In the legal and logical maxim Contra principia negantem non est disputandum, what exactly does principia mean?

In English, the word principle means an abstract proposition, or something deep in the nature of things, which is the source of more-concrete or surface-level conclusions or consequences. For example, when parties agree in principle, they make an agreement that omits details expected to be worked out later; the principle of relativity in physics means that the reference point for a coordinate system shouldn't have any bearing on the substance of a physical law; judges in common law are said to extract a principle from a precedent case that implies a conclusion for the present case; etc.

I wonder, though, if the Latin principium in the maxim is broader, maybe even having the same meaning as the the English word premise, which carries no implication of abstractness. Another possibility is foundation, which is usually understood in this kind of context in English as referring to abstract principles but can also refer to concrete facts, as in “This accusation has no foundation in evidence.”

Here are two examples of usage where principium could be interpreted as designating a proposition by its role as starting point for reasoning, without implying that it must be abstract, though neither case is clear:

  • Schopenhauer invokes the maxim to summarize this: “In every disputation or argument on any subject we must agree about something; and by this, as a principle, we must be willing to judge the matter in question.”

  • Lenin criticizes Struve's invocation of the maxim as an attempt to treat the “principle” that private property drives economic progress as a raw historical fact. Lenin counters, “that depends on how these principia are formulated.” His point seems to be that Struve's “principle” can in fact be fruitfully disputed, by appeal to the common ground of genuinely concrete historical fact—another kind of principium.

The earliest invocation of the maxim that I'm aware of is by Duns Scotus, which I think is clearly limited to abstract principles:

Si autem hic discursus non sit convincens, multa principia revocantur in dubium, quæ supponitur a Philosophis; contra autem negantem principia communiter recepta, non est disputandum.

By the way, I got interested in this several years ago, before I started studying Latin seriously, when I worked a little on the Wikipedia page about this maxim. I wondered if in translating principia as principles, we might have been seduced by “false friends”. I discussed it with Wareh, the editor who did most of the work on the page, here and here. He persuaded me that principles seems to be the accepted translation. It’s not Wikipedia's place to provide an original translation if a standard one already exists. Here on StackExchange, of course, we can go a little further and even put two and two together if someone can find some relevant historical usage.

Wareh suggested, perhaps most wisely of all, that the meaning of principia in this context is vague, and that this has given the maxim vitality. If there is specific evidence for that, I'd be especially interested in hearing it.

  • 1
    I am tempted to start from recognizing the origin of principium as primus + capere. Therefore I see principia in this context as "things to be taken first", which is well translated as "premises" or "principles". In any case, I think it is best to look for a description of principia, possibly a verbose one, rather than an English translation. A mere one-word translation is not as enlightening and useful, especially to people whose first language is not English.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    May 31, 2016 at 19:58
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    I'd say you're right: principium also means premise or axiom. Although L&S does not mention the word premise, it cites examples of that sense in the definition of pricipium: principia ducere ab aliquo, to derive, deduce. See also this dictionary
    – Rafael
    May 31, 2016 at 20:19

1 Answer 1


My background studying medieval scholastic Philosophy leads me to translate principia with the somewhat redundant phrase "first principles."

The phrase is common in Scholastic philosophy (see your quote from Duns Scotus and the high hit count in the Corpus Thomisticum).

Luther seems confident that the phrase has "heathen" sources:

Denn mit dem soll man nicht disputiren, der da prima principia, das ist die ersten Gruende und das Haeuptfundament, verneinet und verwirft; wie auch die Heiden gesaget haben: Contra negantem prima principia non esse disputandum. (Luther, Tischreden, 25)

For one ought not dispute with he who denies and discards the prima principia, that is, the first principles and main foundation; as even the Heathens have said: Contra negantem prima principia non esse disputandum.

And a little digging turns up an almost direct quotation from the Scholastics' favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle:

ὥσπερ γὰρ καὶ τῷ γεωμέτρῃ οὐκέτι λόγος ἔστι πρὸς τὸν ἀνελόντα τὰς ἀρχάς, ἀλλ' ἤτοι ἑτέρας ἐπιστήμης ἢ πασῶν κοινῆς, οὕτως οὐδὲ τῷ περὶ ἀρχῶν. (Phys, I.2)

For just as the geometer has nothing more to say to one who denies the principles of his science—this being a question for a different science or common to all—so a man investigating principles cannot argue with one who denies their existence.

and again:

(I don't feel like transcribing abbreviated Greek and I cannot find a version of the Greek text online besides this secondhand version from a commentary. Edits welcome if someone wants to transcribe!)

Things are 'true' and 'primary' which are believed on the strength not of anything else but of themselves: for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. (Topica, I.5)

principium is the literal translation of Greek ἀρχή.

A principium, in this context, is something which is known through itself (per se notum), not through any dialectical reasoning process. It is an intuition, like Euclid's definitions and postulates.

Since all dialectical arguments are built on top of these per se nota, the reasoning behind this aphorism is that someone who is unwilling to consent to these things cannot even begin to have a constructive argument.

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