Whose Premises Should One Check?

There is a new site up on the web, called Checking Premises. Its stated purpose is:

This site is being created by serious students and proponents of Objectivism in response to the danger that some, who may seem in agreement with the philosophy, are in fact subverting it.

So who is subverting Objectivism? Judging by the content so far, the main culprit is Diana Hsieh of Noodle Food fame; but since the site is new, there may be other culprits in the future; I might even have the honor of being picked out myself.

Now, I myself have at least one serious disagreement with Diana Hsieh, and, since she is criticized for criticizing Leonard Peikoff, I should say I have a far more serious disagreement with Leonard Peikoff. But I will leave those brawls aside and simply ask the question whose premises one should check, one’s own or everybody else’s?

The origin of the phrase “check your premises”, as I am sure you already know, is this exchange in Atlas Shrugged between Hugh Akston and Dagny Taggart:

There is only one helpful suggestion that I can give you: By the essence and nature of existence, contradictions cannot exist. If you find it inconceivable that an invention of genius should be abandoned among ruins, and that a philosopher should wish to work as a cook in a diner – check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

“Check your premises” is what Dr. Akston says – not “check any premise that someone may hold”.

Am I nit-picking and marking words here? I think not. Premise checking can only be performed in the privacy of one’s own mind. (Neither, by the way, should one spend every waking hour checking one’s premises; one should do it when discovering or sensing some contradiction in one’s own thinking.)

As a rule, other people’s premises are not available to you. The exception is if the other person clearly states some premise of his. So if someone tells you that “it is impossible to have knowledge about true reality” (I’m sure you know which philosopher I’m paraphrasing), then you know his premise. But is it even necessary to check it? Not unless you yourself hold this premise. (If you even read this, I assume you don’t.)

If the other person’s premises are not explicitly stated but merely implicit, one may of course wonder what his hidden premises are. But this is “philosophical detection” rather than “premise checking”. You are not checking the person’s premises, you are merely trying to figure out what they are.

Here is one small exercise in philosophical detection: I once received a letter from a prominent Objectivist containing the following line:

…you might want to check your premises and ask yourself why three different ARI Boards of Directors took retaliatory action against [two persons] and why virtually every other prominent Objectivist ceased dealing with [them] over the years …

Can you find the hidden premise here?

Update April 14, 2012: As I said above, I do not always agree with Diana Hsieh, but I do agree with her latest blog post on this controversy, Private Judgments and Cults of Personality. Just one reflexion:

Against what should one check one’s premises? The obvious answer is: reality. But is this the premise checking premise of the “Checking Premises” web site? No. Judging from their criticisms of Diana Hsieh, one should first and foremost check one’s own premises against Leonard Peikoff’s thoughts,  statements and premises. What else is the meaning of a statement like this:

Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for Leonard Peikoff and should demand nothing less from their friends and cohorts who also call themselves Objectivists. To fail to do so is an act of injustice!

You can read Diana’s answer to this. As for myself, I lost every shed of respect for Leonard Peikoff after what he did to the Reismans (and, as a consequence, to me) in the mid-90s. If that makes me an “enemy to Objectivism”, then so be it.

And now, I will try to stay out of all those personal quarrels and controversies and focus on the only thing that should matter to me: my own life.

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