Begging the question
To beg a question means to assume the conclusion of an argument—a type of circular reasoning. This is an informal fallacy, in which an arguer includes the conclusion to be proven within a premise of the argument, often in an indirect way such that its presence within the premise is hidden or at least not easily apparent.
The term "begging the question", as this is usually phrased, originated in the 16th century as a mistranslation of the Latin petitio principii, which actually translates as "assuming the initial point". In modern vernacular usage, "to beg the question" is sometimes used to mean "to invite the question" (as in "This begs the question of whether...") or "to dodge a question". These usages are often criticized as being mistaken.
The original phrase used by Aristotle from which begging the question descends is: τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς (or sometimes ἐν ἀρχῇ) αἰτεῖν, asking for the initial thing. Aristotle's intended meaning is closely tied to the type of dialectical argument he discusses in his Topics, book VIII: a formalized debate in which the defending party asserts a thesis that the attacking party must attempt to refute by asking yes-or-no questions and deducing some inconsistency between the responses and the original thesis.
In this stylized form of debate, the proposition that the answerer undertakes to defend is called "the initial thing" (τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς, τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ) and one of the rules of the debate is that the questioner cannot simply ask for it (that would be trivial and uninteresting). Aristotle discusses this in Sophistical Refutations and in Prior Analytics book II, (64b, 34–65a 9, for circular reasoning see 57b, 18–59b, 1).
The stylized dialectical exchanges Aristotle discusses in the Topics included rules for scoring the debate, and one important issue was precisely the matter of asking for the initial thing—which included not just making the actual thesis adopted by the answerer into a question, but also making a question out of a sentence that was too close to that thesis (for example, PA II 16).
The term was translated into English from Latin in the 16th century. The Latin version, petitio principii, "asking for the starting point", can be interpreted in different ways. Petitio (from peto), in the post-classical context in which the phrase arose, means assuming or postulating, but in the older classical sense means petition, request or beseeching. Principii, genitive of principium, means beginning, basis or premise (of an argument). Literally petitio principii means "assuming the premise" or "assuming the original point".
The Latin phrase comes from the Greek τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (to en archei aiteisthai, "asking the original point") in Aristotle's Prior Analytics II xvi 64b28–65a26:
Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) [of] failing to demonstrate the required proposition. But there are several other ways in which this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken syllogistic form at all, he may argue from premises which are less known or equally unknown, or he may establish the antecedent by means of its consequents; for demonstration proceeds from what is more certain and is prior. Now begging the question is none of these. [...] If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue.... [B]egging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself...either because predicates which are identical belong to the same subject, or because the same predicate belongs to subjects which are identical.— Aristotle, Hugh Tredennick (trans.) Prior Analytics
Aristotle's distinction between apodictic science and other forms of non-demonstrative knowledge rests on an epistemology and metaphysics wherein appropriate first principles become apparent to the trained dialectician:
Aristotle's advice in 'S.E. 27 for resolving fallacies of Begging the Question is brief. If one realizes that one is being asked to concede the original point, one should refuse to do so, even if the point being asked is a reputable belief. On the other hand, if one fails to realize that one has conceded the point at issue and the questioner uses the concession to produce the apparent refutation, then one should turn the tables on the sophistical opponent by oneself pointing out the fallacy committed. In dialectical exchange it is a worse mistake to be caught asking for the original point than to have inadvertently granted such a request. The answerer in such a position has failed to detect when different utterances mean the same thing. The questioner, if he did not realize he was asking the original point, has committed the same error. But if he has knowingly asked for the original point, then he reveals himself to be ontologically confùsed: he has mistaken what is non-self-explanatory (known through other things) to be something self-explanatory (known through itself). In pointing this out to the false reasoner, one is not just pointing out a tactical psychological misjudgment by the questioner. It is not simply that the questioner falsely thought that the original point, if placed under the guise of a semantic equivalent, or a logical equivalent, or a covering universal, or divided up into exhaustive parts, would be more persuasive to the answerer. Rather, the questioner falsely thought that a non-self-explanatory fact about the world was an explanatory first principle. For Aristotle, that certain facts are self-explanatory while others are not is not a reflection solely of the cognitive abilities of humans. It is primarily a reflection of the structure of noncognitive reality. In short, a successful resolution of such a fallacy requires a firm grasp of the correct explanatory powers of things. Without a knowledge of which things are self-explanatory and which are not, the reasoner is liable to find a question-begging argument persuasive.— Scott Gregory Schreiber, Aristotle on False Reasoning: Language and the World in the Sophistical Refutations
Such fallacies may not be immediately obvious—obscured by synonyms or synonymous phrases. One way to beg the question is to make a statement first in concrete terms, then in abstract ones, or vice versa. Another is to "bring forth a proposition expressed in words of Saxon origin, and give as a reason for it the very same proposition stated in words of Norman origin", as in this example:
- "To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments."
When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in more than one step, some authors consider it circulus in probando or reasoning in a circle. However, there is no fallacy if the missing premise is acknowledged, and if not, there is no circle.
"Begging the question" can also refer to an argument in which the unstated premise is essential to, but not identical with the conclusion, or is "controversial or questionable for the same reasons that typically might lead someone to question the conclusion".
...[S]eldom is anyone going to simply place the conclusion word-for-word into the premises ... Rather, an arguer might use phraseology that conceals the fact that the conclusion is masquerading as a premise. The conclusion is rephrased to look different and is then placed in the premises.— Paul Herrick
Begging the question is not considered a formal fallacy (an argument that is defective because it uses an incorrect deductive step). Rather, it is a type of informal fallacy that is logically valid but unpersuasive, in that it fails to prove anything other than what is already assumed.
Closely connected with begging the question is the fallacy of circular reasoning (circulus in probando), a fallacy in which the reasoner begins with the conclusion. The individual components of a circular argument can be logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and does not lack relevance. However, circular reasoning is not persuasive because a listener who doubts the conclusion also doubts the premise that leads to it.
Begging the question is similar to the complex question (also known as trick question or fallacy of many questions): a question that, to be valid, requires the truth of another question that has not been established. For example, "Which color dress is Mary wearing?" may be fallacious because it presupposes that Mary is wearing a dress. Unless it has previously been established that her outfit is a dress, the question is fallacious because she could be wearing a pantsuit.
Another related fallacy is ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant conclusion: an argument that fails to address the issue in question, but appears to do so. An example might be a situation where A and B are debating whether the law permits A to do something. If A attempts to support his position with an argument that the law ought to allow him to do the thing in question, then he is guilty of ignoratio elenchi.
Many English speakers use beg the question to mean "bear the question", "raise the question", "evade the question", or even "ignore the question", and follow that phrase with the question, for example: "I weigh 120 kg and have severely clogged arteries, which begs the question: why have I not started exercising?" In philosophical, logical, grammatical, and legal contexts, some commenters believe that such usage is mistaken, or at best, unclear.
- Catch-22 (logic)
- Circular definition
- Consequentia mirabilis
- Euphemism treadmill
- Fallacies of definition
- Open-question argument
- Regress argument (diallelus)
- Spin (public relations)
- Tautology (logic)
- Garner, B.A. (1995). Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780195142365. LCCN 95003863.
begging the question does not mean "evading the issue" or "inviting the obvious questions," as some mistakenly believe. The proper meaning of begging the question is "basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself." The formal name for this logical fallacy is petitio principii. Following are two classic examples: "Reasonable men are those who think and reason intelligently." Patterson v. Nutter, 7 A. 273, 275 (Me. 1886). (This statement begs the question, "What does it mean to think and reason intelligently?")/ "Life begins at conception! [Fn.: 'Conception is defined as the beginning of life.']" Davis v. Davis, unreported opinion (Cir. Tenn. Eq. 1989). (The "proof" — or the definition — is circular.)
- Liberman, Mark (29 April 2010). "'Begging the question': we have answers". Language Log. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
- Corbett, Philip B. (25 September 2008). "Begging the Question, Again". New York Times.
- Kretzmann, N.; Stump, E. (1988). Logic and the Philosophy of Language. The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts. Volume 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 374. ISBN 9780521280631. LCCN 87030542.
One sort of petitio is common, and another is dialectical; but common petitio is not relevant here. A dialectical petitio is an expression that insists that in the disputation some act must be performed with regard to the statable thing [at issue]. For example, "I require (peto) you to respond affirmatively to 'God exists,'" and the like. And petitio obligates [the respondent] to perform an action with regard to the obligatum, while positio obligates [him] only to maintain [the obligatum]; and in this way petitio and positio differ.
- Schreiber, S.G. (2003). Aristotle on False Reasoning: Language and the World in the Sophistical Refutations. SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy. State University of New York Press. pp. 99, 106, 214. ISBN 9780791456590. LCCN 2002030968.
It hardly needs pointing out that such circular arguments are logically unassailable. The importance of the Prior Analytics introduction to the fallacy is that it places the error in a thoroughly epistemic context. For Aristotle, some reasoning of the form "p because p" is acceptable, namely, in cases where p is self-justifying. In other cases the same (logical) reasoning commits the error of Begging the Question. Distinguishing self-evident from non-self-evident claims is a notorious crux in the history of philosophy. Aristotle's antidote to the subjectivism that threatens always to debilitate such decisions is his belief in a natural order of epistemic justification and the recognition that it takes special (dialectical) training to make that natural order also known to us.
- Fowler, Thomas (1887). The Elements of Deductive Logic, Ninth Edition (p. 145). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
- Welton (1905), 279., "Petitio principii is, therefore, committed when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof."
- Davies (1915), 572.
- Welton (1905), 280–282.
- In Molière's Le Malade imaginaire, a quack "answers" the question of "Why does opium cause sleep?" with "Because of its soporific power." In the original: Mihi a docto doctore / Demandatur causam et rationem quare / Opium facit dormire. / A quoi respondeo, / Quia est in eo / Vertus dormitiva, / Cujus est natura / Sensus assoupire. Le Malade imaginaire in French Wikisource
- Welton (1905), 281.
- Gibson (1908), 291.
- Richard Whately, Elements of Logic (1826) quoted in Gibson (1908), 291.
- Bradley Dowden, "Fallacies" in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Kahane and Cavender (2005), 60.
- Herrick (2000) 248.
- "Fallacy". Encyclopædia Britannica.
Strictly speaking, petitio principii is not a fallacy of reasoning but an ineptitude in argumentation: thus the argument from p as a premise to p as conclusion is not deductively invalid but lacks any power of conviction, since no one who questioned the conclusion could concede the premise.
- Walton, Douglas (1992). Plausible argument in everyday conversation. SUNY Press. pp. 206–207. ISBN 9780791411575.
Wellington is in New Zealand. Therefore, Wellington is in New Zealand.
- The reason petitio principii is considered a fallacy is not that the inference is invalid (because any statement is indeed equivalent to itself), but that the argument can be deceptive. A statement cannot prove itself. A premiss [sic] must have a different source of reason, ground or evidence for its truth from that of the conclusion: Lander University, "Petitio Principii".
- Dowden, Bradley (27 March 2003). "Fallacies". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 5, 2012.
- Nolt, John Eric; Rohatyn, Dennis; Varzi, Achille (1998). Schaum's Outline of Theory and Problems of Logic. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 205. ISBN 9780070466494.
- Meyer, M. (1988). Questions and Questioning. Foundations of Communication. W. de Gruyter. pp. 198–199. ISBN 9783110106800. LCCN lc88025603.
- Walton, D.N. (1989). Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argument. Cambridge University Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 9780521379250. LCCN 88030762.
- H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Entry for ignoratio elenchi.
- Houghton Mifflin Company (2005). The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. p. 56. ISBN 9780618604999. LCCN 2005016513.
If an editorial argues that
- same-sex marriage is wrong because marriage is a bond between a man and a woman,
the editorial assumes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman — the very notion that same-sex marriage calls into question. The editorial thus begs the question.
Such is the traditional or strict use of the term. Trouble arises, however, because the "question" or assumption is usually left unstated in the statements it describes, and consequently beg the question often means "to evade or ignore the question." Since the point of claiming that something begs the question is to make explicit what has been assumed true, the expression can also mean simply "to raise the question." Usage commentators have long condemned these looser meanings as being incorrect or sloppy ones.Sorting out exactly what beg the question means, however, is not always easy—especially in constructions such as beg the question of whether and beg the question of how, where the door is opened to more than one question. Consider the sentence, "The proposal to increase funding for agricultural subsidies begs the question of whether these programs were successful in the first place." If you interpret this to mean that the proposal assumes that the programs were successful, when that is precisely what needs to be established, then beg the question properly refers to the logical fallacy. But we can easily substitute evade the question or even raise the question, and the sentence will be perfectly clear, even though it violates the traditional usage rule.— The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style
- Brians, Common Errors in English Usage: Online Edition (full text of book: 2nd Edition, November, 2008, William, James & Company)  (accessed 1 July 2011)
- Follett (1966), 228; Kilpatrick (1997); Martin (2002), 71; Safire (1998).
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- Kahane, Howard, and Nancy Cavender. Logic and contemporary rhetoric : the use of reason in everyday life. Cengage Learning, 2005. ISBN 0-534-62604-1.
- Kilpatrick, James. "Begging Question Assumes Proof of an Unproved Proposition." Rocky Mountain News (CO) 6 April 1997. Accessed through Access World News on 3 June 2009.
- Martin, Robert M. There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A sourcebook of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and problems. Broadview Press, 2002. ISBN 1-55111-493-3.
- Mercier, Charles Arthur. A New Logic. Open Court Publishing Company, 1912.
- Mill, John Stuart. A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive: being a connected view of the principles of evidence, and the methods of scientific investigation. J.W. Parker, 1851.
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