Wednesday, March 30, 2011

begs the question

I was with my sisters this weekend and one of them said that something 'begged the question'. I thought she was using the expression wrong and she thought I was. So does it mean, something that begs for a further question, or does it mean something that manages to avoid the question entirely? I don't think I really need to go into who thought what in this case, as I'm perfectly willing to expose my own ignorance, but not so big on pointing a finger at others, should that prove to be the case--at least on the internet. (Okay, okay--there have probably been exceptions.) Let's just shoot ahead and find a meaning for the term.


Well, safe to say that we were both wrong to one degree or another. In any case, there is no winner. To beg the question, as I'm sure any logic student reading along here will already know, is actually a specific form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without reference to anything outside itself.

Here are some examples from the Nizkor Project, which apparently is attempting to educate us on logic in order to help us not be bamboozled by Holocaust deniers:

Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."

"If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law."

"The belief in God is universal. After all, everyone believes in God."

Interviewer: "Your resume looks impressive but I need another reference."
Bill: "Jill can give me a good reference."
Interviewer: "Good. But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?"
Bill: "Certainly. I can vouch for her."

I think some of us may recognize this logical fallacy more easily under the heading 'circular reasoning'.

Basically, 'to beg the question' has nothing to do with questions. It is a (some would say clumsy) translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which in post-classical Latin turns out to be a rough translation of Aristotle's first description of this logical fallacy, 'assuming the conclusion'. For a fascinating discussion of all the language transformations involved, go here. The comments are mostly quite informed, so there's a lot of material here. Both 'beg' and 'question' have very ambivalent roots, which is what has led us to all get so mixed up about this.

The question remains--what are we to do? The wrong meaning has slipped into the vernacular. Do we just accept and go on? Not according to Beg the They have even incited the mobs to take up their pickets and march on Washington at one point.

Apparently many failed to notice that this impassioned plea took place on April Fool's Day.

But despite kidding around, their advocacy is not all tongue in cheek. To wit:

"While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous "modern" usage. This is why we fight.".

Apparently, you can even get a T-shirt in support of the cause, so don't let me keep you...


  1. Thanks so much for addressing this--with grace, humor, and info! I remember learning about circular reasoning in classical rhetoric courses and attaching "begging the question" to that and have not been able to understand its use/misuse lately, and thought it was just another thing my brain could not hold in its origamic folds. But you've laid it all out beautifully for us, in words and links!

  2. Between this and McKinty's Patterson revelations I'm a bit stupefied this morning. Iay have to up my coffee intake in the mornings.

  3. Thank you, Kathleen. I was wondering if I would even be able to understand it myself if I reread it.

    Glenna, Adrian's mind I can't answser for, but you don't have to up your caffeine dosage for me. When in doubt, as one of those sources said, just don't use the phrase. And if you think beg the question is about an actual question, it's probably not. In fact, if you're not in an actual debate of some sort where people are knocking each other off with by their superior understanding of logic, you will probably never need to use this phrase at all.

    I haven't seen that Patterson post, but as it's evening now, I'm probably as ready as I'll ever be.

  4. That may be the most misused expression in all of newspaperdom, both in print and in internal communication. People almost universally take to mean “begs for or calls for the question.” I thought it meant “shoves the question aside,” so I was wrong, too, though arguably closer to the truth.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. Although I said I wouldn't say, that was more my idea of the phrase too. But it isn't really that at all. I was actually surprised that a huge percentage of people think it means raise the question or raises another question. In any case, since I am not planning to join a debating team at this late stage, I plan to not use the phrase at all.

    Although I might buy a mug...

  6. That's the practical course and the one that I have followed.

  7. What?

    Just kidding. A brilliant piece of detective work. I've never used that expression in my life and now I will continue to do so...

  8. Julie, this begs the question of whether...uh, never mind.

  9. I've seen this phrase used to mean "inspires a question" so often that I've just accepted it as one of its definitions. I'm a descriptivist at heart, and if the vast majority of the population agrees on a meaning, I go with the flow. After all, words and phrases change over time and they're all just creations of the people that use them anyway.

    Besides, there are lots of instances of jargon having different meanings in specific disciplines as opposed to common usage.

  10. A bold dissenter in our midst, I see!

    For a blog post that I thought was going to be a simple right or wrong entry, this is turning out to be a pretty tangled knot. Because, if I has thought it meant what you and many other people apparently took it to mean, I'd be inclined to agree with you, Nate. But since I'm in the smaller though still sizable (but also mistaken) camp that thought it meant something like avoids the question, I'd be more likely to just not use the term than perpetuate its confused meanings.

    Though I still might buy a cup.