A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Aristotle

What Is The Origin Of (140)?…

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.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Fifteen


One of my principal objections to having pets, over and above the amount of care and attention they require, is what they carry with them, that is fleas. If you accept that fleas go with the territory – cats host ctenocephalides felis whilst dogs harbour ctenocephalides canis – the natural question that occurs to the enquiring mind is which of the two jumps the highest.

Naturally, scientists have devoted some of their time and research budget to push out the boundaries of human knowledge, in this instance Messieurs Cadiergues, Joubert and Franc from the Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, whose findings were faithfully recorded in 2000 in the ever popular Veterinary Pathology. In order to conduct the experiment they used a grey plastic cylinder nine centimetres in diameter and whose height they were able to raise a centimetre at a time, starting at one and finishing at 30, as they do in high jump competitions. Groups of ten fleas from the same species were placed at the base of the cylinder and their jumps were observed and recorded.

The mean jump recorded for the cat fleas was 13.2 centimetres, about 5.2 inches in old money or over 40 times their body length, with the highest jump recorded at 17 cm. The dog fleas on the other hand outperformed their feline based rivals, jumping on average 15.5 centimetres and recording a high of 25 cm.

When the scientists turned to investigating length of jumps it was the same story. C felis came in with an average length of jump of 19.9 centimetres with a deviation of plus or minus 9.1. Their longest leap was 48 cm and the lowest a paltry 2 cm. C canis, on the other hand, would jump on average 30.4 centimetres, plus or minus 9.1, with the longest leap recorded at 50 cm and the shortest at 3. So the dog fleas won hands down.

In case you were wondering, and I hope you are, the human flea, pulex irritans, records similar results for height and distance as c felis.


Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, “we are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good”. But, if some research conducted by Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California,, Riverside, and published in the Philosophical Psychology journal is to be believed, those studying ethics at major universities have a long way to go before they achieve the Aristotelian goal of goodness.

Schwitzgebel drew up lists of philosophy books, some of which were specifically about ethics and others which weren’t, and using an on-line search engine checked the status of every copy of each of these books in the libraries of 19 British and 13 American academic libraries. The results were astonishing. The books which were principally about ethics were much more likely to go missing than books which were less heavily ethics orientated. And when it came to weighty pre 1900 tomes on ethics, these were twice more likely to go missing, at least in American academic institutions.

Our gallant researcher entitled his paper, Do ethicists steal more books? Could be or it might just be a case of do as I say, not do as I do. The road to enlightenment and salvation is a long and windy one, after all.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

What A Way To Go – Part Eleven

angel of death


Continuing our occasional series on unusual (and amusing) deaths.

Being President of the United States doesn’t make you immune from the attentions of the grim reaper. Take the case of Zachary Taylor. After a particularly warm Independence Day celebration in 1850 he went home and raided the family ice box for something to snack on. He selected some iced milk and some cherries. Almost immediately, he fell ill and within five days was dead. There are a number of theories centring around the cause of the unfortunate Taylor’s death – some even thought he had been poisoned – but it seems more likely that it was either because the milk contained some deadly bacteria or that the combination of the acidic cherries with the milk was too much for Taylor’s sensitive stomach. Either way, the moral of the story is to be very careful what you put in your mouth as the demise of George M Prior demonstrates.

Prior was a Navy Lieutenant and spent his shore leave playing golf at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia. He exhibited symptoms of nausea after the first day of golf and by the end of the third day had a high temperature and a rash. Prudently, George admitted himself to hospital and whilst there large blisters appeared. Within ten days or so he was dead with eighty per cent of his body covered in burns and blisters. Upon investigation, it appeared that Prior habitually put his golf tee into his mouth. Unfortunately, in order to maintain its pristine condition, the course had been sprayed with fungicide. Our golfer had an allergic reaction to the fungicide which burned his skin from the inside out and caused his major organs to fail.

I am the last person to be accused of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, I always say. To illustrate the point that Aristotle’s golden mean – moderation in everything – is the way to live your life, consider the demise of Basil Brown in 1974. Brown was committed to healthy living and drank a gallon of carrot juice a day and took excessive amounts of Vitamin A when he couldn’t get enough of the juice. His zealous pursuit of the healthy lifestyle was his undoing – he died from hypervitaminosis A, a massive overdose of Vitamin A that caused his liver to shut down.

People do the strangest things to win a prize. Edward Archbold, along with 30 others, entered a competition to win a python. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I admit. The competition required the contestants to eat a variety of insects – a sort of early forerunner of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Having chomped his way through a large number of cockroaches, two ounces of mealworms and 35 horn worms – a type of caterpillar – Archbold, not surprisingly, collapsed. On admittance to hospital he was pronounced dead. Cause of death – his airway was blocked by the body parts of the insects he had consumed!

You have been warned!