Begging the Question

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Begging the Question

Postby tomandlu » Thu Jan 31, 2013 9:16 am UTC

"Begging the question" is, I suspect, misused 100% of the time (the only exceptions being when someone points out that it's been misused and gives the correct definition).

So, at what point should we/do we just give up and say, fine, 'begging the question' now means 'raises the question'?

In fairness, at least it makes sense as a redefinition and it's hard to infer the original meaning from its form.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby Carlington » Thu Jan 31, 2013 9:49 am UTC

The question you're raising depends on whether you take a prescriptivist or descriptivist point of view.

Prescriptivism says, basically, that language is the way it is, and should be a certain way. To a prescriptivist, the only valid definitions of words and phrases are to be found in a dictionary, and grammar is a set of rules to be followed. They prescribe meaning to language. AFAIK, this viewpoint was fashionable over the last century or so of linguistic study. This is the viewpoint that led to a focus in schools on learning proper Latinate rules, such as never leave a dangling preposition.

Descriptivism takes a different approach. To a descriptivist, all lexicons and all grammars are legitimate - we need to study them in detail, to find out how it is that they convey meaning. To a descriptivist, and definition of a word or phrase is valid - provided, of course, that it serves its purpose of effectively conveying meaning, and a grammar is a personal set of linguistic rules, quirks and idiosyncrasies, often unique to a particular person - by studying these grammars, we can learn more about how people use language to communicate. AFAIK, this viewpoint is fashionable/coming into fashion now, beginning to overtake the grip that prescriptivism has on how we learn, teach and study language. This is the viewpoint that focuses on preservation and understanding of languages and how they are used to convey meaning. I, personally, would argue that this is a much better path to the study of language - which is what linguistics is, after all! I, however, am a little biased. Can you guess to which side?

Basically, to a prescriptivist, "begging the question" can only and will only ever refer to the logical fallacy. To a descriptivist, the meaning of "begging the question" depends on who says it, and what they are trying to convey - it's up to us to study their use of language to figure out what it means.

That's my understanding, anyway.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby Aiwendil » Thu Jan 31, 2013 10:20 am UTC

"Begging the question" is, I suspect, misused 100% of the time


No, it's not. One still hears/sees it used in the 'correct' way in academic writing and discussion, in subjects like analytic philosophy, for example. True, in ordinary, everyday speech, it is probably 'misused' close to 100% of the time; but really, in its original meaning, it was rarely if ever used in everyday speech anyway. In fact, I'd say that in the settings where it used to be used correctly, it's gone on being used correctly, but simultaneously the 'misuse' has appeared and proliferated in colloquial settings that the phrase had never been used in before.

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby eSOANEM » Thu Jan 31, 2013 10:33 am UTC

Aiwendil wrote:
"Begging the question" is, I suspect, misused 100% of the time


No, it's not. One still hears/sees it used in the 'correct' way in academic writing and discussion, in subjects like analytic philosophy, for example. True, in ordinary, everyday speech, it is probably 'misused' close to 100% of the time; but really, in its original meaning, it was rarely if ever used in everyday speech anyway. In fact, I'd say that in the settings where it used to be used correctly, it's gone on being used correctly, but simultaneously the 'misuse' has appeared and proliferated in colloquial settings that the phrase had never been used in before.


This.

Essentially, I'd argue that it doesn't need redefinition because both are in use. It simply has two definitions, one is a technical term for the logical fallacy, the other means "raises the question".
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby goofy » Fri Feb 01, 2013 1:09 am UTC

Liberman on begging the question


Carlington wrote:Prescriptivism says, basically, that language is the way it is, and should be a certain way. To a prescriptivist, the only valid definitions of words and phrases are to be found in a dictionary, and grammar is a set of rules to be followed. They prescribe meaning to language. AFAIK, this viewpoint was fashionable over the last century or so of linguistic study. This is the viewpoint that led to a focus in schools on learning proper Latinate rules, such as never leave a dangling preposition.


I would disagree with you slightly. Modern linguistics is and has been descriptive. Grammarians who proscribed dangling prepositions etc were not linguists.

Carlington wrote:Descriptivism takes a different approach. To a descriptivist, all lexicons and all grammars are legitimate - we need to study them in detail, to find out how it is that they convey meaning. To a descriptivist, and definition of a word or phrase is valid - provided, of course, that it serves its purpose of effectively conveying meaning, and a grammar is a personal set of linguistic rules, quirks and idiosyncrasies, often unique to a particular person - by studying these grammars, we can learn more about how people use language to communicate.


But grammar isn't limited to idiolect. Speech communities have a grammar - a shared set of rules. My idiolect might be slightly different from everyone else's, but I can communicate with other people because we share a grammar.

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby Carlington » Fri Feb 01, 2013 2:08 am UTC

goofy wrote:Liberman on begging the question


Carlington wrote:Prescriptivism says, basically, that language is the way it is, and should be a certain way. To a prescriptivist, the only valid definitions of words and phrases are to be found in a dictionary, and grammar is a set of rules to be followed. They prescribe meaning to language. AFAIK, this viewpoint was fashionable over the last century or so of linguistic study. This is the viewpoint that led to a focus in schools on learning proper Latinate rules, such as never leave a dangling preposition.


I would disagree with you slightly. Modern linguistics is and has been descriptive. Grammarians who proscribed dangling prepositions etc were not linguists.
Fair enough, I can understand that. I'm a little shaky on when exactly prescriptivism has been a thing, to be honest, so thanks for helping me clear that up.
Carlington wrote:Descriptivism takes a different approach. To a descriptivist, all lexicons and all grammars are legitimate - we need to study them in detail, to find out how it is that they convey meaning. To a descriptivist, and definition of a word or phrase is valid - provided, of course, that it serves its purpose of effectively conveying meaning, and a grammar is a personal set of linguistic rules, quirks and idiosyncrasies, often unique to a particular person - by studying these grammars, we can learn more about how people use language to communicate.


But grammar isn't limited to idiolect. Speech communities have a grammar - a shared set of rules. My idiolect might be slightly different from everyone else's, but I can communicate with other people because we share a grammar.

You're quite right, I should have mentioned that it includes studying how these idiolects overlap with one another to allow for interpersonal communication.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby goofy » Fri Feb 01, 2013 3:25 am UTC

Carlington wrote:Fair enough, I can understand that. I'm a little shaky on when exactly prescriptivism has been a thing, to be honest, so thanks for helping me clear that up.


The rise of English prescriptivism

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby tomandlu » Fri Feb 08, 2013 1:09 pm UTC



Nice - and thanks all. I forgot I'd posted this until a few minutes ago when a work mate used the phrase (no prizes for guessing which meaning). It's like forgetting some petri-dish for a few weeks and coming back to find a whole advanced civilisation has evolved. Sort of.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby LadyMondegreen » Sat Jun 01, 2013 9:47 am UTC

Begging the question means something very distinct, and so if we give up and say "sure, it means raises the question now" then we're losing a great phrase with specific usage. And we don't need "begging the question" to mean "raises the question" because we can say "raises the question". I'm rarely against the evolution of language. Most of the time we end up adding new words, often words that we need or are at least fairly awesome. But when the evolution of language means loss, when to evolve means losing something and getting nothing in return I am against evolution. Because in these cases language isn't evolving to adapt to our needs, it's adapting to our lack of education and laziness and I can't see how that's a GOOD thing.


tomandlu wrote:Nice - and thanks all. I forgot I'd posted this until a few minutes ago when a work mate used the phrase (no prizes for guessing which meaning). It's like forgetting some petri-dish for a few weeks and coming back to find a whole advanced civilisation has evolved. Sort of.

[/quote]

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby eSOANEM » Sat Jun 01, 2013 10:12 am UTC

We haven't lost anything.

Begging the question is a type of circular reasoning described as such. If you want to be more specific, you can just say that someone's assuming the conclusion or if you really want to be fancy, you can call it petitio principii. What you call it doesn't matter, but we certainly do not lose the ability to talk about the fallacy if "begging the question" ceases to refer to that fallacy.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby LadyMondegreen » Sat Jun 01, 2013 10:38 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:We haven't lost anything.

Begging the question is a type of circular reasoning described as such. If you want to be more specific, you can just say that someone's assuming the conclusion or if you really want to be fancy, you can call it petitio principii. What you call it doesn't matter, but we certainly do not lose the ability to talk about the fallacy if "begging the question" ceases to refer to that fallacy.


Yes, the point can still be adequately made. And yes, new usage doesn't directly contradict the old usage (unlike "factoid"). But I still feel like something is lost. There's a lovely precision to the original meaning and I don't want to lose that. It's watering down language and I don't like it. It's not tragic or the end of language but it's still a loss.

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby eSOANEM » Sat Jun 01, 2013 11:07 am UTC

I just demonstrated that the "lovely precision" of the old meaning of beg the question is not lost so it is irrelevant to the discussion. Furthermore, statements to do with "watering down the language" and changes occurring due to "laziness" are so nebulous and subjective as to be absurd.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby LadyMondegreen » Sat Jun 01, 2013 11:19 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:I just demonstrated that the "lovely precision" of the old meaning of beg the question is not lost so it is irrelevant to the discussion. Furthermore, statements to do with "watering down the language" and changes occurring due to "laziness" are so nebulous and subjective as to be absurd.


The meaning isn't outside of the scope of the language, but I like the specificity of the phrase. Yes, this is very much a preference. Nebulous and subjective? It's my opinion, it should be. Subjective that is. Wow my language gets insanely fragmented when I'm tired.

Lighten up. It's an opinion, you're free to disagree or agree but think I'm all too dramatic on the subject. But a little less harshly please?

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby eSOANEM » Sat Jun 01, 2013 12:44 pm UTC

You and I obviously have very different definitions of specificity if you think some is lost when the exact same thing can be specified in the same number of words even if this phrase does stop being used for the fallacy.

I do not object to your opinion, you're perfectly entitled to it. What I do object to is the characterisation of those who use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" as uneducated and lazy and that what they're doing is "watering down the language". The first two of these are simply not true and the second is an attempt to appeal to emotion which has been used to oppose every change to language and society since the Romans at the earliest (I think it's Cicero who, in one of his letters, makes a comment about society going to the dogs because young people don't respect their elders any more, aren't speaking properly and everyone's writing a book (I'm using book to refer to a long prose text rather than the specific format)).

It's fine to have opinions. It's fine to justify. It's equally fine not to. If you do decide to justify them however, please do so without resorting to fallacious arguments and false assumptions.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby LadyMondegreen » Sat Jun 01, 2013 1:37 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:You and I obviously have very different definitions of specificity if you think some is lost when the exact same thing can be specified in the same number of words even if this phrase does stop being used for the fallacy.

I do not object to your opinion, you're perfectly entitled to it. What I do object to is the characterisation of those who use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" as uneducated and lazy and that what they're doing is "watering down the language". The first two of these are simply not true and the second is an attempt to appeal to emotion which has been used to oppose every change to language and society since the Romans at the earliest (I think it's Cicero who, in one of his letters, makes a comment about society going to the dogs because young people don't respect their elders any more, aren't speaking properly and everyone's writing a book (I'm using book to refer to a long prose text rather than the specific format)).

It's fine to have opinions. It's fine to justify. It's equally fine not to. If you do decide to justify them however, please do so without resorting to fallacious arguments and false assumptions.



When people use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" and have no idea that they are using the phrase wrong (and it still is wrong), then they are uneducated. If they know but don't care or don't bother to check then they're being lazy. These are strong motivating factors in changing a language. We drop sounds from words because we don't always bother to be proper. We don't know or we're lazy or we swallow or words and there are people who tut in disgust and then before you know it the shorter sound is correct and the original is archaic. It's not always a bad thing. Language is organic and that's beautiful. The masses are uneducated and lazy and really, why not? The purpose of language is to communicate. If you've managed to do that properly then everything else is gravy.

And yet, there are times when I don't like this. And this is one of those times. Usage is changing and it's because people don't know how to properly use the phrase or they don't care. Yes, I can still understand them and yes, I'm being a tab pedantic when I insist on original usage. But I'm not incorrect in how I've assigned motivation. If you think usage is changing for another reason then disagree, but tell me why. If you think that usage is changing for the reason I've described but don't see it as a bad thing, ok. That's fine. That's how I feel most of the time. Just not in this case. Not because the motivation is different or bad in some way, I don't think it is. I don't like the outcome in this particular case and so I wish that people would be just a little more careful with their language because I want to preserve this phrase the way it is. I get that that's unrealistic and ridiculous when I'm all for living language the rest of the time, but it's how I feel.

I'm not saying that I'll lose a little ability to communicate. I will lose one specific phrase that I liked having a particular meaning. To me, that's watering down. Very slightly, but still. And yes, it is emotional language. I'm not using emotional language to try and hold anyone hostage, I'm simply trying to express how I feel about this. When expressing feelings I sometimes like to use emotional language. Particularly when I'm aware that I'm being a little overly dramatic.

Clearly this isn't a big deal to you. And that's fine. Tomandlu was asking for opinions and I offered mine. I'm aware that it's not practical or realistic and this isn't how I would make the decision to change a dictionary definition, because I don't think that my preferences override how the phrase is actually used. I simply offered my opinion on language as a living entity and my opinion on this specific change.

My apologies for any egregious errors. I should go to bed.

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby eSOANEM » Sat Jun 01, 2013 2:39 pm UTC

First of all, philosophically I disagree with the notion that any grammatical form can be wrong, merely it can be non-standard (in the language as a whole, within a dialect, sociolect or even someone's ideolect). The use of beg the question to not just refer to the fallacy has certainly become standard because a native speaker will understand it correctly.

Anyway, laziness is not a strong motivator in linguistic evolution. Sometimes phonemes assimilate, other times allophones split and we get new phonemes; sometimes features become archaic and other times they are innovated. Language does not work to simplify itself neither does it work to unilaterally reduce effort on the part of the speaker.

Language does change because people communicate in the way they feel is best suited to conveying the information they want to convey. Occasionally one speaker will say something non-standard and, if it isn't understood, it won't spread but, if it is, either speaker may decide they like it or that it conveys certain ideas better than standard structures. Such a phrasing will be repeated and so spread until it becomes standard.

As such, linguistic evolution follows the model of biological evolution by natural selection very closely and there is very little agency involved at any step. People did not stop using thou because they chose to be formal with everyone, it's just the set of people with whom it was appropriate to be familiar gradually shrank incrementally over many many years until eventually it became empty. Likewise people who can't distinguish /f/ & /θ/ and /v/ & /ð/ in speech do not do so because they can't be bothered to do so (one is not easier than the other), rather they cannot and do not do so because, somewhere down the line someone couldn't do so (at the time it would probably have been considered a speech defect) and, since then, it has gradually spread from [adult-who-is-the-person-the-baby-hears-speaking-most] to baby until it has become this common. Now, there is a fairly large chance a child will have two parents neither of whom can produce dental fricatives. Such a child is highly unlikely to acquire dental fricatives in their speech (particularly when there are not many word pairs distinguished solely along these phonemic lines and most such distinctions can be resolved by context instead).

So no, I disagree entirely about the reasons language changes (your theory would predict a much shorter timescale than is observed as well).

It is also worth noting that (as with the labiodontal/dental fricative mergers) context can resolve any potential ambiguity between the two usages of beg the question. The usage when referring to the fallacy is to treat it as an intransitive phrasal verb "to beg the question" and usually uses it in the continuous form (e.g. this argument is begging the question). The usage for raising the question is to treat it as a transitive phrasal verb (e.g. this argument begs the question of [question raised by argument]).

Because of this, it is entirely possible and easy for both usages to exist simultaneously, there is absolutely no need for one to disappear at all.

Even assuming the fallacy usage does disappear though, the phrase you liked still exists and the meaning you liked still exists. Nothing has been reduced in any way and talking about this watering down language is at best misleading (because, watering down implies reduction whilst, objectively, none has occurred). At worst, it sounds like an appeal to emotion. Using emotional language is fine, but when it is also inaccurate emotional language like this, it makes me twitchy (because a lot of people on the internet are very fond of their deliberate appeals to emotion).

Now, it's clear that you don't like this usage and aren't going to use it which is completely fine, it's only when you start implying that people who are fine with it are damaging the language that you cross a line into "dude, not true and not cool" territory.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby goofy » Sat Jun 01, 2013 3:11 pm UTC

LadyMondegreen wrote:Usage is changing and it's because people don't know how to properly use the phrase or they don't care.


Did you read Liberman's article on the subject? Beg the question is a confusing way to say "assume the conclusion" in the first place, because of some not perfect translation choices that were made in translating the Greek to the Latin, then the Latin to the English. So it's certainly not surprising that many people don't know what beg the question originally meant. But I think it's mistaken to assume that people who use beg the question to mean "raise the question" "don't know how to properly use the phrase or don't care". They're using the phrase in one of the ways the phrase is normally used and understood.

By the way, the phrase is also still standardly used to mean "sidestep the issue" - see Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage page 172.

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Re: Begging the Question

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Jun 01, 2013 4:29 pm UTC

Yeah, while I will use "beg the question" in its philosophical sense when I'm arguing about philosophy and logical fallacies, I agree that it's kind of a shitty phrase for that meaning in the first place. "Assuming the conclusion" is exactly as specific, with the added benefit that it doesn't use any of its words in an unclear or nonstandard way, and thus can be easily and unambiguously understood by anyone who knows the constituent words.

Which is to say, I believe we gain something by no longer using "beg the question" to mean "assume the conclusion". We had a strange, often unclear expression, which people eventually stopped using that way. Eventually perhaps people talking about philosophy will be forced to use clearer expressions, such as "assume the conclusion", lest they risk being misunderstood by a majority of their potential audience.
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby tomandlu » Sun Jul 21, 2013 10:54 am UTC

LadyMondegreen wrote:When people use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" and have no idea that they are using the phrase wrong (and it still is wrong), then they are uneducated.


They are 'uneducated' about a non-intuitive phrase that is rapidly falling out of fashion (it's interesting to note that in the link provided, the writer cannot find online any 'correct' usage except in reference to discussing the same problem we are essentially talking about).

If the only people who use it in the original context are doing so to argue about its meaning, isn't it time to either through the towel in or, as the link suggests, just stop using it? It seems rather Canute-like to continue to regard the new usage as 'wrong'. And, yes, I'm aware I'm doing Canute a dis-service but, like 'begs the question', sometimes you have to know when to give in.

For the similar after-effect of a linguistic change, see: http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?f=24&t=102970
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Re: Begging the Question

Postby zenten » Sat Aug 17, 2013 6:19 pm UTC

LadyMondegreen wrote:Begging the question means something very distinct, and so if we give up and say "sure, it means raises the question now" then we're losing a great phrase with specific usage. And we don't need "begging the question" to mean "raises the question" because we can say "raises the question". I'm rarely against the evolution of language. Most of the time we end up adding new words, often words that we need or are at least fairly awesome. But when the evolution of language means loss, when to evolve means losing something and getting nothing in return I am against evolution. Because in these cases language isn't evolving to adapt to our needs, it's adapting to our lack of education and laziness and I can't see how that's a GOOD thing.


You do realize that people today tend to work longer hours than the previous few generations, and the average level of education is going up, right?


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