Date: Thu, 14 Dec 1995 23:28:24 -0700


Subject: Attestations of "Begging the question"

My colleague, Carl Berkhout, has done a quick search of come current

publications, and has found the new meaning of beg the question is

not confined just to undergraduates. Either it has been around awhile,

or is spreading like a virus. Herewith excerpts from his note:


Some general questioning has suggested that most younger people

don't even realize what the original sense is.

No doubt about it. The very concept of logical fallacy is pretty much

unknown to them. It's too bad. They don't know what "petitio

principii," or any other pair of Latin words, means either,

so yet another very handy and economical phrase has been boodled into

semi-darkness. Unless the context makes it clear, the phrase is now

certifiably ambiguous.

The first misunderstanding of the phrase--"avoiding the question,"

"ducking the question"--has of course been around for much of this

century and appears widely even among writers who otherwise know their

usage pretty well. A recent example from an article on Somalia in

_Foreign Affairs_ (May-June 1995):

The Bush and Clinton administrations insisted on a quick handoff to

the United Nations, effectively begging the question.

But its use in the "begging for an answer" sense is becoming just about

as common as "I could care less" these days.

Here's a heading from _Insight on the News_ (13 Feb 1995):

Clinton's foreign success begs question: what next?

This one is from a writer, in _Reason_ (March 1995), skeptical about a

drug-prevention program:

With such enthusiasm for the program it almost begs the question:

What if it doesn't work?

Here's one that wrestles with the vessel with the pestle (_Astronomy_

Jan 1995):

The troubles with Hubble beg the question: What is an acceptable,

informed risk?

This one's from an article on a fashion photographer in _The New

Republic_ (2 Jan 1995):

These twelve pages--a gorgeous throwback--beg the question: Where

are the new masters?

And here's an example with an indefinite article, from a piece on the

Chrysler corporation in _The Economist_ (15 April 1995):

Which begs a question: where will the money come from?

The trailing questions in the above examples make the beggary clear,

and it is probably clear--or is it?--as well in such beggared prose as

this, in _Hypatia_ (Spring 1995):

Although the postmodern notion of the self as fragmented and shifting

well captures some of the complexities of identity today, it

frequently tends to beg the question of how to characterize the

"self" that experiences itself as multiple and unstable.

At lunch one day with a couple of members of the British Library staff I

heard one of them say, "But that just beggars the whole question,

doesn't it?" At least I _think_ the verb was "beggars." Can't imagine

what other verb it could have been.