Begging the Question

I used to be a vociferous defender of prescriptive grammar (I don’t like the term “Grammar Nazi” anymore, because that’s no longer funny or clever).

After listening to, and reading, a podcast and associated transcript-turned-blog entry by Stephen Fry, I realised that it is necessary for language to change, to adapt.

I use a lot of Emoji in my instant messaging apps these days, and I see the Internet pushing and changing the use of language very quickly. In the last 22 years that I have been online, I have also changed the way I speak in real life.

Which raises the question: where and when is it necessary to draw the line between formal and informal speech?

I maintain that blog posts are formal speech, just like newspaper articles and business letters. A blog post is a way to convey an idea, and the fact that it is electronic as opposed to physical, shouldn’t matter.

Language must change and adapt, but not at the cost of clarity. I attended philosophy classes during my brief stint at Rhodes University in 1996, and those six months impressed upon me the need for clarity of thought and expression. If we cannot even assign the same meanings to words and phrases, we cannot communicate clearly.

“Begging the question” is an explicit example of this. Notice how I “raise” the question instead?

To beg a question is to create circular reasoning, to say “this is awesome because reasons, but the reasons are awesome because of this”.

The entire point of the term is that the question remains unasked. The trouble is that many people are literally begging the question in their public speaking, including politicians. Logical fallacies are talking points, are sound bites, are what we hear on the news, and I feel like we’re regressing.

A longer example of “begging the question”, using Batman, because the LEGO Batman Movie just came out and I loved it:

“Here is one reason we cannot use: Batman is great and so his gadgetry must be pro. Of course, this would beg the question, since we are trying to figure out why Batman is so great. If you think about this argument, it would go like this: Batman is great because he has awesome gadgetry, and his awesome gadgetry is great because he’s Batman, and Batman is great. This argument travels in a circle. To avoid begging the question, we need to straighten that circle out. To do this, we need to justify the greatness of Batman independently of how we already feel about Batman.”
(Galen Foresman, “Why Batman Is Better Than Superman.” Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Wiley, 2008)

Does this make your head spin? Good. Philosophy is intended to do exactly that. Logical fallacies appear everywhere, and even I am guilty of them, perhaps even on this very website.

Listen to your favourite politician or celebrity. Actually listen to them. Hear the words, phrases, and sentences (if they actually speak in complete sentences), and see if there’s a logical consistency to them.

Question everything they say. If you can, challenge their assumptions. Critically assess the statements they assume are concrete and unquestionable. Don’t let someone tell you how to think until you’ve processed it yourself.

If you want to raise a question, raise a question, don’t beg it.

However, as Stephen Fry once said, “so fucking what?”. Eventually the meaning will change to present usage, and I’ll have to adapt.

1 thought on “Begging the Question

  1. Batman has to work to become stronger and smarter – he is just a human with failings, weaknesses and strengths.
    Superman has super powers and basically doesn’t have to do anything to improve himself.
    Batman’s tools result from human ingenuity (not always his own). Superman uses innate abilities.

    Batman > Superman QED

    That being said, I’ve quite enjoyed the newer Superman movies (even Batman vs Superman which clearly demonstrates how Batman has to level up both physically and gadget-wise in order to take on Superman).

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