chicken with open beak

The great David Foster Wallace went on a mini-rant about this topic somewhere. And he’s right. In common parlance, people regularly fail to use the term “beg the question” correctly. The meaning of “beg the question” is not generally known. I myself did not know it, until I was informed of it by the great DFW.

But now I know. And this knowledge has been a problem for me. There have been numerous times over the past few years when I wanted to insert “But that begs the question . . .” into a sentence. But it’s rare to find yourself in a social situation in which the idiom can be correctly used and understood—unless, of course, all your friends happen to be philosophers. When I have the urge to say those words, I end up stuttering for a few seconds, until my tongue can rephrase my proposition into something more proper.

Who cares about being proper? you might ask. Well, no one, really, except for writers and people whose job it is to use language properly. Like me. Maybe you fall into that category, too. Even if you don’t, perhaps this esoteric bit of linguistic information will be of interest, anyway.

This blog post will define the meaning of the term “beg the question.” It will explain what the “begging the question fallacy” is. And it will provide alternate phrases for use in common parlance (thankfully, there are some!), employable in general life situations when “That begs the question” is not the proper idiom.

“Beg the Question” Meaning in Popular Use (Incorrect)

The meaning of “That begs the question” in common parlance is “That prompts the question.” This is technically incorrect. However, everyone will understand you perfectly.

Here’s an example of an incorrect but perfectly understandable use of the idiom:

PERSON A: My young chickens just started laying eggs!

PERSON B: That begs the question, what are you going to cook with those eggs?

In this case, person B has taken the information given by person A and used it as a prompt to ask a question. It’s perfectly obvious what person B means.

The trouble is, that’s not what “beg the question” means. If person B had said “That prompts the question, what are you going to cook with those eggs?” this would have been technically accurate (though rather stuffy sounding; there are better options, which I will get to later).

“Beg the Question” Meaning in Philosophical Use (Correct): Example #1

The meaning of “begging the question” goes back centuries—actually, make that millennia. Aristotle used words in Ancient Greek that meant something like “asking the original point.” This was translated into Latin as petitio principii. This technically means “asking for the starting point.” In the 16th century, it was translated into English as “begging the question.”

The idiom was used in philosophical conversations pertaining to logic. When you’re trying to prove a point, you can’t prove it by pointing to that same exact thing itself. This begs the question. Or, to use the clearer language of the Greek and Latin translations, this makes the person you’re talking to “ask your original point” or “ask for the starting point”—in other words, question the validity of what you’re saying, based on noticing that your original thesis is being used to prove your original thesis.

An easier way of explaining this is to say, to beg the question means to point out a simplistic case of circular reasoning.

Here’s an example:

PERSON A: My chickens are happy!

PERSON B: How do you know they are happy?

PERSON A: Because they are content!

PERSON B: That begs the question. . . .

Person A’s argument is that their chickens are happy because they are content. But since “content” is a synonym for “happy,” the argument is that the chickens are happy because they are happy. Person A has not proved anything, because their argument goes around in a circle. This is an example of the “begging the question fallacy.” Here’s how the argument is circular:

How do we know that the chickens are happy? → Because they are content, aka happy. → But how do we know that they are content, aka happy? → Because they are content, aka happy. → But how do we know that they are content, aka happy? → Etc. ad infinitum

As you can see, using “begs the question” with the original, philosophical meaning is not an innocent question, but rather a Socratic one. At best, it is an invitation to a rousing intellectual debate. At worst, it is an insult.

“Beg the Question” Meaning in Philosophical Use (Correct): Example #2

Here’s another example:

PERSON A: Eggs are nutritious.

PERSON B: In what ways are eggs nutritious?

PERSON A: When a person eats eggs, their body is nourished, and they receive health benefits.

PERSON B: That begs the question. . . .

Person A’s argument that eggs are nutritious begs the question, because the reason provided merely defines the word “nutritious.” Look up “nutritious” in a dictionary and you will find something along the lines of “nourishing; healthful.” Once again, Person A has not proved anything, because their argument goes around in a circle. This is another example of the “begging the question fallacy.” Here’s how the argument is circular:

How do we know that eggs are nutritious? → Because they are nourishing and healthful, aka nutritious. → But how do we know that they are nourishing and healthful, aka nutritious? → Because they are nourishing and healthful, aka nutritious. → But how do we know that they are nourishing and healthful, aka nutritious? → Etc. ad infinitum

Circular Reasoning That Does Not “Beg the Question”: Example #1

“Begging the question” is only one type of circular reasoning. Another type of circular reasoning, which is not considered “begging the question,” is more complicated. Instead of trying to prove something by pointing back to itself, you can try to prove something by pointing to something else, and then prove that something else by pointing back to the starting point. This type of circular reasoning—like all types of circular reasoning—is fallacious.

Here’s an example of circular reasoning that’s not “begging the question”:

PERSON A: My backyard chickens love me.

PERSON B: How do you know they love you?

PERSON A: Because every time I go out to the backyard, they all come running toward me.

PERSON B: How do you know they aren’t running toward you because you usually have a treat to give them?

PERSON A: Because even when I don’t have a treat, they still come running toward me.

PERSON B: Why do they still come running toward you, even when you don’t have a treat?

PERSON A: Because they love me.

PERSON B: How do you know they love you?

PERSON A: I told you, because they come running. . . .

Person A’s argument, when boiled down to the essentials, is circular:

How do we know that the chickens love person A? → Because they come running to person A. → Why do the chickens come running to person A? → Because they love person A. → How do we know that the chickens love person A? → Etc. ad infinitum

We can see that this is fallacious reasoning because it goes around in a circle.

We can also see hints within the dialogue that there might be other ways of thinking about the situation. For example, perhaps the chickens come running because of the chance of a treat, or because they have been conditioned to behave that way due to treats given in the past, or because they like the person’s scent, or because they think person A can provide protection from a predator, and so on. It’s not that person A is necessarily wrong; maybe the chickens do love person A, and maybe this is why they come running. However, this is not logically proven by person A’s argument.

Another problem here is that the word “love” has not been defined. This is a slippery word even when applied to humans. When applied to animals, all bets are off.

Circular Reasoning That Does Not “Beg the Question”: Example #2

Much ink has been used in trying to prove the existence of God. In Western philosophy, this was a major concern for centuries, and that concern has not gone away. As I wrote in my recent blog post about the scientific method, some things aren’t easily testable by science. Philosophers throughout Western history have tried to prove the existence of God through logic. However, some of their attempts resulted in circular reasoning.

I won’t try to recreate one of those arguments. But, in keeping with the chicken theme, here’s an example of circular reasoning that’s not “begging the question” but that does mention a deity:

PERSON A: My chickens make a daily offering to the Great Chicken Deity.

PERSON B: How do you know they make a daily offering to the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: Because I always find their feed scattered around their coop.

PERSON B: How do you know that feed scattered around their coop is evidence of an offering to the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: Because my chickens eat some of their feed, and some of it they scatter around as an offering to the Great Chicken Deity.

PERSON B: How do you know that, when they scatter some of their feed around the coop, this is an offering to the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: Because my chickens never fail to make a daily offering to the Great Chicken Deity.

PERSON B: How do you know they never fail to make a daily offering to the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: I told you, because I always find their feed scattered around. . . .

Once again, person A’s argument is circular. Here it is, boiled down to the essentials:

How do we know the chickens are making an offering to their deity? → Because they scatter their feed. → Why do the chickens scatter their feed? → Because they always make an offering to their deity. → How do we know the chickens are making an offering to their deity? → Etc. ad infinitum

This example of circular reasoning fails to prove anything about the chickens’ religious practices (or lack thereof). It is also important to note that, even outside the circular reasoning aspect of this dialogue, there is also no proof here about the existence (or lack thereof) of the Great Chicken Deity. Simply talking about the Great Chicken Deity as if he/she/they/it exists does not, obviously, prove the deity’s existence.

Additional Notes About Circular Reasoning and Begging the Question

As you can see, begging the question is a very simple form of circular reasoning. The examples I give above of circular reasoning that are not “begging the question” are slightly more complex. But circular reasoning can get much more complex than this. You could write a 1,000-page book that lays out an argument, and on each page you could further your argument another step. But if, on the 1,000th page, you try to further your argument by going back to your original point on page 1, this is a giant, 999-point circle, and your book presents a fallacious argument.

As I was researching this blog post, I came across some interesting websites about circular reasoning and begging the question. Check these out for more fun with logic and circular fallacies:

How to Talk Like a Normal Person Without Using “That Begs the Question” Incorrectly

Here are some alternatives for when you want to say that someone’s remark “begs the question, . . .” in the colloquial sense, but you don’t like the incorrectness of that, and you also don’t like the stuffiness of “That prompts the question, . . .”:

  • “That raises the question, . . .”
  • “That makes me wonder, . . .”
  • “Now, of course, I have to ask the question, . . .”

I like the first one best: “That raises the question, . . .” This has a nice objective feel—as if any rational person would have that question, not just me.

Another option, the simplest by far, is to just go ahead and ask the question, no preliminaries necessary.

Or, if you’re like me and sometimes need an extra second to fully formulate the question in your head, you can always use a filler like “So” or “That’s interesting” or “Oh wow,” or you can restate what the other person said, and then ask your question. Lots of options here.

A Comedic Epilogue

PERSON A: My chickens would not exist if it were not for the Great Chicken Deity, which created them.

PERSON B: How do you know they were created by something called the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: Because, look out the window! I can see them! They exist! Can’t you see them? I’ll open the window. Now you can hear them squawking! They definitely exist, and therefore the Great Chicken Deity created them.

PERSON B: That begs the question: How do you know they were created by something called the Great Chicken Deity?

PERSON A: Why are you asking me all these questions? What’s wrong with you? Who invited you in here, anyway?

PERSON B: What’s wrong with asking questions? What evidence do you have that there’s something wrong with me? You don’t remember who invited me in here?

PERSON A: Get out of my house! Out! Out! Out! [Picks up a bag of chicken scratch and starts swinging it at person B. Also starts chucking eggs at person B.]

PERSON B: [Runs out the front door. Attempts to squeeze raw egg from hair, while sprinting to the nearest Safe Haven, aka public library. . . .]


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