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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8 Responses to Whose Premises Should One Check?

  1. Tomas Blomstrand says:

    That if important people do something, it must be right?

  2. Filip Björner says:

    “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!”

    Paraphrase 1: “Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for Ayn Rand 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!”

    Paraphrase 2: “Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for reality 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!”

    The second paraphrase states a basic premise — respect reality. This premise is a fundamental premise for any rational person (weather such a person have any knowledge of Objectivism or not.)

    The first paraphrase is also correct. No person can have disrespect for Ayn Rand and dare to call himself an Objectivist, sinse that is the name of her philosophy. (And this would be true even if Ayn Rand had had any flaws in her philosophy. Yes… it would actually be true even if some of her philosophical ideas had contradicted reality.)

    The real quoted, and not paraphrased, statement is in this respect not as clear cut as the two paraphrases sinse Leonard Peikoff is not Ayn Rand. He is her philosophical heir. Objectivism is therefore not the name of a philosophy invented by him.

    But… Leonard Peikoff is still the best student of Ayn Rand (acording to my personal judgement, no matter what others think about that), and therefore respecting Leonard Peikoff comes pretty close to respecting Ayn Rand as well as respecting reality because (acording to my personal judgement again) Leonard Peikoff is normally right when he makes statements about Objectivism and about reality.

    Of course “respecting Ayn Rand” or “respecting Leonard Peikoff” for a rational mind can never be a substitute for “respecting reality”.

    Now… if one do not share my judgements about Leonard Peikoff, as Per-Olof Samuelsson obviously do not do, then “respecting Leonard Peikoff” will not be a premise close to “respecting reality” — because, for a rational mind “respecting reality” always must come first.

    And… the difference in my premises and Per-Olof Samuelssons in this context is our different views on the ARI-TJS-conflict. And my judgement of that schism is that none of the evidence in it was conclusive enough for a side taking, while Per-Olof thinks that there was evidence pro TJS and against ARI.

    Thats it.

  3. Per-Olof, as you know, I’ve read several or your excellent correspondence (including private letters to me, which shall remain confidential) regarding the George Reisman and Edith Packer attack by ARI and came to agree with you completely. I also wrote, at that time, a 24 page paper in their defense, dated March 27, 1995. At the end of my extensive analysis I came to the conclusions: “that the charges [made against George and Edith] are [entirely] without substance. [And] that, contrary to the judgments of the directors of ARI, George and Edith’s actions were not only moral, but were honest, responsible and courageous as well.” I believe that an extended extract from the Postscript section of that paper is relevant here:

    ————————————————————————————
    Just as one must not accept ideas on faith, neither should one accept moral judgments on faith. Anyone who does so or demands that we do so cannot be regarded as an Objectivist. Above all, one must demand proof of any moral judgment and must never surrender ones values or judgment to moral intimidation. The “Argument from Intimidation,” as Ayn Rand has called it, is implicit in the question that begins this postscript. It amounts to the assertion, “Only an immoral or disrespectful person would question the unanimous judgments of such esteemed individuals.” Implicit in the assertion is a smear against anyone who would question or demand evidence for any judgment offered by a trusted authority. In this sense, all Arguments from Intimidation are implicit smears and conversely, as Ayn Rand has said:

    ‘All smears are Arguments from Intimidation: they consist of derogatory assertions without any evidence or proof, offered as a substitute for evidence or proof, aimed at the moral cowardice or unthinking credulity of the hearers….

    When one gives reasons for one’s verdict, one assumes responsibility for it and lays oneself open to objective judgment… But to condemn without giving reasons in an act of irresponsibility, a kind of moral “hit-and-run” driving, which is the essence of the Argument from Intimidation. [From “The Argument from Intimidation,” reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness, published by The New American Library, 1964, p. 197]’

    This issue is especially important when it comes to judging the character on another person, for we must never allow ourselves to be intimidated into passively accepting the moral judgments of authorities. Courage, honesty and integrity require that we demand to see the evidence and hear the proof of all moral judgments. A rational person will always be willing to offer such proof. To demand evidence is not equivalent to questioning the integrity of the accuser, for this would imply that cross-examination of a witness or plaintiff should ipso facto be interpreted as character assassination.

    Judging the character of another, as Ayn Rand has pointed out, requires an arduous, exacting, ruthless, objective process of investigation and proof based on standards and principles of truth and justice.

    ‘To judge means: to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. It is not an easy task;… It is a task that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person. When one pronounces moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer “Why?” and to prove one’s case–to oneself and to any rational inquirer. [From “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society,” reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness, published by The New American Library, 1964, p. 91]’

    In the end, each of us must hold court in his own mind. When we hear those whom we admire attacked and denounced, then in the name of truth, justice and integrity, we must each take the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, drawing our own objective conclusions and passing judgment on both the accusers and the accused based on our own rational assessment of the evidence available to us.
    ————————————————————————————

    Very best regards,
    Jack

  4. Thanks to both Filip and Jack for your comments. I may have something to say about them later, but today I have other things to attend to.

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