BEGGING THE QUESTION.

When the occasion arises to discuss the English phrase that once meant what is unambiguously termed petitio principii but is now universally (except by pedants) used to mean “raise the question,” I used to reflexively link to my earlier discussion of the issue (scroll down to final paragraph). Now I have another choice: the latest episode of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics. Many thanks to John Emerson for the prompt heads-up!

Comments

  1. Arg, one more thing to care about to when talking to Americans. I used “disinterested” to describe my position on US politics a couple of months ago online, and then said “fuck” to myself when this random Livejournaller went and did his random Livejournaller thing and interpreted it to mean “uninterested” :-( .

  2. And on that topic, I like this — http://begthequestion.info/faq.php
    But language is constantly evolving.

    That’s great to know! Descriptivist linguists, whom we do not fault for their stand, are quite free to watch as we bring about an evolution in the vernacular understanding of “begging the question.”

  3. Is there really an Americans vs. other speakers of English element to this? I was under the impression this change in meaning was taking place throughout the English speaking world.
    I definitely grew up understanding the phrase to have its new meaning. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to understand the older definition.

  4. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that all but pedants now use “beg the question” to mean “raise the question”; I understand that the original sense is still used as a technical term in philosophy. Personally I try to avoid it altogether, but then I’m a pedant.

  5. It’s just that begging the question is a pretty piss-poor translation of petitio principii, which in turn is a kind of accurate calque of Greek en arche aiteisthai. Perhaps, if folks said ‘begging the premise’ instead of ‘begging the question’ others would understand. And, as LH suggests, using the Latin term is the best work-around.

  6. Aidan, I will defend to the death your right to use “beg the question” in a now-obsolete sense, but it’s ludicrous to pretend it’s a Yank-vs-Brit thing. I dare you to go down to any U.K. street corner and ask people to use it in a sentence; if you get one “proper” use per day I’ll be amazed.
    Tim: I understand that the original sense is still used as a technical term in philosophy.
    Yes, and by my definition people who insist on using technical definitions outside of their proper sphere of application (in this case, philosophy) are pedants. What would you call someone who interrupted any conversation in which the phrase “it’s all relative” came up to expound upon Einstein’s theories?
    Jim: Perhaps, if folks said ‘begging the premise’ instead of ‘begging the question’ others would understand.
    You can’t be serious. Or perhaps you hang out with too many philosophers. Look, everybody, even in its original (badly translated) sense, it’s a very special-ized term that has to be explained to nonspecial-ists. “Implicitly assuming in your premises what you’re trying to prove” simply is not a subject that comes up in conversation. Maybe in a better, more logical world it would, but this is not that world. People use the phrase in ways that are convenient to them, as is their right; it’s fine to cling to a minority usage, but it’s pedantry to pretend it’s the only “correct” usage (and it’s blatant hypocrisy to pretend that the more widespread usage somehow causes confusion or impedes communication, as I have seen people do; nobody has ever misunderstood someone else who said “That begs the question…” and follows it with a question).
    [Hyphens added after "special" to get around my own damn spam blocker.]

  7. Yeah, touché. These searches do seem to defeat any regional perception I had of it.

  8. What Einstein demonstrated, I like to say (being a pedant), is that everything is not relative; in particular, the speed of light is not relative to the motion of the observer.
    But what’s gross about the current meaning of “beg the question” is not the takeover of a technical term: it’s the fact that “beg” has neither literal nor metaphorical force. It’s obnoxious in the same way that “center around” is.

  9. Charles Hebert says:

    On “stemming the rose.” From a short story in “Close Range” one character says, “He can kiss my rosie.” I surmised that the rose colored sphincter was the rose and to stem the rose was to put a penis into it, thus, making a stem for it.

  10. As a philosopher by profession, I can confirm that begging the question is very much in active use as a technical term, and also that we get very annoyed when people [mis]appropriate it.
    Like many other terms in logic, as also in rhetoric, it has a winding and obscure trajectory through ancient and mediaeval times to the present day. In my opinion the use of such ill-bred terms renders needlessly difficult the teaching of informal logic (or critical reasoning as it gets called – as if there were any other sort of reasoning). Begging the question deserves to be misused, because it is a stupidly misleading term in the first place.
    My approach is never to use it in ordinary discourse, and in fact hardly ever to use it in technical contexts either, because it refers to a theoretically problematic notion anyway. In ordinary discourse I prefer to speak of raising a question; and in technical contexts I prefer to speak of circular arguments.

  11. I still use only the archaic form, Mr. Arrogant Elitist Descriptivist Scientist Person! So sue me!
    I’ve never been to England, but if I had, the neighborhood I lived in would have been full of rough working-class types using the term properly. Also taxi drivers.
    “The exception proves the rule” — for years I’ve been explaining that “proves” means “tests” here, but it was recently explained that that the original Latin covered statements like “Unleashed dogs may not go here”, which implies that leashed dogs may go there.
    Rimbaud and Verlaine wrote smutty poems with hollyhocks (“roses tremiere” in French) in them. I amy be the world’s leading expert on hollyhock poems; more at the link.

  12. …it was recently explained that that the original Latin covered statements like “Unleashed dogs may not go here”, which implies that leashed dogs may go there.
    Ah, this incidentally raises another question. We philosophers use imply to mean more or less the same as entail (that is, more or less the same as lead to, as a necessary consequence). And we guard imply against the common “misuse” to mean suggest. But it would take an extreme noetical nitpicker to censure this latter usage in the common tongue. A similar story can be told about valid, which philosophers apply only to arguments in which there is no way for the conclusion to be false and all the premises true. But since both valid and imply are at least well-founded terms with clear technical meanings, they do not occasion the sort of hand-wringing that begging the question does.
    Many contemporary philosophers would probably want to rephrase John Emerson’s sentence this way:
    …which carries the implicature that leashed dogs may go there.
    We use implicature to mean what common language means by implication. OED explains:
    implicature

    [Introduced by the linguist H. P. Grice (1913–88) in 1967, in a lecture given as one of the 1967–8 William James lectures at Harvard University and first published in 1975.]
    The act or an instance of (intentionally) implying a meaning which can be inferred from an utterance in conjunction with its conversational or semantic context, but is neither explicitly expressed nor logically entailed by the statement itself; a meaning that is implied contextually, but is neither entailed logically nor stated explicitly. Esp. in conversational implicature.

    We might take OED to task for using implying here at all, which muddies things a little.

  13. Noetica — IIRC, in Latin this was used in the context of a legal argument, so I think that “implies” is correct. In a commonsense context “suggests” would eb better.

  14. Begging the question deserves to be misused, because it is a stupidly misleading term in the first place.
    Thank you! I’m extremely grateful to hear this from an actual philosopher, and will take the liberty of quoting you when the subject comes up.
    in technical contexts I prefer to speak of circular arguments.
    Beautiful: a phrase anyone can understand. Don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before.

  15. by my definition people who insist on using technical definitions outside of their proper sphere of application(in this case, philosophy) are pedants
    And I would agree with you, but you didn’t say anything about “proper spheres of application”, you said “universally”.
    Is question-begging, in the technical sense, exactly synonymous with making a circular argument? I had understood that there was some slight difference of scope. I’ve never really been confident that I understood exactly what the term meant. This is one reason why I tend to avoid it in either sense.

  16. All of which begs the question: why shouldn’t I use it when and where I want? After all, it’s moral, it’s legal, and (best of all) it’s not fattening.

  17. you didn’t say anything about “proper spheres of application”, you said “universally”.
    Mom! He’s quoting me!!
    OK, you got me fair and square; I wasn’t thinking of philosophers (of whom, I confess, I have none in my circle of immediate acquaintance), and I expressed myself more, um, universally than I might should ought to have done. Philosophers can, of course, be pedantic, but they are not ex officio pedants.
    *raps self on knuckles*

  18. I’m relieved now: if somebody like Tim May says he’s avoiding using the expression because he doesn’t understand exactly what it means, I can pretend I’m on his level in my English comprehension and do the same! Nobody needs to know about the sorry state of affairs between me and English idioms…
    Now, please tell me I get the meaning right, if only on Russian example:
    “Сейчас же слава Борщанского достигла невиданных размеров и уступает только его известности.” (M.Rabinovich, A realised man)

  19. Only once in my life have I heard hoi polloi misused. I think it’s gone through the misuse stage and come out the other side, such that the only people who even know it now tend to be the ones who are aware of its literal meaning.

  20. Had I begun Annie Proulx’s “Close Range” from front to back (I had to start at the end with the devastating story “Brokeback Mountain”) perhaps the expression stemming the rose would have made sense. I think Charles Herbert’s interpretation is right on.

  21. I was delighted to find this forum when I Googled the now legendary “stemming the rose.” I think that the most convincing explanation overall is simply the image of rubbing thorns off of the stem, so, basically, jerking off. Even though it is not at all unfathomable that any character might possibly call the anus the rose, it seems unlikely that Joe would reflect on the act of anal sex enough to put this term on it. Much more likely, I think, is that he is talking about masturbation, mutual or otherwise…

Speak Your Mind

*