What does “beg the question” mean?

rogersgeorge on June 15th, 2010

I found this horrible misuse in an article in The New York Times of all places. What is this world coming to? Harrumpf!

The context is a beautiful, detailed photograph of a spiral galaxy.

This gorgeous island universe  just begs the question: “are we alone?”

No! No! (For one thing, it’s the picture, not the actual island universe itself; see my last post)

To understand begging the question, you have to review (or learn) a bit of older English:

Beg—to present a statement as the conclusion to a logical argument.

Question—the statement that you want to prove by logical argument.

You can see that these are at the opposite ends of the argument. Begging the question is an error of logic in which you present your assertion as your conclusion. I also hear this fallacy called “circular reasoning.” This error is usually obvious in a simple argument, so it happens most frequently in long, convoluted arguments (unless, perhaps when the person is deceiving himself), so I can’t give you a reasonable example, but this statement from the NYT isn’t begging the question. What the writer means is that the beautiful picture begs us to ask ourselves whether we are alone.

If I find a good example of begging the question, I’ll post it. Maybe you have one to share. I beg of you, share it.

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One Response to “What does “beg the question” mean?”

  1. Consider the following example, which illustrates the *correct* use of the phrase:

    “Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

    “YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

    “ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.

    “YOU: That begs the question.

    “ME: Huh?

    “Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.”

    The source of the above illustration? None other than “The New York Times” and, more particularly, Philip B. Corbett, the Grey Lady’s Deputy News Editor and keeper of the paper’s Style Manual.


    Not incidentally, keep up the good work.

    Jeffrey Newman


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