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begging the question

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Definition:

A fallacy in which the premise of an argument presupposes the truth of its conclusion; in other words, the argument takes for granted what it is supposed to prove.

Used in this sense, the word beg means "to avoid," not "ask" or "lead to." Begging the question is also known as circular argument, tautology, and petitio principii.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "The meaning of the idiom [beg the question] is to assume as true the very point that is under discussion. . . . Frequently, but erroneously, the phrase is used as if it meant to evade a direct answer to a question."
    (Theodore Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, 1971)


  • "Here is an example [of begging the question] taken from an article on exclusive men's clubs in San Francisco. In explaining why these clubs have such long waiting lists, Paul B. 'Red' Fay, Jr. (on the roster of three of the clubs) said, 'The reason there's such a big demand is because everyone wants to get in them.' In other words, there is a big demand because there is a big demand."
    (H. Kahane and N. Cavender, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2006)


  • "Ordnance Survey, bless it, is worried that the growing use of satellite navigation systems means that we're losing our map-reading skills. Which is a classic case of begging the question: who said our map-reading skills were any good in the first place?"
    (Charles Arthur, "Technophile." The Guardian, Dec. 13, 2007)


  • "Currently, 'begging the question' almost always means, O.K., 'prompting a different' question--but prompting with an urgency derived less from cogency than from the word 'beg.' . . . The traditional usage of 'beg the question' was analytic, probative. The current one lends itself to special pleading."
    (Roy Blount, Jr., "Fair Usage." The New York Times, May 20, 2009)


  • "Another logical term widely misused by careless speakers is 'begging the question.' This is often thought to mean raising (or forcing) the question. It doesn't. To beg the question is to presuppose the conclusion in one's argument, thus to reason circularly. . . .

    "I imagine that people began using the phrase improperly because 'this begs the question' seems to mean that this begs us--asks us earnestly, entreats us--to raise and consider the question.

    "The actual origin of the phrase seems to come from a mistranslation of the Latin phrase the medieval logicians used to refer to an argument that assumes its own conclusion: petitio principii. This is fairly literally translated as 'assuming the starting point.' But 'petitio' also means 'begging' (whence the English word 'petition')."
    (Robert M. Martin, There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A Sourcebook of Philosophical Puzzles, Paradoxes and Problems, 2nd ed. Broadview Press, 2002)
Also Known As: petitio principii, arguing in a circle, circular argument
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