On ‘Begs the Question’: A Poll

On ‘Begs the Question’: A Poll


With alarming frequency I am hearing friends declare that we’ve lost “begs the question.” What used to be a distinctive phrase for the fallacy of assuming the truth of the very claim you are setting out to prove (aka petitio principii), “begs the question” is now widely used to mean “raises the question.” A Language Log post from over 4 years ago presented some data to show just how pervasive this mistake (yes, I am calling it a mistake) is, and counseled people to never use the phrase at all. That seems extreme, but in the wrong direction! We should recall that old saying, owed to Barry Goldwater, that extremism in defense of snobbery is no vice. 

There are some traditionalists with an outpost here. They recommend you print and hand out these cards as necessary:

beg question card

I recommend you carry a baseball bat. No, not to beat sense into people who use the phrase incorrectly, but to defend yourself after you hand someone this card. (Also, note that if you hand this card to another philosopher you may get a card in return that tells you it’s a mistake to refer to “arguments” as “true.”)

But perhaps it is too late. Should we stand our ground? Or should we go gentle into that good night? There is only one scientifically sound and legally binding way to settle this: with an internet poll:

Remarkably, this is not covered in either of these volumes:
What Do You Say or Do Dear

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Anon
Anon
6 years ago

We should definitely hold the line in philosophical discourse, but outside of it, it’s been way past a lost cause for a long time. There the war is over.Report

David Shatz
David Shatz
6 years ago

For the record, the philosopher’s battle against the wayward use of “begs the question” began nearly thirty years ago (at least). It was initiated by James van Cleve. See William Safire’s “On Language” column from 1986:
https://www.google.com/search?q=%22william+safire%22+%22james+van+cleve%22+%22begging+the+question%22&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb

I correct it to “invites the question.”Report

Nona
Nona
6 years ago

I think the Language Log post has it exactly right: “…’begging the the question’ is a piss-poor way to say ‘assuming the conclusion’…” […]” If you complain about others’ ‘misuse’, you come across as an annoying pedant” […] “Never use the phrase yourself — use ‘assume the conclusion” or ‘raise the question’, depending on what you mean…”.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Nona
6 years ago

Are you against idioms in general? If not, then why this one?Report

Nona
Nona
Reply to  Ben
6 years ago

Perhaps, I’m against ambiguous idioms that cause confusion and pointless posturing. Let the folk have the idiom “begs the question” for ‘raises the question’, and let the homophonic idiom for ‘assumes the conclusion’ die the death. We don’t need it. If one feels the need to come off as a smarty-pants academic philosopher don’t use the vulgar “beg” use “petitio principii”. (Or lets make a new snappy expression, to say “assumes the conclusion”, something like “begins at the end”, “your argument begins at the end”, or some such.Report

Laurence
Laurence
6 years ago

A non-philosopher friend said she thought that this post begs the question of whether philosophers are pedantic to correct others on their use of the phrase ‘begs the question’. I would tell her that it doesn’t, but that would just invite the question.Report

Ed
Ed
6 years ago

Voted for ignoring it, but I’d only do that for non-philosophers. Anyone doing academic philosophy ought to be informed of the different meanings if they’re using it to mean “raises the question”. In practice it’s pretty much always obvious which way someone is using it — if they mean “raises the question”, they’ll raise a question; if not, they won’t. It’s not a huge deal.Report

S.
S.
6 years ago

As a non-native speaker of English and philosopher, it took me a while to realize that ‘begs the question’ is an idiom and not a colourful way to express dismay at a weak argument: but this ‘just begs us to raise the following question’. Given the large number of non-native speakers in the profession, I expect that its proper usage will decline further.
These sources of confusion should be collected somewhere. Does anyone know whether such a resource already exists?Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

Another annoying correction that philosophers often make is “valid”. It can be used to refer to more than truth-preserving arguments.Report

cogitated
cogitated
6 years ago

I’m somewhat surprised at how many people would correct someone who is a non-philosopher. What a great way to continue a conversation. I’m seriously considering using “begs the question” incorrectly around philosophers and correctly around non-philosophers for no other reason than to annoy the philosophers. Seriously, people, get over it. We don’t own phrases.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Of course, often when people complain about pedantry and observe that “we don’t own phrases,” it’s part of a larger implication that we should confirm to the usage of a larger “we” who does, apparently, own phrases. So either some speakers are more equal than others, or the majority is always right. Nice philosophical attitude, that.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
6 years ago

Lordy, and have you ever noticed what the hoi polloi does with “necessarily.” Its enough to make one think that the metaphysics and logic of modality is no longer taught in the schools.Report

Jane Dewitt
Jane Dewitt
6 years ago

I’m also confused by the remark “we don’t own phrases”. Who is we? Anyhow, ‘that begs the question’ *isn’t*, in fact, an idiom for ‘this situation clearly makes the following apparently unanswerable question relevant’, or something like that. It is, in fact, an idiom for ‘your argument assumes what it is supposed to show’. The people who use it to mean the first thing are misusing the idiom. Don’t we correct people–gently and politely–when they make mistakes like that? If someone kept calling bicycles motorcycles, we’d correct them, wouldn’t we? If someone kept using the idiom ‘I’m having a blast’ to mean that things are awful (“I currently feel as if I’m in the middle of an explosion”), we’d let them know that they were misusing the idiom, wouldn’t we? I guess I’m just not sure what is motivating people like cogitated here.Report

ZP
ZP
6 years ago

I think philosophers are losing the popular battle, both in the sense of failing to win over individual mistaken laypersons and in the sense of inviting cries of “How dare you?! You don’t own phrases!!”, because they’re too extreme in their corrections. No matter how much it annoys us, our response shouldn’t be “You’ve made a huge mistake and you should never utter that phrase again!”. It should be that the idiom mis-user in question has made a small, technical, mistake, akin to when people respond to “how are you doing?” with “I’m doing good, thanks”, or how certain communities of German ancestry in Pennsylvania are called the “Pennsylvania Dutch” because the non-German Pennsylvanians, in the late 1700s, misunderstood the word ‘Deutsch’.

I’ve had laypeople respond quite well when I tell them “oh, technically the phrase is ‘begets the question’ to mean ‘gives rise to the question’, and ‘begs the question’ is something else, but it’s a common mistake, don’t worry about it”. Whether or not it’s *true* that the “begs the question” in the “raises the question” sense is a folk shortening of “begets the question” is a separate issue entirely (though it seems kind of plausible to me).Report

Matt Kearns
Matt Kearns
5 years ago

(1) I do agree entirely with your post. Also, have you heard folks use ‘literally’ and ‘metaphorically’ in similar fashion? Such misuses also grind my gears.

(2) As a correction and to avoid redundancy, it’s actually not “the hoi polloi” but “hoi polloi.”

(3) In all seriousness, I truly enjoyed reading your book Consciousness Reconsidered.Report