A Philosopher's Blog

Begs the Question

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2009

Being a philosophy professor, I find it vaguely annoying when people write or say things like “Referendum begs the question of our future in EU” or “Rolex ad on Newsweek site begs the question how big is too big.”

When people use “begs the question” in this manner, they actually mean “asks the question” or “raises the question.”However, the term “beg the question” already has an established usage as the name of a logical fallacy.

To beg the question is a logical fallacy that involves assuming what is to be proven. For example, if someone says “cheating on a test is wrong because it is wrongfully taking a test”, then he is begging the question. In effect, the person is saying “the reason cheating on a test is wrong is because it is wrong.”

One might wonder why this should be regarded as a problem. After all, it might be argued, people ought to be able to use words anyway they wish. If people use “beg the question” to mean “raises the question” then so be it.

While it is true that the meaning of terms is largely a matter of convention, it seems to make little sense to use “begs the question” to mean “asks the question.” After all, there are already perfectly good phrases to say “asks the question”, “raises the question” and so on. There thus seems to be little need to steal “begs the question.”

Another problem is that the increasingly popular usage of the phrase creates some confusion. For example, when I teach about fallacies I have to explain that to beg the question is a fallacy and that when someone says “begs the question” they might mean “asks the question.” Obviously, this is not a big deal. But, teaching logic is challenging enough without having to sort out such confusions.

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2 Responses

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  1. Lester Hunt said, on December 27, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Another problem is that, with this new, idiotic, way of talking, there is no longer any way to unambiguously say what we used to say by uttering “begging the question,” unless we use the Latin phrase, .petitio principii. And if there is anything that is more rare nowadays than using “begs the question” correctly, it is speaking Latin!

  2. Montag said, on December 28, 2009 at 6:47 am

    It’s a “mute” point.

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