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History of Ancient Epistemology


Richard Carrier

Copyright 2000, all rights reserved.


What follows is an ongoing project, of which only the first installment is now available, but more will be added as promised over the coming years. In the end, what you will find here is a complete summary of the rise and development of philosophy, and in particular epistemology (the theory of knowledge, the groundwork for a scientific method) from its beginnings to the end of the 4th century C.E. [1], written by an expert in ancient science (B.A., M.A., M.Phil.).


It is universally agreed that the distinct field of epistemology originated in ancient Greece, and that is why we begin there. What are the philosophical roots of our modern science? How did they develop–and why? These are the questions that will be answered here. Why provide such an account? To understand the reasons we believe or don’t believe, and the methods we use to prove or refute, we must understand the history of skepticism and doubt, and ultimately of belief-formation and justification–in other words, the history of the human theory of knowledge, which is the subject of that branch of philosophy called epistemology. We can never completely understand what good reasoning “is” unless we understand where it came from, and why it came to us at all. And more importantly, if we want to foster the growth of reason, and fight those social, political and cultural factors that would bury rational and scientific principles, we had better be versed in the historical contexts that allowed reason to arise and flourish, and then to all but vanish. Indeed, simply to understand the nature of the dominant religion in the West (Christianity) and its intellectual opponents (the atheists, deists, and other so-called ‘infidels’) it is helpful to understand the intellectual milieu in which this religion was born.

Note to readers: Every page of this survey ends with a bibliography of those books which, taken together, argue for the story I tell. They are my sources most accessible to you. But I will be happy to take questions from those who have reason to doubt the truth of any claim made here. In response, I will cite more specifically the sources and evidence that support my presentation, and add that response as a footnote to the text. In this way the project will slowly grow over time into something even more useful than it already is.

Table of Contents

1. The Origins of Greek Philosophy [ 21K ]

2. The Milesians, Eleatics, and their Critics [In Progress]

3. The Sophists and Socrates

4. The Legacy of Socrates: Plato and Aristotle

5. Alexander & Alexandria: Dawn of the Hellenistic Schools

6. Philosophy & Epistemology in the Early Roman Period: from Republic to Empire

7. Judaeo-Christian Epistemology and its Evolution from Paul to Origen

8. The Decline of Empiricism: the Victories of Christianity and Neoplatonism


[1] I will use throughout this project the C.E. / B.C.E. notation for year. C.E. (the Common Era, or the Christian Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common or Christian Era) replace Anno Domini (“In the Year of the Lord”) and Before Christ. I am not personally dogmatic about this, since it has advantages and disadvantages. The distinction is more secular and international, but less traditional and familiar.