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Begging the question

March 13, 2012

I see that there’s been some debate about the term ‘begging the question’ on the Independent letters page, stemming from an item by Guy Keleny in his Saturday ‘Errors and Omissions’ column. I didn’t read the original piece but I’m assuming it’s all about how the primary meaning of ‘begging the question’ has been lost and replaced by a new and less interesting usage. The phrase ‘begging the question’ was originally a term from philosophy, or logic, and it meant assuming, in your answer to a question, that the question was already answered – a kind of circularity in logic. For instance, in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy he says that the business of the critic is to make known ‘the best that has been known and thought in the world’. Fine, but how do we know what is the best that’s been known and thought in the world? In answer, Arnold quotes some lines of Shakespeare and Dante, and a few other writers high up in the canon and says, in effect, ‘If it’s as good as these chaps, it’s the best’. But here he’s begging the question – he assumes we already know what’s the best in the first place, otherwise how would we be able to pick out Shakespeare and Dante as the standard?

The modern usage is far less interesting. ‘Begging the question’ is now used to mean simply posing or raising a question. (‘This begs the question whether…’) There’s no stopping it, but it’s a pity, because this new usage doesn’t say anything that ‘posing/raising the question’ wouldn’t say, and we’ve lost a pleasingly precise and subtle phrase. I’d still use begging the question in a philosophy essay, but for general usage I fear it’s lost.

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