begging the question

I always wondered what this phrase means exactly, and now I know. And still don’t like it.

It comes down to us through Aristotle and, originally, meant something close to a type of circular reasoning. It was used in formal debate in which the defending party asserted a thesis that the attacking party attempted to refute by asking yes-or-no questions and deducing some inconsistency between the responses and the original thesis.

The logical fallacy of “begging the question” is committed when someone attempts to prove a proposition by using an argument that assumes the proposition is true.

“Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality.”

In other words, opium induces sleep because it induces sleep. Circular reasoning at its finest.

Another example is René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” which can be said to beg the question because he must exist before he can think. It doesn’t prove anything to say, “I exist, therefore I am.”

In recent years, “to beg the question” is frequently used to mean “to raise the question” or “to beg that the question be asked.”

In other words, the phrase is now widely misused by almost everyone, probably because they interpret the “beg” of “beg the question” to mean “request” or “humbly submit.” This is the meaning of “beg” in the similar phrase “beg to differ.”

These days most language authorities view the current ‘raise the question’ meaning as acceptable. 

But, when someone uses the phrase, how do you know if they’re using the old meaning or the modern meaning? 

As a writer, I do my best to make sure everything I write is clear enough that it can’t be misinterpreted. I like to do the same with speech. So rather than use the old-fashioned phrase, I’d rather say, “Your statement raises the question of proof.” Or something like that. 

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