Definition: To Beg the Question
The phrase “to beg the question” has become much more popular outside of philosophical circles. In almost all cases, it is being used incorrectly. When you hear someone say the phrase, then follow it with a question, they are doing it wrong. Consider the following cartoon about Obama’s involvement in the Blagojevich scandal:
In this case, the reporter actually means, “which raises the question”. It is common practice for people to dress up their language to make what they’re saying sound more professional—one hears it in interviews all the time as people throw words outside of their normal vocabulary willy-nilly into sentences in a desperate attempt to impart sophistication, but they instead invariably detract from their overall point. In that light, it is hard to understand why “begging the question” is increasingly preferred over “raising the question”.
Begging the question is to “assume the truth of the very thing being questioned”. For example, introducing oneself to a girl—or a guy—in a bar by asking what they like for breakfast is “begging the question”. The asker has made an assumption about how the rest of the evening will go that “would not be accepted by any reasonable person”. That is, the asker is “founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself”. In this case, the conclusion is that the asker and the askee will be eating breakfast together the following morning, but it assumes the basis that the asker and askee will be waking up together the following morning.
The etymology is thought to be that questions to which the answer is assumed were said to “go begging” because such a question has effectively been replaced with an assumed statement of fact. In that sense, the question had to “beg” for its right to be asked instead of for its answer to be assumed.
Brought to you by the LAFCEL (League Against the Further Corruption of the English Language).
“Suppose I asked “why are diamonds very hard but butter is very soft?” and you answered “diamond and butter are both made out of atoms; the atoms of diamonds are hard and the atoms of butter are soft.” You would have begged the question; your answer to my question “why are some things hard and some things soft” is “because some things are made out of stuff that is hard and some things are made out of stuff that is soft” – that is, you’ve avoided answering the question by providing an “explanation” that itself cannot be understood without answering the original question – namely, why is some stuff hard and some stuff soft? This pseudo-explanation has no predictive power; it doesn’t tell us anything new, it just circles back on itself. The explanatory assumption – that some atoms are hard and some atoms are soft – is stronger than the thing we are trying to investigate – the hardness and softness of two substances.”