A question of begging

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:

  1. The order in the universe couldn’t possibly have arisen without a creator, so there must be a god.
  2. 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.

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  • Lev  On September 7, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    This piece of prescriptivism is still elitist, because many (most?) educated people don’t know the traditional meaning of “begging the question”. For example, you hadn’t before you took the philosophy course. Of course you can say that elitist prescriptivism is OK, as long as it’s not arrogant.

    The problem is that this idiom is illogical. Idioms are usually logical and expressive, often metaphoric; some are obscure, such as “red herring”. But “begging the question” is contrary to common sense and begs to be misunderstood. Therefore, the idiom hinders understanding instead of speeding it.

    There is a perfectly logical name for this fallacy: “circular reasoning”. If you feel the need to give a special name to this special case of circular logic, you can call it “microcircular reasoning” or something.

    Besides, the example you have given doesn’t make sense to me. Since the “question” that is begged is really the matter under debate, in this case it is “are grammar standards to be followed at all times?”, but not “inconsequential to whom?” Or is it a deliberate misuse?

    • stroppyeditor  On September 8, 2011 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Lev. Sorry if I’ve not put Wallace’s point across well. Better to read the whole thing, although I warn you it takes a while, and his writing style – well, either you like it or you don’t. It’s roughly along the lines of:
      Pinker says that the concerns of people he thinks too prescriptive don’t matter, but in doing so he automatically rules out that they might be allowed to have any say about what matters, that their concerns might be valid. And the way he voices this question-begging ruling out draws our attention (Wallace’s, at least) to the weakness of the case.
      (I don’t know how well this represents Pinker’s view, but there you have it.)

      Now, you have a fair point that the technical sense of BTQ uses ‘beg’ in an unusual way. But what strikes me is that the common sense of BTQ does this as well. ‘Beg’ normally means to plead or request (or to thereby acquire), but in ‘that begs the question of how you’re going to afford it’, it means something in the territory of raises/provokes/leads to/makes important.
      Are there other phrases that use ‘beg’ in this way? I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

  • Lev  On September 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    From what you say, Pinker’s statement doesn’t “invite the very question it begs” because these are two different questions (actually, only one of the two is really a question). If the phrase is incorrect, how can it be apt?

    The reason I don’t want to read Wallace’s article is not his style; it’s that even from the snippet that you’ve quoted I can see that he doesn’t practice what he preaches. The sentence ‘just because something is “decorative” does not necessarily make it “inconsequential”’ is ungrammatical: how can a “because” make something?

  • stroppyeditor  On September 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    It’s a syllepsis, pivoting on the two senses of ‘question’. ‘It invites the very question it begs’ means ‘it makes me ask about the very issue that it takes for granted’.

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