Avoiding the question


Begging the question (Latin: petitio principii, "assuming the initial point") is a type of informal fallacy in which an implicit premise would directly entail the conclusion; in other words, basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself.[1]

Begging the question is one of the classic informal fallacies in Aristotle's Prior Analytics. Some modern authors consider begging the question to be a species of circulus in probando (Latin for "circle in proving"), or circular reasoning. Were it not begging the question, the missing premise would render the argument viciously circular, and while never persuasive, arguments of the form "A therefore A" are logically valid[2][3][4] because asserting the premise while denying the self-same conclusion is a direct contradiction. In general, validity only guarantees the conclusion must follow given the truth of the premises. Absent that, a valid argument proves nothing: the conclusion may or may not follow from faulty premises—although in this particular example, it's self-evident that the conclusion is false if and only if the premise is false (see logical equivalence, logical equality and law of identity).[5]

Definition

The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof"; in order to charitably entertain the argument, it must be taken as given "in some form of the very proposition to be proved, as a premise from which to deduce it".[6] One must take it upon oneself that the goal, taken as given, is essentially the means to that end.

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in a single step, it is sometimes called a hysteron proteron,[7][8] as in the statement

  • "Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality".[9]

Such fallacies may not be immediately obvious due to the use of synonyms or synonymous phrases; one way to beg the question is to make a statement first in concrete terms, then in abstract ones, or vice-versa.[9] Another is to "bring forth a proposition expressed in words of Saxon origin, and give as a reason for it the very same proposition stated in words of Norman origin",[10] as in this example:

  • "To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments".[11]

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in more than one step, some authors consider it circulus in probando or reasoning in a circle.[7] However, there is no fallacy if the missing premise is acknowledged, and if not, there is no circle.[4]

"Begging the question" can also refer to an argument in which the unstated premise is essential to, but not identical with the conclusion, or is "controversial or questionable for the same reasons that typically might lead someone to question the conclusion".[12]

...[S]eldom is anyone going to simply place the conclusion word-for-word into the premises ... Rather, an arguer might use phraseology that conceals the fact that the conclusion is masquerading as a premise. The conclusion is rephrased to look different and is then placed in the premises.
—Paul Herrick[13]

History

The term was translated from Latin to English in the 16th century. The Latin version, petitio principii, can be interpreted in different ways. Petitio (from peto),[14] Principii, genitive of principium, means "beginning", "basis" or "premise" (of an argument). Literally petitio principii means "assuming the premise" or "assuming the original point".

The Latin phrase comes from the Greek τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (to en archei aiteisthai, "asking the original point")[15] in Aristotle's Prior Analytics II xvi 64b28–65a26:

Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) [of] failing to demonstrate the required proposition. But there are several other ways in which this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken syllogistic form at all, he may argue from premises which are less known or equally unknown, or he may establish the antecedent by means of its consequents; for demonstration proceeds from what is more certain and is prior. Now begging the question is none of these. [...] If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue.... [B]egging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself...either because predicates which are identical belong to the same subject, or because the same predicate belongs to subjects which are identical.
—Aristotle, Hugh Tredennick (trans.) Prior Analytics

Aristotle's distinction between apodictic science and other forms of non-demonstrative knowledge, rests on an epistemology and metaphysics wherein the appropriate first principles will become apparent to the trained dialectician:

Aristotle’s advice in S.E. 27 for resolving fallacies of Begging the Question is brief. If one realizes that one is being asked to concede the original point, one should refuse to do so, even if the point being asked is a reputable belief. On the other hand, if one fails to realize that one has conceded the point at issue and the questioner uses the concession to produce the apparent refutation, then one should turn the tables on the sophistical opponent by oneself pointing out the fallacy committed. In dialectical exchange it is a worse mistake to be caught asking for the original point than to have inadvertently granted such a request. The answerer in such a position has failed to detect when different utterances mean the same thing. The questioner, if he did not realize he was asking the original point, has committed the same error. But if he has knowingly asked for the original point, then he reveals himself to be ontologically confùsed: he has mistaken what is non-self-explanatory (known through other things) to be something self-explanatory (known through itself). In pointing this out to the false reasoner, one is not just pointing out a tactical psychological misjudgment by the questioner. It is not simply that the questioner falsely thought that the original point, if placed under the guise of a semantic equivalent, or a logical equivalent, or a covering universal, or divided up into exhaustive parts, would be more persuasive to the answerer. Rather, the questioner falsely thought that a non-self-explanatory fact about the world was an explanatory first principle. For Aristotle, that certain facts are self-explanatory while others are not is not a reflection solely of the cognitive abilities of humans. It is primarily a reflection of the structure of noncognitive reality. In short, a successful resolution of such a fallacy requires a firm grasp of the correct explanatory powers of things. Without a knowledge of which things are self-explanatory and which are not, the reasoner is liable to find a question-begging argument persuasive.[15]
—Scott Gregory Schreiber, Aristotle on False Reasoning: Language and the World in the Sophistical Refutations

Thomas Fowler believed that Petitio Principii would be more properly called Petitio Quæsiti, which is literally "begging the question".[16]

Related fallacies

Circular reasoning is a fallacy in which "the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with".[17] The individual components of a circular argument can be logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and will not lack relevance. However, circular reasoning is not persuasive because, if the conclusion is doubted, the premise which leads to it will also be doubted.[18]

"Begging the Question" is similar to the "Complex question" or "Fallacy of Many Questions:" a question that, in order to be valid, requires the truth of another question that has not been established. For example, "Which color dress is Mary wearing—blue or red?" may be fallacious because it restricts the possible responses to a blue or red dress. Unless it has previously been established that the dress is one of those two colors, the question is fallacious because it could be neither of them.[19][20]

Fallacies of Assumption are those errors in reasoning which occur when the assumptions on which an argument rests are not clearly distinguished from the judgments of which the argument consists. An assumption, in this connection, is anything we take for granted, but do not assert, about the subject matter of an argument. It is the equivalent of what we... speak of as the universe of discourse. Interpreted from this point of view, it is readily seen that an assumption is not an assertion, and forms no part of the asserted contents of an argument, although, as we have seen, it has a relation to the argument, a relation which is indicated with sufficient clearness by saying that it points out the sphere of reference in which what is asserted may or not be accepted. Now it is a misinterpretation of the relation between what an argument assumes and what it asserts that lies at the foundation of the fallacies that we have here to consider. Thus, when what is taken for granted or assumed is allowed to function in any part of an argument as an assertion or judgment, or when the assumption on which an argument proceeds is ambiguous, the resulting fallacy is one of assumption.

Petitio Principii [Begging the Question] is the name of an argument which assumes the conclusion that is to be proved... “the surreptitious assumption of a truth you are pretending to prove.” Since, then, the fallacy is one of assumption... its source must be found, not in what is definitely asserted, but in the world of reality or existence in which what is asserted has a definite meaning or fulfillment, that is to say, in the universe of discourse from the standpoint of which the argument is interpreted... Whenever it exists, the fallacy directs attention to the fact that the truth of what an argument asserts depends in part upon what assumptions the argument makes; and, in view of the nature of an argument, it follows that when assumptions are put forward as reasons we necessarily fail to establish a conclusion, and fall into the merest dogmatism unless we are willing to have these assumptions called into question. ... Now, when this happens, when in the course of argument assumptions take the place of reasoned judgments, the argument is fallacious because, for the reason assigned, it involves a petitio principii... When the fallacy of petitio principii is committed in a single step it is called... hysteron proteron... and when it involves more than a single step it is called circulus in probando or reasoning in a circle.

Closely connected with the foregoing is the fallacy of the Complex Question. By a complex question, in the broadest meaning of that term, is meant one that suggests its own answer. Any question, for instance, that forces us to select, and assert in our answer to it, one of the elements of the question itself, while some other possibility is really open, is complex in the sense in which that term is here employed. If, for example, one were to ask... if your favourite colour were red or blue, or if you had given up a particular bad habit, he would be guilty of the fallacy of the complex question, if, in each case, the alternatives, as a matter of fact, were more numerous than, or were in any way different from, those stated in the question. Any leading question which complicates an issue by over simplification is fallacious for the same reason. Now, in the light of what we have said with respect to the petitio principii, it is not difficult to see that the fallacy of the complex question is occasioned by the character of the assumption on which the question rests. In the petitio principii an assumption with respect to the subject-matter of an argument functions as a premise, in the complex question it is a similar assumption that shuts out some of the material possibilities of a situation and confines an issue within too narrow limits. As in the former case, so here, the only way of meeting the difficulty is to raise the previous question, that is, to call the assumption which lies back of the fallacy into question.

Ignoratio Elenchi, according to Aristotle, is a fallacy which arises from “ignorance of the nature of refutation.” In order to refute an assertion, Aristotle says we must prove its contradictory; the proof, consequently, of a proposition which stood in any other relation than that to the original, would be an ignoratio elenchi... Since Aristotle, the scope of the fallacy has been extended to include all cases of proving the wrong point... “I am required to prove a certain conclusion; I prove, not that, but one which is likely to be mistaken for it; in that lies the fallacy... For instance, instead of proving that ‘this person has committed an atrocious fraud,’ you prove that ‘this fraud he is accused of is atrocious;’” ... The nature of the fallacy, then, consists in substituting for a certain issue another which is more or less closely related to it, and arguing the substituted issue. The fallacy does not take into account whether the arguments do or do not really support the substituted issue, it only calls attention to the fact that they do not constitute a proof of the original one... It is a particularly prevalent and subtle fallacy and it assumes a great variety of forms. But whenever it occurs and whatever form it takes, it is brought about by an assumption that leads the person guilty of it to substitute for a definite subject of inquiry another which is in close relation with it. In the petitio principii the fallacy may be described as an assumption of the premises; in the complex question, as an assumption of the answer; and in the ignoratio elenchi, as an assumption of the question at issue.[21]
—Arthur Ernest Davies, "Fallacies" in A Text-Book of Logic

Modern usage

Many English speakers use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question", "evades the question", or even "ignores the question", and follow that phrase with the question, for example: "this year's deficit is half a trillion dollars, which begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?" Although originally a mistake to use interchangeably with "raising" or "evading" the question, the practice has achieved "such wide currency as to be found acceptable by many authorities."[22]

However, in philosophical, logical, grammatical and legal contexts, authorities deem such usage be mistaken or at best unclear.[1][23][24][25]

If an editorial argues that
  • same-sex marriage is wrong because marriage is a bond between a man and a woman,

the editorial assumes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman—the very notion that same-sex marriage calls into question. The editorial thus begs the question.

Such is the traditional or strict use of the term. Trouble arises, however, because the “question” or assumption is usually left unstated in the statements it describes, and consequently beg the question often means “to evade or ignore the question.” And since the point of claiming that something begs the question is to make explicit what has been assumed to be true, the expression is also used to mean simply “to raise the question.” These looser meanings have long been condemned by usage commentators as incorrect or sloppy.

But sorting out exactly what is meant by beg the question is not always easy, especially in constructions such as beg the question of whether and beg the question of how, where the door is opened to more than one question. Consider the sentence The proposal to increase funding for agricultural subsidies begs the question of whether these programs were successful in the first place. If you interpret this to mean that the proposal assumes that the programs were successful, when that is precisely what needs to be established, then beg the question is used properly to refer to the logical fallacy. But we can easily substitute evade the question or even raise the question, and the sentence will be perfectly clear, even though it will violate the traditional usage rule.[23]
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style

See also

Notes

References

  • Cohen, Morris Raphael, Ernest Nagel, and John Corcoran. An Introduction to Logic. Hackett Publishing, 1993. ISBN 0-87220-144-9.
  • Davies, Arthur Ernest. A Text-book of Logic. R.G. Adams and Company, 1915.
  • Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Macmillan, 1966. ISBN 0-8090-0139-X.
  • Gibson, William Ralph Boyce, and Augusta Klein. The Problem of Logic. A. and C. Black, 1908.
  • Herrick, Paul. The Many Worlds of Logic. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-515503-3
  • Kahane, Howard, and Nancy Cavender. Logic and contemporary rhetoric : the use of reason in everyday life. Cengage Learning, 2005. ISBN 0-534-62604-1.
  • Kilpatrick, James. "Begging Question Assumes Proof of an Unproved Proposition." Rocky Mountain News (CO) 6 April 1997. Accessed through Access World News on 3 June 2009.
  • Martin, Robert M. There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A sourcebook of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and problems. Broadview Press, 2002. ISBN 1-55111-493-3.
  • Mercier, Charles Arthur. A New Logic. Open Court Publishing Company, 1912.
  • Mill, John Stuart. A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive: being a connected view of the principles of evidence, and the methods of scientific investigation. J.W. Parker, 1851.
  • On Language: Take my question please!." The New York Times 26 July 1998. Accessed 3 June 2009.
  • Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott. Formal logic, a scientific and social problem. London: Macmillan, 1912.
  • Welton, James. "Fallacies incident to method." A Manual of Logic, Vol. 2. London: W.B. Clive University Tutorial Press, 1905.
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