Begging the question

Regarding topic #2 at

I think insisting on the original meaning of “to beg the question” is a lost cause. It is just too common for people to use the phrase to mean to prompt, or suggest, a question. Wikipedia says that the phrase is a poor translation of the Latin *petitio principii, *which actually translates as “assuming the initial point”. But, words and phrases change meaning over the years all the time. It’s probably time to chalk this one up.

I disagree.

Begging the question is logically stated as “If A, then A” … or to say, if we assume something is true, then by golly it must be true.

I think begging other questions in that context is clearly not the same thing, psuedo-logically “If A, then what about B?”

I agree with the OP. It grates when I hear “That begs the question” when what is meant is “That raises the question”, but the usage is here to stay.

When I was in high school, 1967, some teachers pointed out what the phrase really meant. At the time, it was an oddity used only by debate and logic wonks. Now, it has nestled into common usage, but with the “wrong” meaning.

Language changes over time with usage. The “correct” meaning slips to the second spot after the newer meaning. I still don’t use the newer form, but I have stopped correcting others.

NO IT DOES NOT. What it suggests is that everybody sucks but me.
There is something in me that fervently resists the idea that, if enough people make a mistake, it ceases to be wrong. If enough people claim the earth is flat and was created 6000 years ago, or that the Moon landings were faked, or that (a + b)[sup]2[/sup] = a[sup]2[/sup] + b[sup]2[/sup], will it become correct? Hell no!

Plus, “begging the question” in its original, “correct” meaning is a useful term. I don’t want to have to give it up.

If you use it to mean “raising the question,” I might not correct you, but I’ll think just a little bit less of you.

Language is a special case though, as it’s a flexible tool. The test of whether language is “wrong” is whether the concept underlying the words is successfully communicated between the parties involved. For example, technical jargon may appropriate a common-language term so that it is “right” for talking to someone with the same technical expertise but “wrong” to use if you’re talking to a layperson. An example in my own field (statistics) is the word “significant”.

In this case, I think the “general but no longer technically correct” use has won out, like it or not, unless you’re actively in a formal debate.

And of course, I’ll note that the assumptions brought by different people to this thread are really begging the question…

Well argued. I’m sure you’re right, but I want to keep quixotically fighting on.

Why does one usage have to win out? “Begging the question”, and its iterations, has two distinct meanings. All the better for language.

The original meaning of “to beg the question” is the common one. It’s a perfectly cromulent English phrase. The name of the fallacy is a special usage. If it’s in print it can be quoted or italicized or highlighted in some way to indicate it’s not to be taken literally. Even spoken you can do silly air quotes, or make yourself look sillier by saying “quote unquote”, or you can realize that using a commonly understand phrase as the name of a fallacy was a mistake.


“But “beg” had the element of puppy-dog enthusiasm I was after.”

This is masterful prose, The Master sets the tone with this one word, paints a picture of peoples on their knees and hands folded supplicating answers to their foolish questions. His Most-Intelligentness considered any confusion with the logical fallacy remote and decided those who did could just “piss off”. C’mon, we beg The Master, our peeves are our problem, not His.

“To beg the question” had the meaning “to assume the truth of the proposition supposedly being proved” by 1580.

I was understanding TriPolar to mean that “to raise the question” was the original meaning of the phrase (“the common one,” as opposed to “the name of the fallacy”), which is what I was questioning. Did I misunderstand?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes yes.

If you parse the phrase “to beg the question,” trying to squeeze out the meaning “raise the question,” it doesn’t work, because it seems like you are requesting that the question do something, which makes no sense. Beg in that sense is not a transitive verb. At this point, I get a nosebleed. If someone says something that makes no sense, because the logic is circular, and you say “That is question begging,” it is clear that “that” is a pronoun in this case, and what the antecedent is. If someone uses the phrase to mean “raises the question,” the antecedent is not always clear, so again, you run in to grammar problems. Neither of these problems is a problem with a new usage; these are fundamental grammar problems. Plus, my nose is bleeding.

Yes. A phrase must be considered to have it’s literal meaning if it makes sense. When you say “… begs the question” it is expected you will follow it by a question. If you name a fallacy after such a phrase you should expect an Abbot&Costello routine to result.

But do you have any evidence that that particular phrase was actually used to mean that before it was used for the logical fallacy (i.e. “originally”)?

(Plus, what RivkahChaya said.)

It’s an idiom … “Person A is begging the question” casts Person A into the lowest of social classes; beggars, whores and thieves. A clever ad hominem attack, and it doesn’t even have to properly applied because who really knows what it’s supposed to mean.

It doesn’t need to. It has a perfectly good interpretation on it’s own.

The reason this thread exists is that people hear the phrase “begs the question” and they think it means “raises the question”. People who have never heard of the fallacy understand it. It is as confusing a name for a fallacy as Who is for a first baseman.

beg seems the right word to use, therefore it is the right word to use … seems simple to me.