As Mignon Fogarty notes, it’s hard to find someone using the phrase ‘beg the question’ properly.
Here’s an example of the usual mistake:
You say you’re going to buy me a chocolate factory, but that begs the question of how you’re going to afford it.
‘Beg the question’ does not mean ‘bring up something that needs to be asked’. What it does mean (which I only found out by doing a philosophy course) is ‘assume what you are trying to prove’.
A question-begging argument contains its conclusion within its premises – usually implicitly, otherwise the fallacy would be easy to spot. ‘Question’ here means ‘the matter under debate’, and if you beg it, you’re trying to get a debating victory handed to you for free rather than earning it by the sound use of logic.
The phrase is correctly used like this:
Descartes’s argument that the cost of a chocolate factory can never be known begs the question.
Here are a couple of simple, unsubtle examples of question-begging:
- The order in the universe couldn’t possibly have arisen without a creator, so there must be a god.
- We need reform because the status quo is not sustainable.
In the first case, the premise utterly denies (without giving a reason) the possibility of an atheistic explanation – something you’d only do if you’d already accepted the conclusion. In the second case (you get a lot of question-begging in politics), the conclusion and the ‘reason’ are exactly the same statement, phrased differently.
Let’s back up.
You may have bristled at my first sentence, in which I claimed to know – unlike the ignorant masses – how to use this phrase ‘properly’. Isn’t that arrogant, elitist prescriptivism? Well, we have plenty of alternatives to cover the common use: ‘raise the question’, ‘prompt the question’, ‘lead me to ask’, ‘cause me to wonder’ and so on. And as the technical sense of the phrase is useful, it’s worth restricting the phrase to mean this.
Also, without keeping ‘beg the question’ distinctive in this way, the very best use of it I’ve ever seen wouldn’t work. It comes in David Foster Wallace’s vast, spectacular 2001 essay Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage. Wallace is responding to Stephen Pinker’s view that, given how good our brains are at understanding language even if it doesn’t meet traditional pedantic standards of grammar, those standards are “inconsequential decorations”.
Wallace gives a few examples of when grammatical precision helps to speed understanding and thus helps one be considerate to and respectful of one’s audience. He then writes:
From the fact that linguistic communication is not strictly dependent on usage and grammar it does not necessarily follow that the traditional rules of usage and grammar are nothing but “inconsequential decorations.” Another way to state the objection is that just because something is “decorative” does not necessarily make it “inconsequential.” Rhetorically, Pinker’s flip dismissal is bad tactics, for it invites the very question it begs: inconsequential to whom?
It invites the very question it begs. Beautiful. And apt: question-begging only works when it goes unnoticed. But, if we let ‘beg the question’ mean the same thing as ‘invite the question’, this gem would be ground into dust.
Update: I’ve written a follow-up post.