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As can be seen in a different d20-derived system, D&D 4e, the designers specifically wrote into the rules in the PHB that in cases of apparent rules conflicts, "specific beats general."

Specific Beats General

If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins. For example, a general rule states that you can’t use a daily power when you charge. But if you have a daily power that says you can use it when you charge, the power’s specific rule wins. It doesn’t mean that you can use any daily power when you charge, just that one.

I am looking for the same rule in the Pathfinder rulebooks, and I have come up blank. I have found many references where it is cited and "understood", but can't find an actual produced reference.

Is there a rulebook for Pathfinder that states specific beats general?

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The phrase itself appears in the errata documents for various D&D 3.5 publications, including those books which were included in the System Reference Document that forms the basis for Pathfinder. In that context, it is referring to contradictions between different D&D 3.5 products.

However, the phrase is used more generally to refer to the d20 System’s status as an exception-based ruleset. What this means is that the basic rules define general truths, but those rules can and are broken in specific ways by specific things. Wizards of the Coast, of course, has enormous experience with exception-based rulesets since it is the foundation for Magic: The Gathering – the game has particular rules, but individual cards have special powers that, effectively, allow you to break those rules in particular ways.

Pathfinder is still an exception-based ruleset, even if no Paizo-published document calls it out as such. It is the only manner in which the rules can be understood; every specific thing in Pathfinder relies on the general rules to define all the things that aren’t being defined in this specific case.

For example, a rapier is a one-handed weapon, but has a special exception relating to its use with Weapon Finesse – the rapier does not define what it means to be a one-handed weapon, it relies on the general rule for one-handed weapons for that. It only defines its own special case, the exception regarding Weapon Finesse.

If specific did not beat general, the general rule that one-handed weapons cannot be used with Weapon Finesse would be absolute – the rapier could not give itself an exception. Instead, the exception would have to be baked into the general rule – it would have to change from “one-handed weapons cannot be used with Weapon Finesse” to “one-handed weapons aside from the rapier cannot be used with Weapon Finesse.” And then the general rule would be responsible for listing every exception, which is, of course, impossible when you consider that some of the exceptions may not have even been written yet. Paizo would have to update the general rule for Weapon Finesse for every exception they wanted to print.

On the flip-side, if the rules were not exception-based to begin with, the rapier would be responsible for defining everything about its use – including those things it shares with every other weapon. That would get absurdly repetitive, since every other weapon would also have to define those things.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You've said the rule refers to 3.5e stuff, but is it located anywhere in Pathfinder? (Also, I'm not sure that all the stuff about the exception-based ruleset is necessary here. The dude was just asking about where a commonly referenced rule was located.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener May 21 '15 at 23:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I haven’t been able to find it, but the reason I bring up exception-based rules is because it is irrelevant if the phrase appears anywhere in Paizo’s publications (as stated in the answer), since it is still the fundamental maxim under which the rules operate. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 22 '15 at 2:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan RPG rulesets basically must be exception based. Other rulesets don't have to be, but 'ruleset' here doesn't refer to RPGs; Chess, for example, is best explained in the manner in the last paragraph (though you could use exception based phrasing for things like castling and en passant it really is best, I think, be up front with everything about each piece from the get-go), because there aren't really enough similarities between pieces and exceptions to mandate exception-based rules. Constitutional law is an example general-beats-specific, the first other system you describe. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil May 22 '15 at 2:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ (I think adding these or better examples to your answer might be good given the previous comments) \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil May 22 '15 at 3:06

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