As promised in an earlier entry, here’s my follow up on the state-run CBC’s Nancy Wilson this morning, who was once again misusing the term “begs the question”. She’d said:
“So obviously some innovation being applied here to to uh stick to the green theme but uh Anne as you can appreciate it it seems like yet another mega events in a way uh in a parade of a lot of events still for a worthy cause —I guess it begs the question—how effective can these mega shows be?”
As I said:
No it doesn’t “beg the question”, Mizzz Wilson … It’s the wrong use of the term “begs the question”, once again (and no, it’s not “very interesting” either, Mizzzz Wilson. It’s just a bad habit or worse—lack of proper education). She simply doesn’t understand how to use the term properly. As she often is, she was looking for the term “raises the question”.
I had to appeal to a couple of sources to find info on this, a lesson I originally learned in either English classes or in Logic classes —both in first year university. Here’s the more succinct explanation from the invaluable
Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English
An argument that improperly assumes as true the very point the speaker is trying to argue for is said in formal logic to “beg the question.” Here is an example of a question-begging argument: “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.” The speaker is simply asserting the worthlessness of the work, not presenting any evidence to demonstrate that this is in fact the case. Since we never use “begs” with this odd meaning (“to improperly take for granted”) in any other phrase, many people mistakenly suppose the phrase implies something quite different: that the argument demands that a question about it be asked—raises the question. If you’re not comfortable with formal terms of logic, it’s best to stay away from this phrase, or risk embarrassing yourself.
I hope Mizzz Wilson takes that cheery advise Paul Brians added to the end.
In logic, begging the question has traditionally described a type of logical fallacy, petitio principii, in which the conclusion of an argument is implicitly or explicitly assumed in one of the premises . Stephen Barker explains the fallacy in The Elements of Logic: “If the premises are related to the conclusion in such an intimate way that the speaker and listeners could not have less reason to doubt the premise than they have to doubt the conclusion, then the argument is worthless as a proof, even though the link between premises and conclusion may have the most case-iron rigor”. In other words, the argument fails to prove anything because it takes for granted what it is supposed to prove.
Begging the question is related to the fallacy known as circular argument, circulus in probando, vicious circle or circular reasoning. As a concept in logic the first known definition in the West is by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 B.C., in the Prior Analytics.
The phrase is sometimes used to simply mean “suggests the question”. This recasting of the term more directly describes a related fallacy, known as the Fallacy of many questions, that occurs when the evidence given for a proposition is as much in need of proof as the proposition itself.
The term was translated into English from the Latin in the 16th century. The Latin version, Petitio Principii (petitio: seeking, petition, request; principii, genitive of principium: beginning, basis, premise of an argument), literally means “a request for the beginning or premise.” That is, the premise depends on the truth of the very matter in question.
The Latin phrase comes from the Greek εν αρχή αιτείσθαι (en archei aiteisthai) in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics II xvi:
“Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) in failing to demonstrate the required proposition. But there are several other ways in which this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken syllogistic form at all, he may argue from premises which are less known or equally unknown, or he may establish the antecedent by means of its consequents; for demonstration proceeds from what is more certain and is prior. Now begging the question is none of these. […] If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue…. [B]egging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself … either because predicates which are identical belong to the same subject, or because the same predicate belongs to subjects which are identical.”
Fowler’s Deductive Logic (1887) argues that the Latin origin is more properly Petitio Quæsiti which is literally “begging the question” as opposed to “petitioning the premise.”