Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Principia Philosophiae: On the Nature of Philosophical Principles

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Principia Philosophiae: On the Nature of Philosophical Principles

Article excerpt


FOR PLATO, PRINCIPLES WERE THE ROOT-SOURCE (archai) of being or of knowledge. (1) For Aristotle, they were the "first cause" of being, of becoming, or of being known (hothen he estin he gignetai he gignosketai). (2) Much the same conception is at issue in Thomas of Aquinas, for whom a principle (principium) was something primary in the being of a thing, or in its becoming, or in knowledge of it (quod est primum aut in esse rei ... aut in fieri rei, ... aut in rei cognitione). (3) As standard philosophical usage has evolved in the light of these ideas, a principle is as something basic--as a fundamentum (Latin) or arche (Greek). It either admits no proof (is axiomatic) or it needs not proof (is obvious and self-evident). Moreover, it must be abstract by way of applying to a broad range of cases. Thus, all concerned seem agreed that principles are fundamental generalities governing our understanding of the modus operandi of some knowledge-accessible domain.

Against this background, a specifically philosophical principle, in the sense of the term that is to be at issue here, is a general instruction for cogent philosophizing, a maxim that lays down a methodological rule for philosophical practice. It is not a philosophical thesis or doctrine that purports to answer to some substantive philosophical question. Instead, it is a rule of practice that specifies a modus operandi, a way of proceeding in the course of philosophizing. A methodological principle of this sort is thus to philosophy what a maxim like "always keep your promises" is to morality. It represents a guideline to be followed if error is to be avoided. Such methodological principles are general rules of procedure, flamed in terms of maxims that prescribe the appropriateness or inappropriateness of different ways of proceeding in philosophizing. (4)

Scientific theorists from G. W. Leibniz to Kurt Godel have maintained that a proper understanding of nature requires knowing not just its laws but also the underlying principles that characterize the operation of these laws and that such progress consists not just in having more laws but in extending our knowledge of the higher principles at issue. Now be this insistence on the primacy of principles as it may in the context of scientific knowledge, there is certainly good reason to think it correct in philosophy. Here our understanding clearly hinges not simply on the instruction of theses and doctrines, but on grasping the underlying principles within whose frame of reference such substantive dealings are articulated in the first place.

To be sure, within philosophy one of course encounters a profusion of principles. In ethics there is the "principle of utility" holding that the rightness of an action lies in its capacity to conduce to the greatest good of the greatest number, or in natural philosophy we have the "principle of causality" holding that every event has a cause, or in epistemology the "principle of truth" that only what is true can be said to be known to someone: ([??]x)Kxp [right arrow] p. But such principles are principles in philosophy not principles of philosophy, that is, they are not procedural principles of philosophizing of the sort that concern us here. (5)

Philosophical principles have long played a role in this discipline. Let us consider some examples, duly grouped into three categories according as the issue concerned is one of informative adequacy, rational cogency, or rational economy.


Principles of Informative Adequacy. The principles arising under this rubric address the problem of providing adequate information--of facilitating the business of understanding and enabling us to get a secure cognitive grip on the issues at hand.

(1) Never bar the path of inquiry (C. S. Peirce). Peirce envisioned a correlative range of application for this principle which turns on the following line of thought:

   Never adopt a methodological stance that would systematically prevent the 
   discovery of a certain fact if it should turn out to be true. … 
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