Begging for More

In an earlier post (Begging for Change), I took up the question of begging the question, a phrase that has come to mean, as I explained there, something more than it did in the beginning. I received some comments asking me to give more examples of the original meaning, and I thought a few additional words here might shed some light on how thought takes shape in the way we use language.

We should begin by understanding that the phrase to beg the question is a technical name for a mistake in reasoning: to assume what we’re trying to prove. Those who think hard about thinking, the logicians, long ago assembled a collection of mistakes we often make in arguing a point. These mistakes in reasoning are called logical fallacies (fallacies meaning falsities), and each, as we would expect, has been named and defined and catalogued. The medieval scholastics took up the logical work of Aristotle, and translated his Greek into their Latin. Hence the fallacies often even now retain their Latin names; we still speak, for example, of an ad hominem argument (the phrase means concerning the person), in which we criticize the person arguing rather than take on their argument directly: What does he know, he’s illiterate.

I mention all this to say that the correct way to use the phrase begging the question (and by correct I mean only original), is to name the fallacy itself. Begging the question is the English translation of the Latin name for the fallacy, petitio principii. I referred in the earlier post to a prosecuting attorney urging jurors passionately to find this criminal guilty. A juror paying close attention might think to himself, “I see what’s going on here, more rhetoric than logic, for that’s exactly why I’m here: to consider the facts and determine whether the defendant is guilty. This lawyer is trying to get me to assume that the defendant is guilty; he is begging the question to weaken my judgment.” The technical designation, like all special terminology, is merely a shorthand for thinking, and helps us see what’s going on in an argument more quickly. We may expect a lawyer on behalf of his client to add the weight of a mistake in reasoning to the scale of his defense, but truth, even now, can outweigh appearance. To miss the logical mistake can cost us dearly, and with the name of the fallacy at hand, we have a chance to discern the error more surely.

But it is not only in the courtroom that the term applies. If I say, for example, Sam loves to take the train because he loves to travel, or I believe in God because the Bible is the word of God, or Laura is telling you the truth because she is a good person—all of these statements beg the question. They appear to be making an argument because we see the word because, but the conclusions only repeat the information in the because-clause—that is to say, they go back begging for more of the same idea and thereby prove nothing at all. The fallacy of begging the question (question meaning here the matter under discussion, not a statement expecting an answer) is closely related to another called arguing in a circle: if we’re just repeating the same thing over again in different words, round and round we go—as we, in fact, too often do.

Grammar, we can see, inevitably involves both logic and rhetoric; the three, in fact, are inseparable friends. Logic is the headiest of the three, though, and often demands much more attention. A really fine introduction to the subject of logic as it appears in our daily writing and conversation is D.Q. McInerny’s Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. Clear and concise, it introduces the subject of critical thinking in an accessible and inspiring way. I recommend it highly.


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