Monday, October 30, 2006

Begging the Question

Something has changed. Okay, so what else is new. Lots of things change. But this one sticks in my craw every time I hear it…the metamorphosis in current usage of the meaning of the phrase “That begs the question.” I always understood that is referred to a statement that contained a logical fallacy where one took for granted or assumed the thing that was being proved. And another name for this is a “circular argument.” For example, someone says, “lying is wrong, because one should always tell the truth.” Another example would be "The Bible is God’s word because it is always right.” Here the speaker is assuming the very point he or she wants to prove: because the Bible is always right, therefore it is God’s word. So one would be correct to reply, “That begs the question.”

A second and similar meaning comes from when one is using what one is trying to prove in the argument. This can come across as a subtle way to evade an issue. One might then say, “You are begging the question” or “that begs the question.”

However, a new usage has arisen that has no connection with it’s original. In current usage “beg the question” has come to mean, “that raises the question” or “that forces the question.” An example is: "The church is having a problem with attendance. That begs the question, what are we going to do about it?” Here the speaker is rather simply saying, “that raises the question.”

The original meaning of the phrase is, admittedly, difficult. In looking around to discover why this is, I found that it is a 1581 translation from Latin, petitio principii, found Aristotle’s book on logic, “Prior Analytics.” Some say that “beg the question” is not the best translation for people now, because at the time “beg” meant “I humbly submit.” Perhaps an easier translation would be, “I think you are assuming what you are trying to prove?” Or, “isn’t that a circular argument?”

So why does the new usage bug me. The original meaning was a (rather clever) way of calling into question someone’s reasoning. The new usage subverts this original usage and makes it a kin to “I beg to differ.” “Begging the question” ceases to call attention to a circular argument and simply means an unsolved issue needs an answer.

The meanings have nothing to do with each other and become confusing. They are confusing because they have nothing to do with each other. This does not beg the question. But it does raise the question, how will you use “That begs the question.”



Post a Comment

<< Home