Beg the question
One of the fascinating things about the English language is how words and phrases have changed their meaning over the centuries or, in the case of this week’s phrase, as a result of ignorance and mistranslation. When we use beg the question these days, it prefaces an indirect question we require answering. But, at least according to grammarians, logicians and other pedants, this is an incorrect usage and it begs the question (sic) how this all came about.
In an age where we have so many sources of information, some of which even bear some resemblance to the truth, it is hard to credit that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had such a profound influence on Western European thought and learning for over a millennium. The foundation of the educational system was the trivium, consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric.
Of the three, logic was probably the most fun for the student because lessons would consist of dialectical debates where, as Aristotle described in Book 8 of Topics, there would be a questioner and an answerer. The object of the exercise was for the answerer to defend a proposition and the questioner to refute it by asking questions that can only be answered yes or no. What the questioner could not do was to take the very proposition the answerer was making, turning it into a question and asking that. Not only was that bad form but the answerer would have committed the error of asking for the initial thing or as Aristotle put it, “to to en archêi aiteisthai.”
Outside of the precious atmosphere of the logician’s class, the error to which Aristotle drew attention became something akin to taking the conclusion you are trying to prove and making it one of the premises of your argument, in other words making a circular argument. An example would be “I’m always right because I say so regularly.” The proof is merely a restatement of the premise. Aristotle’s rule was turned into the Latin phrase, petitio principis which appeared in English in around the 1580s as “I say this is stille to begge the question”.
The difficulties around our phrase lie in the interpretation of beg and question. We use the verb beg to describe the act of making an entreaty or a request. It is clear, however, that it had a different meaning, particularly when associated with a question, the rather loose and, dare I say it, inaccurate translation of petitio. The Oxford English Dictionary sheds some light on its other meaning, defining it as “take for granted without warrant,” placing it fairly and squarely in the realm of an Aristotelian logistical faux-pas. It provides us with other examples such as from Bishop G Burnet’s Some Passages from the Life of Rochester, published in 1680, “This was to assert or beg the thing in Question” and E Settle’s Reflections on the Dryden’s Plays from 1687, “Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.” A later example is to be found in Rogers’ Eclipse of Faith published in 1852, “Many say it is begging the point in dispute.”
Petitio, in this context, is not a question but is the proposition being debated and beg is used to indicate that you are assuming something, the proposition, to be true without adducing any logic to show why the statement is true.
So as a consequence of a mistranslation of petitio and the logistical sense of beg falling into obscurity, our phrase has moved from a logician’s circular argument to one that raises a question. It just goes to show that you ignore Aristotle at your peril.