March 22, 2005

Begging the Question

Kevin Drum continues to hold a contrarian take on the use of "begging the question." Earlier I was inclined to mild toleration of Drum's point, but now I've decided his particular position is not defensible.

The situation is this:

The phrase "beg the question" originally meant "assuming the thing that was to be argued for" (I believe it originated as a more or less literal translation of petitio principii). Philosophers still use it that way and that way only, but most people use it to mean simply "raising the question."

Now, it would be better if "beg the question" were used only in the philosopher's sense. That's a useful sense to have available, whereas when "beg the question" is used to mean "raise the question" it can always be harmlessly replaced by, well, "raise the question."

Unfortunately, most people don't use it that way. And if, like me, you have descriptivist leanings about the use of language,* you may have to say that the meaning of "beg the question" is determined by the way it's used. Meaning that, when people use it to mean "raise the question," we can't say it's wrong.

In particular: Constantly trying to correct people who use "beg" to mean "raise" is futile; we won't stamp out that meaning of "beg." And using "btq" in the philosopher's sense when talking to general audiences is counterproductive--you usually won't communicate the point you're trying to make.

But Drum deliberately uses "beg the question" when "raise the question" would do just as well. I see no reason for that. He's contributing to an undesirable state of affairs--in which it is impossible to use "btq" in the philosopher's sense in general parlance. He could use "raise the question" to the same effect, and is aware that he could do so. And using "raise the question" couldn't possibly confuse anyone, since it only has one sense.

The only rationale for self-conscious use of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" might be that it is better to have a clearly agreed upon meaning for "btq" than to have dissension, and since (as I conceded above) we'll never get everyone to adopt the philosopher's meaning, we should attempt to stamp that meaning out. But this won't work, because they'll never get us philosophers to abandon our meaning of "btq." (You'll pry it from our cold, dead hands!) It's extremely useful in philosophy, and no other phrase does the same work.**

So there's really no excuse for Kevin's conscious use of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." "Raise the question" would do just as well, and he should say that. So there!

*so why do I nitpick so much? Because I do. Deal with it.

**I recall someone somewhere--thought it was here but can't find it--suggesting that philosophers go back to petitio principii instead. But that's a noun (at least as I've seen it used in English), and we need the verb.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 22, 2005 08:14 AM

(1) If one needs a verb, one can always say "...commits a petitio principii." Of course, one often does not really need a verb; consider that "This just begs the question" can be exchanged for "This is just a petitio principii." Now that you have suggested the precise but slightly hifalutin Latin, I think I may have to start using it in papers.

(2) "Beg the question" is the literal translation of "petitio quaesiti." Fowler's 1887 logic insists this is the proper Latin name for the fallacy. It seems to me that "petitio principii" is the better name, however, since it really is a matter of taking a principle for granted. "Petitio quaesiti" might just as well be translated as "asking the question"-- rather close to the vulgar contemporary meaning.

(I don't have Fowler on the shelf. This is from the etyomology bit in the OED, which I have not got on the shelf either. Ah! the Internet.)

Posted by: P.D. Magnus at March 22, 2005 08:52 AM

Want to go back to petitio principii, but need a verb? Say "petition the principle". Problem solved.

Or adopt "btq" as a verb.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 22, 2005 09:20 AM

Btq as a verb would, I suppose, be pronounced like 'boutique'.

"So-and-so argues that god must exist because it says so in the Bible, but that just boutiques."

Posted by: P.D.M. at March 22, 2005 09:38 AM

If we're going to use a bit of vocabulary that civilians don't understand at all, we might as well forget neologisms and stick with our use of "beg the question" (he says squelchingly).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 22, 2005 10:23 AM

It would be nice to have an intelligible translation. Say, "short-circuits the discussion," or "assumes what is to be decided."

Posted by: Matt's mom at March 22, 2005 12:26 PM

Not to be too elitist, but I think that part of the problem may be that people who don't have to deal with it every day won't actually be too familiar with the concept of begging the question. Probably if you want to convey exactly what the complaint is to people who aren't familiar with the philosophers' use of beg the question, you have to say not only "That assumes what we're trying to decide," you have to explain how it does. That'd be my guess. I suppose I should get the experimental philosophers to run a survey to find out if this is actually true.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 22, 2005 05:38 PM

Man am I confused.

I always thought that "petitio principii" was literally translated as something like "little principle" and that "beg the question" was idiomatic, not compositional. In fact, I sort of thought that the colloquial meaning of "beg the question" arose because it is more nearly the correct compositional meaning of the phrase.

Posted by: marc at March 23, 2005 07:11 AM

I thought of running "petitio principii" through an online translation system, that being the level at which I'm carrying out this discussion (oog--think I just violated subadjacency), but can't find any online Latin translation services that'll produce the charmingly mangled stuff I hope for.

I also think "beg the question" is idiomatic rather than compositional, and you're right about the civilians' meaning--though I think it still isn't quite the compositional meaning. (But is "raise the question" compositional? I think so--"raise the issue" is in wide use, whereas "beg the issue" is extremely rare and actually looks to be used, usually, in the philosopher's way.)

So the only dispute is what "petitio principii" means, and whether "beg the question" arose by more or less literal translation of it. According to this 'petitio' is 'request' and 'principii' is 'beginning'. Further to that I'd have to ask someone who knows.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 23, 2005 09:35 AM

When did the fallacy-of-unproven-premises meaning of "beg the question" become the "philosopher's meaning"? It wasn't and it ain't. This is a plain old usage issue - Fowler's is a usage manual, not a philosophy textbook. The New Fowler's (1996) has two senses under "beg the question":

1. Strictly, petitio principii (unproven premise).

2. "In general use, the meaning is much more likely to be 'to evade a difficulty' or 'to refrain from giving a straightforward answer.'"

There follow three examples, of which only the third might actually be an instance of "raise the question."

IMO, the "raise the question" use was formerly
unacceptable to nonexistent - note that the New
Fowler's doesn't even mention it - and has become common only recently. A dedicated person with Lexis-Nexis could probably confirm or refute this. It would be a good issue for William Safire's column if only William Safire weren't a total tool (so that kind of begs the question).

As for Kevin Drum: So what if this use of "beg the question" is becoming commonplace? It still sounds illiterate to anyone who understands the difference. Deliberately abusing the phrase is
like saying "irregardless" - everyone knows what you mean, but it makes you sound like a one-minute manager whose vocabulary is bigger than his knowledge. Usage does evolve. So thirty years from now, when the now-incorrect use of "beg the question" is ubiquitous, it won't carry the stigma. Until then, it's worth not sounding like a tool.


Posted by: Martin Marprelate at March 23, 2005 04:03 PM

Apparently, I was mistaken in the translation--though "beg" isn't right. Martin offers "unproven premise", but I don't that is quite it either. Perhaps "petitioning the priniciple"? Surely someone can remember their high school Latin!

Posted by: marc at March 23, 2005 05:39 PM

I remember all my high school Latin.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 23, 2005 08:16 PM

I remember my high school Latin and my college Latin, and I remember that a good source for looking up words is Lewis & Short's A Latin Dictionary, available free without charge from the Perseus Project, in which the only time "principium" is used in a logical sense is in the idiom "principia ducere ab aliquo" (to deduce something). Since Matt's source says that the phrase entered English from Latin in the 16thC, I would look for a medieval Latin dictionary.

Either that or try to understand "petitio principii" as "petition the beginning" in some sense.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 24, 2005 09:23 AM