Begging the question, or not

Over at Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen says of the phrase “begs the question”

I love this term because it is such a simple, chummy way of naming something that’s maddening in is subtlety. To beg the question in its traditional meaning is to mistake the form of answering a question for its substance. One ‘answers’ the question by simply asking it again in another guise … Today, ‘begs the question’ is much more often used to mean ‘prompts the question’.

My response

The problem with the old use of “begs the question” is that it makes no sense. It’s a literal translation of “petitio principii”. The problem is that “question” here means “conclusion” and “begs” means something like “asks the listener to assume”. The modern use is also nonsensical. My solution is to use “offers a circular argument” for the old use and “prompts the question” for the new one.

4 thoughts on “Begging the question, or not

  1. “The phrase begging the question originated in the 16th century as a mistranslation of the Latin petitio principii, which actually translates to “assuming the initial point.” – Wikipedia.

    Best to forget the vague phrase “begging the question” altogether. I believe this is J.Q.’s whole point. Best to say someone is “assuming the initial point” or “using circular reasoning” when that is in fact what they are doing.

    I’ll try not to use the (semantically) offending phrase in future.

  2. Footnote:

    I think I used to use the phrase “begging the question” to mean begging the question “How?”

    Politicians often say “We will create more jobs.”

    To which I would ask, “How? How precisely are you going to do that?”

  3. JQ, you’ll need to change the guardians style guide, as it says;

    “Now used widely to mean “raises the question”, its traditional sense is being lost, which seems a sad fate for a phrase that might be useful or even – in a logical or philosophical context – essential”

    “The Streisand effect is a phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.[1] It is an example of psychological reactance, …” wikip

    “Reactance can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion. People using reverse psychology are playing on reactance, attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request.” Wikip

    Be careful what you wish for.

    “See, we’ve had to head off one use of this fallacy already in case someone says, “It’s not this fallacy because I’m not using a dictionary!”

    “It is a form of argument from authority combining attributes of a red herring argument and, frequently, special pleading. It’s very closely related to equivocation and doublespeak. About 91.3% of arguments on the internet tend to boil down to this.”

    91.3% begs the question [ ! ], is this a mug’s game?

    mug’s game n.

    Mug’s game also used in reverse to the meaning given. As in “I’d be a mug not to’.

    Excellent slang dictionary though. Timeline of usage examples and quotes. Eg out Barry Humphries 1985 quote on mugs game page timeline.

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