"What a Principle Is" - Ch. 2 "Evolution of Deductive Theory" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Ch.2 - What a Principle Is

In this short but pithy chapter Gasset reflects on the traditional Aristotelian notion of "principle." In so many words, Gasset talks about principle as that from which something else arises. It is the cause of that thing or some aspect in that thing. In terms of talking about reality as "true," likewise there must be this principle-consequence structure. Something is true because of something prior to it which is true, and so on. Thus, we must come to some absolute first principles of truth which breathe the character of truth into every lesser consequence. These absolute first principles cannot be proven by anything prior, but must exist self-evidently and are known through experience and intuition. Gasset mentions two, the Principle of Non Contradiction, and the Principle of Identity. 

Now there may also be relative first principles, meaning that given a coherent body of knowledge that is not ultimate, say building bird feeders, there are starting first principles which cannot necessarily be proven of themselves, but can be used as a framework from which to explore aspects of reality. For example, in the art of the traditional building birdfeeders the cardinal rule that one must start with is that they be made from wood. For that given set of knowledge, that would be a first principle which would lead you into the world of traditional bird feeders, but it doesn't mean it's true in and of itself absolutely. There could be metal ones, for example. 

Why is all this important? The reason this is all important is because the logical aspect of things is not really distinct from the metaphysical aspect of things. When we know something as true, we also know that thing as such. Therefore, to think logically about the world ... is to think about the world as it is. This means that the universe is something coherently intelligible to the human mind, we can penetrate its secrets. If the idea of principle, consequence, truth, logic, and reason were not real things then nothing would be knowable at all. Reality is a coherent web of being - truth - goodness - unity - and beauty which we are constantly uncovering through the use of reason. If there are relative first principles it is because of our lack of knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. This can be difficult, but the completion of the whole puzzle of reality is something that we can actually strive for and work towards. 

First Principles and Logic
Gasset begins by making some important distinctions about the word "principle." In the most broad and basic sense, he says that principle is defined as that which comes before another in a given framework. "... a 'principle' is that which, within a given order, is found before another thing." Now this can be in two ways, either absolutely or relatively. An absolute principle would be that which has nothing before it, it is self-evident existent and all else comes from it. A relative principle serves as a absolute principles for a limited set of information or facts. "The essential feature of a principle is, therefore, that something follows it, not that nothing precedes it. In this way the notion of principle is as valid for the absolute as for the relative, and valid, moreover, for orders which are not of the finite rectilinear type; for example, for an infinite rectilinear order in which there is no first element, or for a circular order in which each element also comes before another, but is impartially first, intermediate, and last." Now with this basic definition in hand we can look to the traditional Aristotelian notion of logic. 1 

Gasset then identifies two fundamental self-evident principles which are not proceeded by anything else. The whole logical inquiry into the world depends on these two absolute principles, that of the Principle of Non-Contradiction and the Principle of Identity. "In this way, moving backwards, we reach a level at which not one but several propositions appear which do not follow each other nor do they follow any antecedents of themselves; they are therefore independent of each other and have neither precedent nor principle. These are the principles of all the others. They are, therefore, absolute principles. They are the principle of identity and the principle of contradiction." This also makes sense because in the chain of principles regarding the nature of truth in things, there cannot be an infinite regression or truth would not exist at all. Truth itself depends in all things on the absolute principles from which it flows in things. 2 

This means that every relative or lesser principle is always both a principle and a consequence, i.e. it results from something more fundamental than it. This means that reality is part of one intelligible weaving of truth, "...There is in it neither leap nor hiatus." This is what it means to "reason." It means to move from principle to consequence and so forth. 3 To expand a bit more on the distinction between absolute principle and relative principle, it should be noted that absolute first principles are not "proven" by anything prior to themselves. Rather, they are simple and self-evidently immediately known as truth. "...-propositions that have no foundation and are therefore neither reasoned nor reasonable. This new form of 'being true' is usually expressed by saying that they are 'true in themselves,' that is, not for any 'reason'; that they are self-evident. ... unreasoned and unreasonable, spontaneous and immediate." 

Now if one were to take as first principles things that were not self-evidently true, as mentioned above, then one would be referencing relative principles. 4 Thus a truth could be the first principle of a given set of knowledge in that it confers truth or coherency on those consequences that follow it, yet still be false ultimately as a first principle. "In this doctrine, therefore, it is enough that first principles need not be true, but are simple 'admissions,' free assumptions which are adopted not for any reason of interest in them, but rather in order to 'bring out' their consequences, in order that they may be the reason for what follows, in order to prove a whole world of propositions which can be derived or deduced from them." 

In later chapters, Gasset wants to continue to explore the difference between ultimate, self-evident, absolute first principles of reality, and relative principles where it is only true based on some conditional and agreed upon first principle.
1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Idea of Principle in Leibnitz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971). Pg. 15
2 - 16
3 - 17 
4 - 18
5 - 19