Going in circles by 'begging the question'

What does the phrase 'begs the question' really mean, and why is its use – or misuse – so contentious?


An online search of the phrases begging the question and begs the question yields many examples of people using it to mean “raising the question or issue.” Alternatively, when someone says, “You’re just begging the question!” they mean you’re not giving “a straightforward answer,” as Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains.

A small but strident group of word mavens insists these uses are incorrect. Communications lecturer Baden Eunson numbers them among the worst “monstrosities” in English: begs the question is “not a synonym for prompts/suggests/gives rise to the question,” he writes. 

What does the phrase really mean and why is it so contentious?

Begs the question is a 16th-century English translation of a medieval Latin translation of ancient Greek, providing plenty of room for disagreement and misunderstanding. In a list of logical fallacies (examples of flawed or deceptive reasoning), the philosopher Aristotle included “assuming the original point.” This boils down to an argument in which the premises already assume that the conclusion is true, or in which they simply restate it, something like “Free speech is valuable because countries that have free speech are better off.” A key word Aristotle employed to define this fallacy had a number of different meanings in Greek. To philosophers and logicians, it meant “to postulate” (“to assume or claim as true, existent, or necessary”), but more commonly meant “to ask, to beg.” 

In the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s phrasing was translated into Latin as petitio principii. Petitio looks a lot like “petition,” and that is indeed one of its meanings, but it also carried the philosophical sense of “a thing postulated.” Principium is “beginning,” in this case, “the original point.” 

For a long time, people used petitio principii as a technical term to talk about this fallacy, no matter what language they were writing in. In the late 16th century, though, people gave it an English name. They translated petitio not in its abstruse philosophical sense but according to its more common meaning, “to ask, beg,” and principium as the “principal issue,” e.g., “the question.” When you “begged the question,” then, you were making a circular argument, in the way Aristotle had described.

This is the way that Mr. Eunson and his fellow controversialists insist the phrase must still be used. Few people have occasion to discuss fallacies of reasoning, though, and all English speakers know what beg and question mean. Without the philosophical context, we are left to construct meanings for a phrase that doesn’t make much literal sense.

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