22 July 2007

Do You Know What it Means to "Beg the Question?"

Am I the only person who is getting tired of people using the term "begs the question" when what they actually mean is "invites the question?" It is the type of breaking down of the language of logical reasoning that typifies the practice of academic lobotomy for psychological neotenates that is so prominent in university classrooms.

Here is what "begging the question" actually means:
Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.

1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: "X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true."

Wikipedia has a short discussion of this issue on this page.

Even professional writers, who certainly should know better, are guilty of misusing this phrase. But doing so telegraphs a logical illiteracy that shouts "uneductated!" to persons better trained in verbal logic.

So if you find yourself guilty of this misuse, consider using the term "invites the question" next time you are tempted to perpetuate the error. And learn what "begging the question" really means. You can certainly surprise the hell out of a lot of logical illiterates--perhaps your professor--if you do.

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Blogger Yankee Doodle said...

I think I've been guilty from time to time.

Sunday, 22 July, 2007  
Blogger Dennis Dale said...

I must confess, only a few months ago I came across this definition, having spent a lifetime misreading the phrase.
I think it may be too late; I think I read somewhere else that the common misuse is gaining legitimacy, consecrated by usage in the eyes of some authorities.

Sunday, 22 July, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for your comments, YD and Dennis.

Dennis, you may be correct about the willingness of some "authorities" to place their blessing on the confusion of a logical fallacy with a mere figure of speech.

Alas, it is part of the general "dumbing down" of society, beginning in government schools and proceeding through the universities and into the mass media.

If we lose the conceptual vocabulary of logic, we risk losing the neurological facility of logic. Then, when we need to detect the crap that the media and the established order are throwing at us, where will we be? At their mercy, of course.

Kids should be taught all this when young. When I was 14, I ran across a book on logical fallacies. I consumed it like candy, and never forgot. Very much the same way I consumed Godel, Escher, Bach when I first came across it.

Developmental windows for various facilities come and go in children. If a society's children do not acquire the needed conceptual vocabulary of thought during these windows, certain facilities can be lost forever.

Or in other cases, it becomes 10 times harder to learn them at a later age.

Monday, 23 July, 2007  
Blogger Audacious Epigone said...


Among other incorrect usages: "Perusal" as signifying a glancing over of something.

Sprinkling of "got" everywhere. I've got to get home in an hour instead of I have to get home in an hour.

Wednesday, 25 July, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Hmmm. Sorry, AE. No cigar. To me, misusing "begging the question" is far more serious than simple incorrect usage, or misspelling.

It is the active reduction of our logical conceptual vocabulary. This means that on a larger scale, it is the reduction of our ability to think clearly and detect logical fallacies.

Think about it. If you don't have the words for a fallacy, because the name for the fallacy is being used for an altogether trivial purpose--it makes it more difficult to detect that fallacy and communicate its nature to other people.

Just one of my gripes. Next time I mention it, I'll try to make it humorous or satirical.

Wednesday, 25 July, 2007  
Blogger Audacious Epigone said...

I see where you're coming from. I've read of a few scholars who've argued that China's failure to give rise to modern science is attributable in part to the inherent ambiguity of the language.

Friday, 27 July, 2007  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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