I still remember when I first consciously heard it. The phrase “begging the question,” I mean. I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions. I asked my advisor what the phrase meant. “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied. I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them. Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook. The concept is subtle, but important. That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”
I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job. I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time. Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out. Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question? Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought. Precision in thinking is difficult work. It can give you a headache. We all fail sometimes. Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society. It’s much easier to beg the question. Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?
I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions. In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there. One of them an American. It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma. I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.” Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly. Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking. And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.