Logic Me ThisPhilosophy

Logic Me This: Begging the Question

Welcome back to Logic Me This! Begging the Question is one of my pet peeve fallacies, in that many people misuse the term. A lot. So I am here to dispel all the rumors and give you the philosophical/logical definition of begging the question.

So I’ve heard a lot of people use the phrase “this begs the question…” when they hear a fact or assertion that they feel requires another question to be answered. Grammar Girl gives the examples

After chronicling Natalie Coughlin’s accomplishments, a reporter writes: “All of which begs the question, is Coughlin the best female swimmer this country has ever seen?” The reporter is using begs the question to mean something like “makes me wonder.”

Over at World Wide Words there’s a whole post on what the current definition of “begging the question” is, and it describes this kind of usage as prompting a question. From the name of the fallacy itself, this seems as if it would be what the fallacy in fact is.

However if we look at logic and the history of the phrase, in its original Latin it meant “a request for the beginning or premise”. And in all logic classes and textbooks, it’s related to the circular reasoning fallacy. Traditionally defined, begging the question means that the conclusion is already contained in the premise. This is problematic because in these cases an arguer is assuming something that they are claiming to provide an argument for. An example would be that lying is wrong because we should always tell the truth. While this may look like it actually contains in argument, in fact it is simply reiterating that lying is wrong in two different ways.

While modern usage means that if you use begging the question to mean “makes me wonder” or something similar it is certainly not wrong, in a debate or a philosophical context we should be aware that begging the question is something very different.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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