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Begging the Question

I have a philosophy degree and, as such, I am uppity and snippy about a great many philosophical ideas that the non-philosophy-degree-holding public ( that is to say, those not asking “want fries with that” as the heart of their occupation ( I kid, I kid, my decadently over-educated bretheren )) believe they already know plenty about.

Much like an engineering magazine left in marketing, which leads to promises of Flux Capacitors in the next release, the non-Philosophy students occasionally get exposed to strange ideas which enamor them and which they begin to speak of regularly and, more dangerously, knowingly.

Exhibit A: “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is a phrase that denotes a common type of logical fallacy. It’s where you assert what you’re trying to prove, as though it’s an established fact. Logically speaking it looks like

Premiss1 Premiss2 Conclusion

-—

Conclusion

Versus

Premiss1 Premiss2 Premissn

-—

Conclusion

Every time someone uses this phrase in the context of: “The car is broken, which begs the question of how we will get to school” my teeth grit. Why not say:

  • “Which leads to…”
  • “Which forces us to consider…”
  • “Which immediately draws us to…”
  • “Which, as a consequence, asks…”

Given that lack of options isn’t the reason for this misuse, it’s clear that there’s some sort of fascination with “beg the question”. Somehow people hear it once and, under its power, become like victims of Ampulex compressa. It’s compelling as an inter-sentence segue, it works a dark magic on the mind. As the pod-people continue to express the idea those of us with familiarity with the technical term chafe.

In this excellent article on how autistic children have a hard time understanding lying ( because they don’t have the ability to imagine minds with beliefs independent of fact ) the learned author writes:

If what other animals are doing when they appear to be dishonest is not real deception, this begs the question of what counts as real deception[1].

Now wait just a minute. Someone is writing scholarly work about autism research and misuses “beg the question”? Could it be? Have the scientists have been invaded by ampulex beggainterrogativa?

I think this phrase, quite like no other, is a shibboleth of “I went to a university and got a degree of consequence” . Ironically, it is usually the people who adopted the shibboleth for exactly that reason who most misuse it, leaving your fry cook’s teeth it ill-repair owing to the induced gnashing.

Footnotes:

  1. Might I add, that for those who do know the meaning of “beg the question” it’s confusing as the author might actually mean the true technical usage…or may not. It took me several re-reads to decide if he was being logical about it or using this bastard usage.

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