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Beg the Question
Sneaky Beggar

By Evan Jenkins

A tricky topic long evaded here came up most recently in a note from Amy Carlile, deputy managing editor of Roll Call, a Washington newspaper that covers Congress: What does “beg the question” really mean?

The term comes from formal debating and denotes the classic fallacy in logic of proving a point by using a premise that has not, itself, been proven. (In law, a commonly heard objection to such maneuvers is “Assumes a fact not in evidence.”)

One form of begging the question is circular reasoning — basing two conclusions on each other, A proving A: The editor must be right because editors don’t make mistakes.

But the begging needn’t be circular; A, unproven, can be used to prove B. Way back when, H.W. Fowler cited the proposition “That fox hunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun.” There is no proof, of course, of the fox’s state of mind.

In our time the phrase has become popularly understood — it apparently sounds good to a lot of people — to mean to duck a question, or to raise or imply a question that cries out for an answer. For example (among thousands), a pundit on the American presence in Iraq: “It then begs the question, if we’re going to stay the course, what’s the course?”

We don’t need “beg the question” for such meanings, and it’s sometimes useful in its original sense. Whether that sense will ever again prevail seems, at best, debatable.


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Sept / Oct 08

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