First Principles Thiking And Fragile Knowledge

"In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these;

-- Aristotle

First principle thinking is having a firm understanding of the basics. You can break any problem down to its foundation through first principles, and solve it from the ground up.


I work a co-op job as a cloud consultant. The role is to develop enterprise software that solves business problems.

A pal taking a python coding course asked me to help study for his exam. That's when I noticed the fragility of my coding skills. I couldn't derive from first principles:

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

--Harrington Emerson

My pal's python problems were difficult for me to solve. It proved my incompetence for basic programming (and math). Unable to reason in first principles, I couldn't solve the problems.

Ad Libbed Understanding:

Many of us assume we're knowledgeable in certain areas. We're not. Unless you can derive an idea to its first principle, you only ad-lib what you know:

This doesn't mean to present complex ideas simply. Only experts have that luxury. People mistakenly simplify despite not having a firm understanding.

That would make them ignorantly simplistic. As opposed to profoundly simplistic.

How To Develop First Principle Thinking:

  • Understand the basics as best as you can.
  • Build on top of the basics.
  • Explain the origins of the ideas you learn.
  • Challenge your assumptions.

I'll apply these to brush up on my programming skills. To keep me accountable, I’ll use this to get certified on cloud development for Microsoft Azure.

Question what you think you know. You'll be surprised.