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Bust of Aristotle, whose Prior Analytics contained an early discussion of this fallacy

Begging the question (or petitio principii, "assuming the initial point") is a logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise. Begging the question is related to circular argument, circulus in probando (Latin for "circle in proving") or circular reasoning but they are considered absolutely different by Aristotle.[1] The first known definition in the West is by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 BCE, in his book Prior Analytics, where he classified it as a material fallacy.

Contents

History

The term was translated into English from the Latin in the 16th century. The Latin version, Petitio Principii (petitio: petition, request; principii, genitive of principium: beginning, basis, premise of an argument), literally means "a request for the beginning or premise." That is, the premise depends on the truth of the very matter in question.

The Latin phrase comes from the Greek en archei aiteisthai in Aristole's Prior Analytics II xvi:

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.

Thomas Fowler's Deductive Logic (1887) argues that the Latin origin is more properly Petitio Quæsiti, which is literally "begging the question".

Definition

The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof."[2] More specifically, petitio principii refers to arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise. The fallacy may be committed in various ways.

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in a single step, it is sometimes called a hysteron proteron,[3] as in the statement "Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality".[4] Such fallacies may not be immediately obvious in English because the English language has so many synonyms; one way to beg the question is to make a statement first in concrete terms, then in abstract ones, or vice-versa.[4] 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",[5] 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."[6]

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in more than one step, it is sometimes referred to as circulus in probando or reasoning in a circle[3] but incorrectly so, if we look at the definition Aristotle gave in Prior Analytics.[1]

"Begging the question" can also refer to making an argument in which the premise "is different from the conclusion ... but is controversial or questionable for the same reasons that typically might lead someone to question the conclusion."[7]

.... seldom 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, [8]
Example
Person Statement
1 He is annoyed right now.
2 How do you know?
1 Well, because he is really angry.

Related fallacies

In informal situations, the term begging the question is often used in place of circular argument. In the formal context however, begging the question holds a different meaning.[1] In its shortest form, circular reasoning is the basing of two conclusions by means of which there is demonstrated a reversed premise of the first argument. Begging the question does not require any such reversal.

Begging the question is similar to the Fallacy of many questions: a fallacy of technique that results from presenting evidence in support of a conclusion that is less likely to be accepted, rather than merely asserting the conclusion. A specific form of this is reducing an assertion to an instance of a more general assertion which is no more known to be true than the more specific assertion:

  • All intentional acts of killing human beings are morally wrong.
  • The death penalty is an intentional act of killing a human being.
  • Therefore the death penalty is wrong.

If the first premise is accepted as an axiom within some moral system or code, this reasoning is a cogent argument against the death penalty. If not, it is in fact a weaker argument than a mere assertion that the death penalty is wrong, since the first premise is stronger than the conclusion.

Modern usage

More recently, "to beg the question" has been used as a synonym for to raise the question. For example, "This year's budget deficit is ten trillion dollars. This begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?"

Using the term in this way, although common, is considered incorrect by some usage commentators.[9] This usage is the result of confusion over the translation of petitio principii, which literally translates as "assuming the starting point".[10] (Arguments over whether this current usage should be considered incorrect are an example of debate over linguistic prescription and description and the historical evolution of language.)

See also

Notes

  1. ^ a b c The petitio principii or Begging the question is studied in Prior Analytics II, 64b, 34 - 65a, 9 and it's considered fallacy. The circular argument, circulus in probando or circular reasoning is explained in Prior Analytics II, 57b, 18 - 59b, 1 and it's not considered fallacy, rather they are logic argument as Aristotle says.
  2. ^ Welton (1905), 279.
  3. ^ a b Davies (1915), 572.
  4. ^ a b Welton (1905), 281.
  5. ^ Gibson (1908), 291.
  6. ^ Richard Whately, Elements of Logic (1826) quoted in Gibson (1908), 291.
  7. ^ Kahane and Cavender (2005), 60.
  8. ^ Herrick (2000), 248.
  9. ^ Follett (1966), 228; Kilpatrick (1997); Martin (2002), 71; Safire (1998).
  10. ^ Martin (2002), 71.

References

  • Cohen, Morris Raphael, Ernest Nagel, and John Corcoran. An Introduction to Logic. Hackett Publishing, 1993. ISBN 0872201449.
  • Davies, Arthur Ernest. A Text-book of Logic. R.G. Adams and Company, 1915.
  • Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Macmillan, 1966. ISBN 080900139X.
  • 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 0534626041.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Safire, William. "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. A Manual of Logic. W.B. Clive, 1905.
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Simple English

Begging the question requires two or more ideas. Each of these ideas may or may not be true. The speaker of these ideas tries to show that one idea is true by saying a second idea proves it, but the second idea is only true if the first idea is true already.

Begging the question is commonly known as circular reasoning, though they are not exactly the same.[1]

Begging the question is a fallacy.

Examples

  • "If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law."[2]
  • "We know God exists because we can see the perfect order of His Creation, an order which demonstrates supernatural intelligence in its design."[3]

Modern usage

"This begs the question" has recently been used to mean "this raises the question." This usage is often criticized as inappropriate.


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