Some deny that there are any objectively first principles; all so-called objectively first principles are in fact only imperatives.
Others attempt to draw us out of such mire, holding that the first principles are twofold, some are manifest to all and some are manifest only to the wise. As they say, none of those manifest to all have substantive content. Either they are simply logical relations - if A, then A; if A, not not A - or rather empty statements regarding generic concepts - every whole is greater than its part. Then, they say, no non-substantive first principle suffice to constitute a science. In order to have a science, one needs substantive first principles. But no substantive first principles are manifest to all. They can be known only to the wise.
The further claim is that all principles that can be known only to the wise are ‘first’ in the sense that their partial (the sense of ‘partial’ to be gathered below) and initial affirmation is required for the science to get off the ground. The inquiry that gets off the ground on the basis of this initial affirmation is then that by which they will be in the end finally verified. But even their status as finally verified is always hypothetical. Hence, it may be that in fact better principles can be discovered or hypothesized whereby the data is more adequately explained. Hence the verification of these first principles is logically the affirmation of the consequent: If these principles are true, the data of this science will adequately be explained; the data are so explained; therefore, the principles are true. They are true, it is said, but possibly false. They would be shown to be false if seen in the light of principles that actually explain the data - ever new and ever to be revisited - better than the previously held first principles. Thus, they are first in one sense but not absolutely indubitable to whoever knows their meaning.
If we grant that all first principles known only to the wise can only be of this sort, we render all philosophical concepts of any substance to be possibly ‘without target’, and we render all philosophical statements of any substantive value to be possibly false.
Now, dogmatic statements are theological statements with the authority of infallibility. If the theological statements dogmatically affirmed depend materially upon philosophical concepts and statements of any substance, then how could such dogmatic statements not be merely hypothetically true? For instance, someone will contend: It would be the case – as ecclesial dogma asserts – that original sin must be passed on by heredity were the human essence (of any man) an isolable principle of existence not affected by co-existence with others. But if it is not the case that the human essence is that, then original sin need not be passed on by heredity. Hence, someone contends, the dogma need not be maintained. Again, someone will say, it would be the case that Christ is homoousios with the Father if ‘substance’ were a concept that targeted anything. But if ‘substance’ is a misbegotten concept, a concept not about reality as it primordially shows itself, a concept due but to a technological outlook, really a ‘false’ concept, then one need not and could not affirm that Christ is ‘homoousios’ with the Father.
So, if all first principles known only to the wise can be only hypothetically true, then any dogma that is indebted to such principles is only hypothetically true, true as a contingent proposition. Now, as all admit, many rather crucial dogmas are indebted to substantive philosophical concepts and principles. This thesis that dogma is only conditionally true is none other than historicism. The doom of many a dogma looms if we hold it.
Now, without rejecting the important insight, and the crucial contemporary defense in the face of despairing relativism, of the kind of first principles just described - substantive first principles that are known only to the wise and also possibly false - and of the possibility of a progressive assimilation of the mind to the real in the revolutionary breakthroughs of the science, may we not affirm also another set of first principles? Might we not also affirm that some first principles known only to the wise are certain and necessarily true? That such first principles, although no one who did not follow the line of inquiry in which they are disclosed could affirm them, are nevertheless affirmable as certainly true and also substantive? Let these be those principles that have long been considered the patrimony of the perennial philosophy. Such would be based on the genuine grasp of, for instance, substance, form, efficient cause, act, potency, nature, etc. and of the properties thereof; the first principles of which I speak would be those deducible from understanding of these realities and their properties. These principles so held might be said to be in substantive content midway between the robust and precise set that remains by and large not impossibly false and the set that is manifest to all who think at all. Yet with that little but sufficient content they can undergird the ecclesial dogma that is to be perennially and not only hypothetically valid.