No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”.

Much like the use of “bias” where the sentence in question actually requires “biased”, I find myself annoyed when people say “begs the question” when they actually mean “raises the question”. One friend tells me that “it’s got a new meaning, and language evolves”, and while he was not making the claim that we should accept any evolution of language, his sentiment does raise the question of whether some developments in usage should be contested, on some sort of principled grounds.

In this case, I think we have sufficient grounds to hold the line here, and to remind ourselves of the value in preserving the phrase “begs the question” for those cases the Flying Spaghetti Monster intended for it to describe.

My argument is this: there are woefully few principles of informal logic that are in current circulation or broadly understood. The ones that are are worth preserving, in that the standard of critical thinking in popular discourse is generally poor, so when one of the useful tools for argumentative clarity is fairly common usage, it’s irrational for us to willingly accede to its demise.

Furthermore, there is little cost to preserving clarity here, as a phrase like “asks the question” or “raises the question” is hardly more cumbersome than “begs the question”. But at this point, I should probably make the difference clear, seeing as some of those who are reading this might not be aware of the distinction I am making reference to.

Here are two examples from a piece in the New York Times, which make the difference clear. (With a cautionary note: the author suggests that “begging the question” is the same thing as a circular argument, and I don’t mean to endorse that part of the column, seeing as that is also a matter of contestation. But that debate is one I’m happy to give up on, or consider a matter for pedants rather than those merely seeking linguistic clarity.)

Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.
YOU: That begs the question.

ME: Huh?

Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.

•••

But imagine this conversation.

ME: I can’t understand why all the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous.

YOU: I’m sure they do it just to sell papers and magazines.

ME: Yeah — which begs the question, why do people want to read about her?

YOU: That’s not begging the question. That’s simply raising the question.

ME: Huh?

My use is incorrect, though it is becoming extremely common. There’s even a Web site dedicated to stamping out this abuse of the term (begthequestion.info). You can print out handy cards that explain the correct meaning, and pass them out to strangers if you hear them misusing the phrase. (I am not endorsing this approach.)

“Begging the question”, then, is the informal fallacy in which (in short) the premises assume the truth of the conclusion. In the first example above, the question of why Lohan is given so much coverage is answered by asserting that she’s a big deal, as evidenced by the fact that she gets so much coverage. The answer doesn’t offer independent argument as to why she should be treated as a “big deal”, which is what the question was asking for.

In other words, the phrase “begs the question” fulfils an entirely different role in language than “raises the question” does, as it is a comment on the quality of a purported answer to that question, rather than being a comment on whether the question merited being asked in the first place.

I would of course agree that the technical (correct!) usage is meaningless without adequate explanation, and furthermore that we should not go around being annoying pedants about this in ordinary conversation. But why isn’t the burden here on users of the phrase to use it correctly, rather than on the phrase itself to justify its existence (in that we are so quick to discard it, even though it’s useful, when people start misusing it)?

As I said to a (different) friend on Facebook, I don’t go around talking about “hydrostatic equilibrium”, because I’m not a physicist, and will likely get it wrong. Why do we think that a useful phrase from logic should be so readily impoverished, even as it’s a phrase that could be, and has been correctly used by non-logicians for decades, to make important points about arguments?

Having said that, I do realise that language is what people make of it, and that the popular usage can mostly likely not be fought. My point is simply this: the fact that something might be inevitable doesn’t mean that you need to endorse the slide into the Alice in Wonderland world where words mean simply what you mean them to, or deny that there is value in holding that slide back for as long as you can.


Also published on Medium.