Monday, March 14, 2005

Begs the question

Thanks to Doug at Common Sense Journalism for pointing out a philosophy professor's post wondering if it was time to give in on "begs the question" used to mean "raises the question."

John Holbo wrote:
Philosophers are always bothered by this usage. We prefer to reserve 'beg the question' for venerable 'presuppose your conclusion'. But there is considerable pressure in favor of the shift. Not only is it clear how the phrase could mean what these authors mean by it, but 'x demands that we ask y' is just plain something you often want to say. And 'begs the question' is really better than 'x demands that we ask y'. ... Should I give in?
Though I've been delving into some descriptivism of late, this topic brings me back to my prescriptivist senses.

I learned the definition of "begs the question" in high school. Here's the entry from Bremner:
Begging the question is not the same as avoiding the issue. To beg the question is to assume, without proof, the truth of something whose truth is being questioned. If you are trying to prove the existence of a deity, you beg the question if you state that a belief in God's existence is essential to man's sanity.
It can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but it's similar to circular reasoning.

(And it's interesting to note that the prevalent misuse in Bremner's heyday, to evade the issue, is less common now.)

My problems with using "begs the question" in place of "raises the question" go deeper than simply not wanting to lose a perfectly good description of an existing concept.

Using it in the colloquial sense, although universally understood, stretches too far the limits of the verb beg. That's not the way we use the transitive verb anymore (although some dictionaries recognize it). We beg for money; we don't beg money.

And it's a cliche.

Garner's has an entry on it, as well:
This phrase has not traditionally meant "to evade the issue" or "to invite an obvious question," as some mistakenly believe. The strict meaning of beg the question is "to base a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself." The formal name for this logical fallacy is petitio principii. ... All that having been said, the use of beg the question to mean raise another question is so ubiquitous that the new sense has been recognized by most dictionaries and sanctioned by descriptive observers of language. Still, though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it sloppy."
Well said.


At 2:00 PM, March 16, 2005, Anonymous The Raven said...

Agreed. This is a case where you want to lean toward the prescriptivist position in order to retain a useful distinction. My understanding is that "beg" in the formal sense is more akin to "passing the hat" than simply entreating.

At 9:55 PM, April 18, 2006, Blogger WordzGuy said...

>the prevalent misuse in Bremner's heyday, to evade the issue, is less common now

Mmm, perhaps not. I significant number of people will argue as proof for the tenets of Christianity that it says so right there in the Bible.


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