: Four types of hellebore (Helleborus species): flowering stems and floral segments. Coloured lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

The Sceptical Academy

By the time Carneades turned up in Athens, the Academy was under the sway of sceptical doctrines, thanks to the philosopher Arcesilaus. Arcesilaus had become head of the Academy in 266 BCE, several decades before Carneades’s birth. And he gave the Platonic tradition a sceptical tinge that it maintained for the next century and a half. Arcesilaus may have been influenced in part by the scepticism of Pyrrho, but his scepticism finds deeper roots in the tradition stemming from Socrates.

Socrates sought to call into question our claims to knowledge, particularly about ethical issues. For Socrates, even if the goal of truth seems far off, philosophy can nevertheless undermine our ill-founded arguments, and free us from the more egregious forms of error. Arcesilaus took seriously Socrates’s attempts to call our knowledge claims into question, but he pushed it…



Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham