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Thursday, February 12, 2009

It Begs the Question

The other day I heard an expert on MSNBC talking about Afghanistan (or was it Iraq?), and at some point he offered that such and such begs the question of whether we should do such and such (as you can tell, I can't remember the details of the discussion).

As a philosopher, this use of begs the question is annoying. Begging the question as even an undergraduate student in argument or logic will know, means assuming what you are attempting to prove. The classic example is the ditty about knowing the Bible is the word of God because it says so. In the modern context, we can beg the question about troop levels in Afghanistan by first assuming that they should be higher and then concluding so. Or what have you.

What our expert meant to say was that such and such raises the question. Suggesting or raising questions is what circumstances and observations do. Begging questions is much less common, and must by necessity involve some circular reasoning. So, to the pundits and smart people out there and just to everyone, stop begging the question when you're just raising one.


mijopo said...

Agreed, makes me absolutely insane to the point that I confront people who misuse the phrase this way. But so many people are using it this way, lately, lots of really smart people.

I love the FAQ for the begthequestion.info site and their response to the "Shouldn't we accept that words change meaning over time?"

Erik said...

Yeah, this site is good. It's true that the phrase has assumed an alternative meaning but not because it's been slowly modified over time but simply because people never understood the original meaning. I agree!

lvs73 said...

The ruin of "beg the question" by ignorant writers is a shame. What is worse is the number of educated people who have unthinkingly accepted the incorrect meaning and use the phrase. If you do know what "beg the question" means, you can't use the phrase because you will be misunderstood. If you don't know the meaning and use it anyway, you demonstrate your ignorance to those who do know the correct meaning. So the phrase is ruined, and can not be used anymore in its correct sense.

Thanks mijopo for the link.