I had intended to write a long and difficult piece inspired by this important essay
by Masha Gessen. Maybe tomorrow. Right now, let's revive this blog's tradition of publishing non-political posts on the weekends. That tradition ended last year, when the Trump threat became all-consuming.
Earlier tonight, a YouTuber annoyed me by mis-using the phrase "begs the question." Like most other younger people, the video-maker seemed to be under the impression that "begging the question" is simply a fancy way of saying "raising
But that's not true.
"Begging the question" refers to the logical fallacy of petitio principii
, or circular reasoning -- an argument which assumes as a given the very point being debated. A classic example of petitio principii
was provided by one of Bart Ehrman's students, who offered the following proof of God's existence: "The Bible says that God exists. Since God wrote the Bible and God wouldn't lie, it must be telling the truth." Most arguments in favor of religious doctrines rest on a foundation of petitio principii
-- or, as I sometimes call it, p.p.
(If you want to lose as many girlfriends as I've lost over the years, be sure to tell the woman in your life "You're making p.p. again" every time she says something which you consider logically invalid.)
Now that we've established what "begging the question" really means, I have to ask: How should we react when people use the phrase incorrectly? Consider the following hypothetical exchange between myself and an ill-educated young YouTuber:
"You're using the term 'beg the question' incorrectly. It doesn't mean what you think it means."
Ill-educated young YouTuber:
"All right, Mr. Smarty Pants. If I can't say "that begs the question," then what should
I'm not sure how to answer. (Although I could get used to being called Mr. Smarty Pants.)
Most of the time, the phrase "that raises
the question" gets pretty close to the intended idea. Pretty
close -- but not all the way there. In my experience, people tend to say "that begs the question" when one mystery has been solved and a deeper mystery has manifested. The phrase is a signal: This issue has a hidden layer.
Example: "And so we can't escape the conclusion that Trump's popularity owes much to the widespread belief in conspiracy theories. But that only begs the question: Why have conspiracy theories gained credibility in recent years?"
As you re-read the preceding sentence, mentally replace "that only begs the question"
with "that only raises the question"
and you may see a problem. The meaning is not quite the same; something has gone missing. The lost shade of meaning is subtle and hard to define, but its absence is felt nonetheless.
How about this...?
"But that only forces us to confront the question of..."
No. Too clunky. The intended meaning is there, but the phrase lacks grace.
Should we give in and say "that only begs the question"? Should dictionaries reflect common usage? Is it time for us all to admit that the term "begs the question" used to mean one thing but now means something else?
I'd like to hear your answer to that question. I'm begging