Beg the question

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To beg the question is a phrase often loosely used. Academic writers should avoid loose expressions.

  • Properly, 'begging the question' is the name of a particular fallacy or fault in logic. We commit this fallacy when in an argument we assume what we are trying to prove, i.e., when our argument uses as one of its premisses the very conclusion it seeks to establish. Clearly, if the proposition to be proved is expressed in the same words both in the conclusion and in the premisses, no one will be persuaded by the argument, but when the proposition is expressed in different words in the conclusion and in the premisses, the argument may persuade the unwary. An example of begging the question given in Richard Whately's Elements of Logic (1826) and quoted in many logic text books is 'To allow every man unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty, perfectly unlimited, of expressing his sentiments'. The fallacy is called petitio principii (i.e., assuming the initial point) in the Latin in which logic was studied in European universities until the nineteenth century. The expression begging the question may also be applied to what is sometimes called arguing in a circle (in Latin circulus in probando), i.e., when a person justifies proposition A by appealing to proposition B, and justifies proposition B by appealing to proposition C, but then justifies proposition C by appealing to proposition A. (The fallacy of begging the question was first identified and discussed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in his Prior Analytics Bk II, ch. 16. (The Latin name for the fallacy petitio principii is a translation of the Greek expression used by Aristotle τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (to en archēi aiteisthai, assuming in the beginning).)
  • Loosely, careless writers - or those who have not studied logic - often mean 'avoiding the question', or 'setting the question aside'. There is another expression, quite like 'beg the question' in sound, that means this: to burke the question.
  • In the media and everyday speech, the phrase is often used to mean simply that a question is suggested by the current statement. For example, "The Government is increasing spending on education, but this begs the question: can they afford it?". This usage devalues a phrase with a specific meaning; we recommend the use of the just as snappy 'raise the question', or 'prompt the question'.