Saturday, May 03, 2014

Begging the Question

I concede that the battle is going badly and that ignorance has almost won one more round, but I still cringe when I hear newscasters saying, “that begs the question,” as if it meant, “that brings up or raises the question.”

TV Guest:  The lack of limits on campaign financing means that billionaires will have more political influence than all the rest of us combined.
TV Host:  So, Senator, that begs the question, what can be done about it?

Cringe-worthy and bile-producing. Perhaps it’s because I was a philosophy major at one stage of my education. To beg the question is a term previously reserved exclusively as the name of a logical fallacy, and it tracks all the way back to Aristotle. The fallacy consists in assuming the truth of your conclusion instead of actually proving it. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail: it’s circular reasoning.

Here are a couple of examples.

(1)  "He can't possibly be lying because he's a truthful person." If you examine that one closely, the absurdity leaps out at you:
            How do you know that he’s truthful? Because he can’t lie.
            How do you know that he can’t lie? Because he’s truthful.
Disguised repetition takes the place of proof, and assumption tries to overwhelm.

(2)  "God exists because the Bible says so, and God wrote the Bible, so it can't be wrong."
            How do you know that God exists? Because the Bible says so.
            How do you know that the Bible is correct? Because God wrote it.

Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) calls disputed phrases such as begs the question skunked terms:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it's likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. … A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become "skunked."
            [Citation by Ben Zimmer on Language Log]
Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Nook edition

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