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Is there an expression for a principle that is a close approximation to the truth, but quite possibly has exceptions? For example, "Do not kill". This is a good first approximation, but almost everyone would make allow except for self defense.

I don't like the word "general", because it is often used in the sense of meaning universal, such as "The general theory of relativity".

I don't like "first approximation" or "heuristic", as they could be unfamiliar to people without a scientific background.

UPDATE: Another word I though of is "preliminary"

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The example you choose is itself worthy of analysis! Though the AV (KJV) of the Bible reads 'Thou shalt not kill', this translation apparently does not accurately reflect the true meaning of the original Hebrew. See, for example, godandscience.org/apologetics/notkill. Modern translations, with 'You shall not (commit) murder', come far closer - but an unwieldy 'Do not kill unless you have a cast-iron reason to do so' is probably better still. There is still the small matter of deciding what constitutes a cast-iron reason! – Edwin Ashworth Oct 15 '12 at 9:42
Oh, and there is the general principle in the Bible that a 'rule' often has to be carefully applied so as not to be used as an excuse to break another rule. So, a person claiming to be God should be stoned to death (not crucified). Unless He's actually telling the truth. There is even a term used to describe the apparent contradictions that appear in the Bible when laws, at first sight, conflict: antinomies. Also, when Jesus subsumes stark Old Testament laws into teachings allowing grace ('You have heard it said ... but I say ...') (Matt 5), these are known as antithetical teachings. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 15 '12 at 10:19
@EdwinAshworth This very point is debated frequently over at Christianity.SE. It essentially comes down to the different between murder and killing being that when the lawgiver gives a special exemption for the former, it becomes the latter. So there's really no difference between the two. – Kaz Dragon Oct 15 '12 at 10:35
up vote 10 down vote accepted

You might be able to use rule of thumb. NOAD says:

rule of thumb: a broadly accurate guide or principle, based on experience or practice rather than theory.

Other definitions listed on Wordnik include:

A useful principle having wide application but not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable in every situation.

A general guideline, rather than a strict rule; an approximate measure or means of reckoning based on experience or common knowledge.

Those definitions seem to fit your request for “a close approximation to the truth, but quite possibly [having] exceptions.”

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+1, the second definition given has the word I would choose, which is guideline. – Cameron Oct 15 '12 at 5:05
Provisional guideline could work well in many circumstances – Casebash Oct 15 '12 at 6:01
While I agree totally with this answer, it does seem rather incongruous to apply it to Casebash's example - The Ten Rules of Thumb. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 15 '12 at 9:46
@Edwin: I almost mentioned that when I answered – how "rule of thumb" might not be the best way to describe a sentiment like "do not kill." As to your other point, though, even commandments sometimes have exceptions – see Ezekiel 9, e.g. – J.R. Oct 15 '12 at 9:53

I'd refer to such principles, or not-quite principles, by adjectives like the following.
rudimentary, “of or relating to one or more rudiments [eg] I have only a rudimentary grasp of chemistry”; “Basic; minimal; with less than, or only the minimum, necessary”
inchoate, “Recently started but not fully formed yet; just begun; only elementary or immature”; “Chaotic, disordered, confused; also, incoherent, rambling”
nascent, “Emerging; just coming into existence”
primitive, which has senses that include primordial, primeval, characterized by simplicity

Of the above, rudimentary and primitive have the widest applicability to not-quite principles. The other terms may apply well to not-yet-perfected principles that are being developed or revealed little by little, by continuing work, research, or experience.

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I think that there's an intrinsic difference between a rule and a principle. While the two are often used interchangeably, a rule is more like a regulation or a guideline while a principle imports something more fundamental. In any event, here are a few alternative suggestions.

While it may not suggest an approximation as such, core implies that there might be something more (the flesh?) to be considered.

Other choices:

  • nutshell, in a nutshell, or nutshell version
  • bare-bones
  • pith or pithy
  • concise

Then, depending on context, there is also basic (or basis) which suggest a base upon which something is built.

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Initial hypothesis? Or just hypothesis on its own. As it is expected to be refined anyway.

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I would go with core or fundamental principle.

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Core or fundamental principles are generally ones that can't be compromised – Casebash Oct 15 '12 at 12:52
@casebash I'm not aware of that definition. There's no mention of compromise at thefreedictionary.com/fundamental+principle. In any case that wouldn't make my answer incorrect as the fundamental principle shouldn't be compromised by any refinements. – Caltor Oct 15 '12 at 16:39

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