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It’s not terribly surprising that people are often confused about what “begging the question” means, since begging implies asking or inviting. So, the perfectly understandable reasoning goes, “begging the question” must be roughly equivalent to “inviting you to consider this other question or issue.” Or, to put it another way, the phrase is often used to mean something like “question A naturally makes one think of related question B.”

Although this usage is common enough that tight-fisted grammarians may soon have to let the traditional usage go, in the traditional usage, a question is begged when a conclusion is based on an assumption whose truth demands proof of its own. To beg the question is to commit a logical fallacy (whose fancy name is petitio principii).

This is of course all the more confusing because a conclusion that begs the question does in fact often invite questioning of its underlying assumption. It’s helpful to lay out a little syllogism. First, the standard Philosophy 101 version:

Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: All Greeks are men.
Conclusion: All Greeks are mortal.

In this classic syllogism, neither of the premises can be considered faulty, and so the conclusion is rock-solid as well. But let’s consider an altered syllogism:

Major premise: All men are invisible pink unicorns.
Minor premise: All Greeks are men.
Conclusion: All Greeks are invisible pink unicorns.

Such a syllogism might provoke a wizened philosopher to accuse its creator of begging the question that all men are invisible pink unicorns, which is demonstrably untrue and thus can’t be used as a sound premise. While the syllogism above may drive you to pose the question of whether all men are invisible pink unicorns, it’s not the questioning of the premise but its use in the syllogism that constitutes begging the question. The notion that all men are invisible pink unicorns demands proof of its own and so begs the question.

Now for a sample of “begging the question” used in the common, more generalized, way:

We should think about how goals A and B fit into project C, which begs the question of how to prioritize the gajillion other goals we’re already struggling with prioritizing.

Here we’re not concerning ourselves with whether a premise is fouling up a conclusion we’re drawing, but we’re taking existing information and using it to spawn further questions. Begging the question, to put it another way, has become sort of a way of saying “and by the way” or “and that makes me think of.”

Of course, most everybody will know exactly what you mean if you use the phrase in this less formal way (and you might get weird looks if you try to inject the traditional usage into your everyday speech), which begs the question of why I bring it up in the first place. (Or does it?)

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  1. Okay, this one made me really think. I’ll have to re-read it. I like the mental challenge though, especially since one of my New Year’s goals is to challenge myself mentally.

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  2. A very informative and explained beautifully about such a common phrase which many of us , including use to take it differently. Hence,after reading this I really thank Daryl for making us aware of it’s correct meaning.

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  3. I wish those who design this page would consider how hard it is to read. With the light and small print, it is really hard on the eyes…at least mine!
    Dark print is easier to read and larger print (doesn’t have to be huge) would go a long towards easier reading. As it is now, I have tried to read, but I can’t get past the first paragraph…just saying! πŸ™‚

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    1. It might be the close line spacing, too, that’s making it hard to read for you. I actually like it (looks nice and compact)—and my eyes are pretty bad!—but depending on your age (not asking!) and the alignment of your eyes, I’m sure it is harder to read for some people than others. You could always read blogs by RSS feed? Unless you do, and you can only read snippets of the full post—I hate that!

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  4. how about this one – i heard this from a piano teacher 100 years ago, more or less, and never forgot it:
     
    major premise: no cat has two tails.
    minor premise: one cat has one more tail than no cat.
    conclusion: therefore one cat has two tails.
     
    hadn’t thought about that one in a long time. thanks for begging the question.

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  5. This is an outstanding article. “Of course, this is all the more confusing because a conclusion that begs the question does in fact often invite questioning of its underlying assumption.” I give this a perfect score. Nice foot work Daryl L. L. Houston.

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  6. Hmmmm…..maybe it goes back to the word beget. In the bible when the authors are writing about which people gave birth to which, they will say “Adam beget Cain” and so forth…..the child came from his father. “Begging the question” reminds me of this. It brings forth another question. Just my thoughts!

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