28 June 2010

Usage you can and must use: Begging the Question

This is really, really important.

"Begging the question" is a technical term in the field of rhetoric. It means making an argument which assumes an unproven point. Let's watch a five-year-old beg the question flawlessly:

"Mom, if you make me go to bed now, you won't get to watch the movie with me!"

True, son, true. But here's the thing: I don't want to watch the movie with you! I want to watch it with Dad! Without you, my dear boy! So your argument has failed on your sweet assumption that I want you around right now. Off you go, XOXO.

Another? We'd better. How about an entirely fictional friend of an entirely fictional homeschooling family (you can tell it's fictional because I'm not a homeschooler):

"But they won't have friends!"

Yes! YES! That's the point! We don't want them to have any friends, at least not the kind they'd find at school. You're a charming person and we appreciate your concern, but you have assumed something about what we want for our children, and it's not an accurate something. PS, have you noticed that our house is swarming with friends for them?

Tracking? Great.

Now, what if a five-year-old boy announced to you that his favorite movie was Saw III? No, wait--The Saint? You would surely want to know what appalling mockery of a parent allowed a five-year-old to watch such an atrocity. But that doesn't mean any question (ie proposition) was begged. A question (ie inquiry) was prompted. Begging the question does NOT mean, "makes one wonder" or "leads one to ask."

Again, a homeschooling parent has great anxiety about homeschooling. Those aware of this anxiety would like to know why these crazy people are homeschooling if they're so unhappy with it. But again, no question (proposition) begged here. Only a question (inquiry) naturally formed in the mind of the hearer in response to the available evidence. (BTW, the polite thing to do here is either to ask or to put the whole thing out of your mind, not pretend to sympathize and then badmouth the anxious homeschooler to your other friend later on.)

Fact: misusing this usage damages the credibility of the [mis]user. The increasing misuse of this usage is, as the homeschoolers know, more evidence that schools do not teach what students need to learn, ie, how to think. As such, it separates the thinkers from the bloggers. So handle with care. "Beg the question" is not an expression or a cliché. When in doubt, look for an actual tired idiom. Or really impress everyone by just saying, "It made me wonder [why anyone cared so much about begging the question]".

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is something I hear all the time, from people who have gone through much schooling, from pastors to seminary professors to fictional, misanthropic diagnosticians.

I have the same reaction when I hear it that I do when my son scrapes a metal bottle cap across our coffee table.

Cheryl said...

I feel your pain:

http://roundunvarnishedtale.blogspot.com/2007/06/pet-peeve.html

Gauntlets said...

I like you.

Rebekah said...

See, if Cheryl says it's important you know it's important.

Leah said...

Wow, after reading this and then Cheryl's post, maybe I should just give up altogether. I mean I just feel like a rope on the Goodyear blimp, you're so far above me.
Love you though!

Cheryl said...

Leah, anyone who can come up with a line like "rope on the Goodyear blimp" is not a rope on the Goodyear blimp. Float on, sister!

Dawn, I don't know if you were talking to me, but for what it's worth, I like you, too.

Rebekah, flattery will get you everywhere. :D

Rosie said...

i learned this in a philosophy class in college b/c the prof couldn't stand to hear this line misused. the first day of class she sat us all down and hand a nice, long talk.

everyone was like, "ok, we now understand what it is NOT. but we're not 100% clear on how to use it correctly. so we'll never say it again and we should be fine."

(this is a good plan for anyone who reads this post and is still scratching her head.)

Rebekah said...

Aw, I like everybody too! But now I don't know if I'm a fictional, misanthropic diagnostician who dreamed she was a girl, or a girl who dreamed she was a fictional, misanthropic diagnostician . . . .

Pr. H. R. said...

Here's the most common and salient example of petitio principii that fans of this blog will encounter.

When someone says to you: But if you say that birth control is wrong, you're binding consciences!

That's question begging: the point under discussion is whether or not birth control is wrong. But the above statement assumes that it is wrong - thus it's not argument for what needs to be proved, but merely stating what needs to be proved. For if birth control is wrong, it's not falsely binding consciences to say so.

+HRC

Leah said...

Cheryl, sorry to deflate your opinion of me, but I stole that line from a movie . I'll be a little more original - "I feel like a rope on the Hindenburg" - is that better?

Thought so.