Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Begging the Question

John Wilkins has it right: Begging that damned question.

For hundreds of years, the phrase "begging the question" meant something like "avoiding the question." It is an important fallacy in logic and philosophers should fight hard to keep the original meaning.

Unfortunately, in the past decade or so the phrase has come to mean "raising the question." That's probably because the original meaning was too subtle for the average person who preferred a much more literal interpretation of "begging the question." If you are going to use the new interpretation you should be aware of the fact that a lot of people are gong to think you're stupid.

My next post on evolving language will discuss an announcement that I hear frequently on my train. See if you can guess why it annoys me. It goes like this: "On behalf of myself and the crew I'd like to thank you for riding the train today."


41 comments:

  1. So you wait and wait ...and wait. Do they ever actually thank you???

    Myself doesn't much like that us of "myself" either ...

    ReplyDelete
  2. How about, to avoid confusion, the folks who care about technical logical fallacies use the Latin term "petitio principii", or it's accurate English translation "assuming the initial point" rather than arguing that "begs the question" should not be used in it's "much more literal interpretation".


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think there is any confusion. I have never seen an instance where the intent wasn't clear from the context. Just as a word can have two unrelated (or perhaps only distantly related) meanings, this phrase now has two meanings.

      Delete
    2. How about, to avoid confusion, the folks who care about technical logical fallacies use the Latin term "petitio principii", or it's accurate English translation "assuming the initial point" rather than arguing that "begs the question" should not be used in it's "much more literal interpretation".

      Hmm, two pet peeves of mine, at least one of which probably ought not to be:

      - A couple of uses of "it's" as possessive (not correct, it's without the apostrophe - "its") rather than the contraction for "it is" (which latter indeed is "it's").

      - A couple of instances of closing quotation marks preceding a comma or period; I was taught closing quotation marks should come after these punctuations (though before question marks - why is that?).

      Ain't this fun?

      Delete
    3. Punctuation after quotation marks is OK depending on what flavour of English you are using. British vs American English, I think. I don't know where BB is from though.

      Delete
    4. The only reason that anyone started enclosing periods and commas inside quotation marks was to do with typesetting. Printers found that the small, thin "sorts" that were used to make periods and commas could become dislodged in the "forme" (the complete arrangement of metal type from which the page was printed), but that they could largely prevent this from happening and still make sense of the sentence if they enclosed them within the blocks for quotation marks. Question marks, being large, didn't have the same problem, so they didn't need to follow that rule. By the 19th century, improvements in typesetting meant that the typesetter's quote was no longer necessary, and punctuation could be placed according to the logic of the sentence ("logical quotes").

      Because this is an electronic medium, I favor logical quotes over typesetter's quotes. Why hold on to an outmoded and now useless tradition?

      Delete
    5. It's not entirely useless. The period or comma looks better inside the close quote, especially if it appears at the end of a line. This is also a reason why superscript footnote numbers are placed after a period or comma. However, this American tradition does require an exception when what is being quoted is something a user or programmer types verbatim.

      Delete
  3. On the other hand, if you use the original interpretation there are another large group of people who are going to think you're stupid.

    There are many other examples, such as:

    * The extreme dilution of the word "literally" as in "I was so tired I was literally dead."

    * The weakening of the word "awful" to mean just "pretty bad".

    * "If I was the president" instead of "If I were the president".

    * "Hopefully the bus will come soon."

    Of those I would not use the first, would use the second, and the third I do use sometimes, and don't feel too embarrassed much. The fourth I use routinely.

    Language changes, and there is no way for you to put your thumb in the dike.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oops, that comment contains an unambiguous mistake. Should be "... there is another large group of people ..."

      Delete
  4. You would think an evolutionary biologist like Larry would understand that language evolution is not something bad or "stupid" but something as natural and unavoidable as biological evolution. It's linguistic Creationism to assume English phrases like "begging the question" have kept their medieval meanings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why can't we control that evolution? Why should stupid people have a monopoly on language evolution? Can't we decide that language should evolve to be more precise and unambiguous?

      What you are talking about is Humpty Dumptyism.

      Moreover, we're all poorer when the meanings of words are destroyed. The meaning of the word "literally" was destroyed; now it means "figuratively." If I want to say a figure of speech has literally come true, I now have no unambiguous way to say that.

      Delete
    2. Why should stupid people have a monopoly on language evolution?

      The usages of the majority tend to have a monopoly on language evolution. If for you "the majority" = "stupid people," then I am sorry for the state of aggravation in which you must live. :)

      An evolution about which I am neutral, but which has caught my interest, is that of the word "wonderful." Its meaning was more literal, meaning something that left one full of wonder, e.g., "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." It's evolved into something very close to a synonym for "very, very good;" we wouldn't now use it in connection with foreknowledge of an impending execution.

      Delete
  5. Wait: you have a computer train?

    Anyway, I like some language evolution but not all of it, which seems perfectly reasonable. Purifying selection is a fine mechanism. I'd put "begs the question" and "literally" in the to-be-resisted pile. But I'm in favor of disposing of English case markers in most situations.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I know "begs the question" is misunderstood, so instead I just say "You are presenting your hypothesis, differently worded, as evidence for your hypothesis."

    ReplyDelete
  7. The second law of thermodynamics proves that languages do not evolve.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Who is speaking? The train itself?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you! I really like posts on language.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Of course languages evolve. Experts in the Field even have their own Conference. Languages even have their own Evolutionary Taxonomy.

    Take the evolution of English as an example: a Germanic dialect that was transformed by the successful conquest of the Germanic Saxons by Normans (who themselves spoke a Germanized of French …or vice versa given the Viking ancestry of the Normans).

    Here is one possible taxonomy:

    The ancestral Proto-Indo-European Language --> The ancestral Proto-Germanic Language --> The ancestral Proto-West Germanic Language --> Ingvaeonic --> Old English -->Middle English --> Early Modern English --> American English

    Middle English was basically an amalgam of French and German that occurred after the Normans conquered the Saxons in England. The Norman-French were desperate to halt linguistic evolution and preserve their original language. The first French Language grammar book was published for the benefit of the Norman court in London. Modern English can itself be considered equivalent to a “Creole” or “Pidgin” incarnation of Norman-French.

    History is repeating itself as Swahili is morphing into a new urban "language" that is spoken in Kenya's cities, especially in Nairobi. Swahili, English, and other ethnic languages are being combined into a new language called Sheng. Here is a list of English-based creole languages contituting even more testament to the evolution of language.

    American English can also be considered a genus with many different dialectical species. Appalachian English aka Hillbilly would be one example of just such a dialectical species. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) aka Ebonics would be considered yet another dialectical species of American English.

    The changes that Larry and Joe lament represent nothing more than a continuing and inexorable evolution of our language. For example, thou, thee and thine have disappeared from common usage even though they them and their still remain.

    Another example, the subjunctive is in the process of disappearing from English (Joe’s citation of “were”).

    L'Académie française is attempting to halt the evolution/creolization of modern French, but to little effect.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The changes that Larry and Joe lament represent nothing more than a continuing and inexorable evolution of our language.

      Really? Thanks for that enlightening information.

      Delete
    2. Tom: "The changes that Larry and Joe lament represent nothing more than a continuing and inexorable evolution of our language."

      Why is it inexorable? Why is the influence of the actions of stupid people "inexorable", but the influence of smart people is not? By using the word "inexorable" you give stupid people the privilege of being a machine whose processes cannot be altered. Why can't a counterattack from smart people likewise have the privilege of being an "inexorable" machine?

      I got it now. A backlash against the dumbing down of language is "inexorable", and those who disagree with us are fighting the inexorable, ineluctable, irresistible force of history. You're on the wrong side of history, buddy!

      See, I can do it too.

      Delete
    3. @ Larry & Diogenes

      I am on no side of history. My apologies - I intended no offense, but in fact our language has already been “dumbed down” quite a bit over the years and the process is continuing.

      English used to have quite a bit in common with Greek and Latin. It possessed three genders and a variety of cases requiring the declension of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles. The last vestiges of English gender specific declension I am aware of are restricted to he/his/him & she/her/her.

      My less than humble contention of course begs the question whether language evolution is indeed “inexorable”.

      Notice the subtlety of my phrasing. The statement above could in fact be interpreted two ways – scroll down to “begging the question”.

      The simple fact remains that errors in use can, over time, come to be accepted as standard – it happens all the time.

      I defy you to examine either list and return with the claim that you NEVER have employed a “disputed” usage.

      Delete
    4. In a previous post I asked the question


      Re: Parenthetically: the fact that either both mules and hinnys can be male or female begs many “epigenetic” questions. The identity of the fertilized ovum determines the identity of the hybrid.

      I hope I did not just "sound stupid"


      I employed "begging the question" transitively as opposed to intransitively i.e. I was taking issue with many fallacious textbook hand waving explanations of "epigenetics" that were, in fact, guilty of "begging the question" as elucidated by Mark Ptashne

      Perhaps my "transitive" usage is also incorrect.


      So, I did in fact adhere to the common and current mistranslation of the Latin petitio principii (irony intended) (irony compounded - given the current dispute over usage of “irony”) by implying the "circular reasoning" according to the undisputed standard usage that Larry and Diogenes both espouse. However, this transitive employ is almost indistinguishable from the disputed version of “leading to the question”

      Maybe this could explain how the disputed version crept into practice.

      Delete
    5. Diogenes quoth: The changes that Larry and Joe lament represent nothing more than a continuing and inexorable evolution of our language.

      I do not "lament" these changes although some strike me as silly. I was suggesting that there was no way to hold one's finger in the dike. We have no English equivalent of the Acadèmie Français, and even that organization is ineffective in stopping change in the French language.

      Delete
    6. The correct spelling is "the Académie française".

      Delete
    7. Why is the influence of the actions of stupid people "inexorable", but the influence of smart people is not? By using the word "inexorable" you give stupid people the privilege of being a machine whose processes cannot be altered. Why can't a counterattack from smart people likewise have the privilege of being an "inexorable" machine?

      My opinion (and it's that only), with respect, is that this is a shortsighted view. Shakespeare is (barely) accessible to us in part because he "dumbed down" his language so the "stupid people" who filled the Globe would, ahm, fill the Globe (i.e., so his plays would be more popular). And isn't it nice for us to be able to read scholarly works in English, French, Russian, etc., rather than Latin or Greek only?

      Media evolve to meet the market. The "market" uses vernacular; and its usage of the vernacular evolves toward regularization. A spelling like "colour" is a remnant of a Francophone pronunciation that memorializes an 11th-century conquest. Is there a good reason it should not have become "color" nearly a thousand years later in the US as a result of frequent spelling "mistakes" by "stupid people"? Is there a good reason people should continue to learn and remember the original concept behind a phrase used as seldom as "begging the question"? Who talks in terms of "begging" anything now, e.g., such-and-such "goes begging"? So people who've only heard or read the phrase once or twice then try to use it in accordance with what they think it means, and the meaning changes to one that makes more sense to the modern eye/ear on first impression.

      Thus eventually old spellings, word and phrase meanings, etc., become antiquated and are either lost to history or changed - streamlined, regularized - to meet modern majority understandings and usages. Is it the folks who (unconsciously) make the language evolve to suit them, or those who remember the old ways and would use them as a straitjacket who are being "stupid"?

      Delete
    8. @ Joe

      Actually - the correct usage of "quoth" above would be "Quoth Diogenes..." akin to "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!'" (Edgar Allan Poe).

      The word "Quoth" is used with nouns, and with first- and third-person pronouns, and always placed before the subject as explained in this link

      Regarding "the Académie française"

      Vergil was correct: "français" was not a proper noun requiring capitalization, but rather an adjective. Given the feminine status of the proper noun "Académie", the following adjective accords agreement with an extra terminal "e". That in fact is how the French spell it.

      However, there is some dispute regarding English spelling. For example, Encyclopedia Britannica would have us consider "French Academy" as a compound proper noun where both words require capitalization

      But to my way of thinking such usage is inconsistent; in that case the two words should be hyphenated, as is generally required of compound nouns in English. However, yet again an inexorable process of linguistic evolution takes play. Compound nouns where both words including the modifier is a noun often start out hyphenated but eventually lose their hyphens over time. Check out this this link.

      In my part of Canada which is bilingual, we would never say "the Académie française" but rather "l’Académie française" given the usage of the direct article in French is somewhat different than in English and to a Francophone/Francophile ear is also part and parcel of the entire phrase.

      That all said, I admit I have to agree with Larry Moran, Diogenes, crzyhssn and John Harshman. Certain “mistakes” should not "devolve" into proper usage without resistance by those that know better.

      John Harshman summed it up best

      I'd put "begs the question" and "literally" in the to-be-resisted pile. But I'm in favor of disposing of English case markers in most situations.

      Hmmm… on second thought: I myself would still prefer to retain English case markers.


      Delete
    9. @ Joe again

      oops - my reply above was incomplete...

      So to recap part of the above; yes, the Encyclopedia Britannica in fact spells Académie Française as you do (with both words capitalized) by deferring to English Grammatical rules as opposed to French grammatical rules, which must really annoy the white-beards in l’Académie!

      :-)

      Delete
    10. Thanks to vergil arma and to Tom Mueller for the corrections. And apologies to the Académie Française for leaving out the final "e" and for tilting the little thingie over the first "e" the wrong way.

      However if I an enough people continue to use "quoth" incorrectly, and to misspell the name of the Academy, then resistance may be futile.

      I am aware every time to speak to students that I must sound llke some relic of the Victorian era. My son often points out words that his generation would never use. One that startled me was "belch". And of course "quoth" is gone from their vocabulary too, however one is to use it. (I think "is to" is another phrase that they do not use).

      Delete
    11. LOL!

      Joe - I tip my hat - you are indeed a gentleman!

      re: "...and for tilting the little thingie over the first "e" the wrong way...

      That would be l'accent aigu = ´ as opposed to l'accent grave = `

      If you can believe it - the Gallic temperment of the French leads to far more empashioned debate on such subjects than the more sanguine equivalent on the other side of the Channel or the Atlantic.

      FTR - French spelling and usage is also in flux as demonstrated by the Academie's official
      rectifications orthographiques du français in 1990.

      My son attends a Francophone school and I am in perpetual debate with his teacher regarding correct grammar and syntax. My son prefers to defer to the authority of his teacher who tends to simplify things a bit too much IMO.

      Of course, I usually win the debate by invoking l’Académie française.

      We did have a bit of fun here, didn't we?

      best regards

      Delete
    12. Oops - that would be "francophone school" !!!!

      Proper nouns are capitalized, not adjectives.

      German is my first language. Correct capitalization will always remain my personal bête noire! ( n.b. L’accent circonflexe)

      Delete
  11. John Wilkins is correct that perverting the phrase has left no easy way to beg the question of petitio principii in an opponent's argument.

    ReplyDelete
  12. How is begging the question different from assuming the conclusion? If they are different, could someone provide a simple example to distinguish them?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Begging the question is a subset of assuming the conclusion. BTQ is presenting your thesis, with the wording changed slightly, as evidence that your conclusion is true.

      Ex.:

      "Scientists are in a conspiracy to conceal the evidence refuting evolution!"

      "What's the proof of that?"

      "They're all in it together!"

      Delete
    2. I found this exchange on a forum recently:

      Q: It doesn’t resolve the Euthyphro dilemma, which can be restated as: “Is God’s nature good because it conforms to an external standard of goodness, or is the standard good because it conforms to God’s nature?”

      A: The standard is good because it conforms to god’s nature, and god cannot change its nature.

      Delete
    3. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

      Funny, but is it BTQ? It seems like a something else.

      Do you love me because you are attracted to me, or are you attracted to me because you love me?

      I am attracted to you because I love you, because I am attracted to you.

      Delete
    4. Begging the question sounds like a relative of circular reasoning.

      The sky is blue because blue is the color of the sky.

      Delete
  13. In my experience, "assuming the conclusion" is always read literally. As in, Socrates is a mortal, Socrates died, therefore Socrates is a mortal.

    Contrast to this argument? All facts in science are provisional, Evolution is a fact, therefore Evolutionary theory is still just a theory. And then the following conclusion that other ways of knowing where people came from are rational alternatives does indeed logically follow. Yet the premise begs the question of what it means to claim all scientific facts are provisional. Also yet, I don't know of anyone who would concede this example to be a case of assuming the conclusion.

    ReplyDelete
  14. {big sigh} Okay, all right, I'm part of the prudish language police, I'll admit it.

    I really grit my teeth when I hear "Beg the question" used to mean "Raise the question". And No, and No again. In addition to NOT meaning "Raise the question", it also does NOT mean "Makes an assumption and does not ask if the assumption is correct; so, avoids asking the correct question".

    "Begging the question" is a logical fallacy in which the conclusion is assumed in the premise. It's circular reasoning.

    Yeah, I know, language changes, and old f@rts such as myself get our undies in a bunch. It's gotten to the point where I cringe when I hear the term used correctly. These days I hear it misused so frequently, including by professional writers who should know better, that on the very rare occasions when it's used appropriately, I am startled.

    What really bunches mine is to read, "The question begs". But I shouldn't be surprised...

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm not exactly sure what to call this statement but it seems to be "Begging the Question":

    "Why should cranks get equal time, Gary?"

    ReplyDelete