BEGGING THE QUESTION II.

A few years ago I had a post about this annoying expression (annoying both because it’s strangely worded for its normal use—”invites the question” would be much better—and because it brings all the petitio principii pedants out of the woodwork); there I linked to a comic strip for amusement, now I link to Mark Liberman’s definitive explication of the history and uses of the phrase, from Aristotle’s τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (not, as the Log has it, αἰτεσθαι—it’s from the start of Prior Analytics ii:16) to the present. His conclusion:

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

Which makes sense.

Comments

  1. The idea of people misusing “affirm the consequent” in a similar way to the misuse of “beg the question” is sort of delicious.

  2. I, like several commenters on the Log, use “to beg the question” to mean something significantly stronger than “to raise the question” — something more like “to beg that we ask the question”. For me, to say that a certain statement ‘begs’ a question is to imply some criticism of the statement — the stater failed to address an obvious point, and the statement is the weaker for it — whereas to say only that it ‘raises’ a question can mean merely that it makes me think of a certain question.
    I don’t have any solid evidence that my impression is shared by most users of the expression, but I do have some weak evidence:
    - the Language Log commenters who made similar statements. For every speaker who comments on Language Log, there are tens of millions who don’t!
    - Google-counts, insofar as you can trust them, indicate that “it raises the question” and “it begs the question” are about equally common, but that “it X begs the question” is far, far more common than “it X raises the question” for various intensifiers X (such as “really” or “completely” or “totally”).
    - They also indicate that “he raised the question” is far, far more common than “he begged the question”, and most of the hits for the latter seem to be in the logical-fallacy sense. If “raise the question” and the logical-fallacy use of “beg the question” are both commonly applied either to a statement or to the person making it, then how come the new use of “beg the question” is almost exclusively applied to the former? That’s hard to account for if the new use of “beg the question” is really synonymous with “raise the question”.

  3. I do have some weak evidence
    That’s the only sensible thing you wrote, Ran. “:´)

  4. On the topic of affirming the consequent:
          ♪  ♪

    You’ve got to accentuate the positive
    Eliminate the negative

         ♪  ♪

  5. I think it’s a bit more complicated. If I have an argument with a philosopher, or a lawyer, or an economist, for instance, drawing attention to logical flaws in the argument is one move in that kind of debate: it is not socially transgressive. If, however, I take issue with an agent or editor or copy-editor who is not used to disagreement on such grounds, the appeal to logic is in itself likely to appear hostile; ‘assuming the conclusion’ has a register which will only aggravate the appearance of hostility. If there is an ‘ordinary language’ phrase that pinpoints the problem, at least the register of the words won’t cause offence. I hadn’t realised that this use of ‘begging the question’ was esoteric; if it is, of course, there is probably no inoffensive way of making the point.

  6. @AJP: In that case, I suppose I “win”, as the only person to say even one sensible thing. :-P

  7. You win, Ran.

  8. (No disrespect to the other commenters intended.)

  9. Wow, where have I been? I had no idea that the meaning of “begs the question” had vanished out from under me. So nobody knows what I’ve been saying all these years? Ouch!

  10. SnowLeopard says:

    I’ve only ever used the phrase “begs the question” to mean that someone has assumed the conclusion they’re trying to demonstrate. And it does come up very frequently, even when I’m not picking apart an adversary’s arguments in court papers. No one has ever had trouble understanding what I meant by it, either, or mistaken it for “raises the question” (which I guess means raising a new question, not simply establishing that the original question still needs to be answered). This is probably because “that begs the question” is not really used as an argument by itself, any more than people outside of formal logic classes go around shouting “modus tollens” or “De Morgan’s Rule” at each other — it’s just a label for the kind of point I’m about to make. So after I say “that simply begs the question”, I go on to explain the particular fallacy I’m exposing. And honestly, I *would* like to see colloquial expressions for things like modus tollens, since I use that gambit pretty often in my own arguments, and always have to come up with some diluted and roundabout way of introducing the point.

  11. I suspect that the original meaning of “begs the question” is current in law and philosophy.

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