I know what "begging the question" originally means, but I just can't make any sense of the idiom. The phrase really seems to have nothing to do with its own meaning.

The original Latin phrase, petitio principii, is often translated as "assuming the initial point," which quite simply explains the practice.

Does the phrase "begging the question" carry any meaning (related to what it's used for)?

  • It is already explained in the wiki but I won't vote to close this because it may be that someone can write a clearer explanation as an answer. – z7sg Ѫ Aug 18 '11 at 11:13
  • @dancek, can you please clarify the question a bit. Some of the answers below assume that you are essentially asking: How come the fallacy known in Latin as "petitio principii" became known as "begging the question" in English? Is this the essence of your question? (btw, statements such as "The phrase really seems to have nothing to do with its own meaning." are only confusing in my opinion) – Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 15:28
  • I'm sorry about the vague question. I'm not a native English speaker and indeed found it hard to express the point. I mainly wanted to know whether begging the question has any relation to the meanings of the words to beg and a question. Of course I was interested in the origins of the phrase, too -- anything that I couldn't find answered elsewhere. Nicholas and Peter Shor did a good job at answering already, thanks! – StackExchange saddens dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:05
  • @Unreason: feel free to edit the question, if you now understand better what I meant to ask. I see the problems you mention but can't come up with a better wording while retaining the meaning. – StackExchange saddens dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:10

One of the meanings of beg, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to take for granted without warrant." The OED notes that this meaning is most common in the phrase to beg the question, and indeed all of the citations for this meaning are of similar, though not identical, phrases. Ignoring a few duplicates, here are those citations:

1581 W. Charke in A. Nowell et al. True Rep. Disput. E. Campion (1584) iv. sig. F f iij, I say this is still to begge the question.

1680 Bp. G. Burnet Some Passages Life Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question.

1687 E. Settle Refl. Dryden's Plays 13 Here hee's at his old way of Begging the meaning.

1852 H. Rogers Eclipse of Faith (ed. 2) 251 Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

The etymology of beg is no more helpful—in fact, it's hotly disputed. Some believe that it came from the Old English word bedecian, which in fact means "to beg," but that word has only been found once in all of the surviving Old English literature, and no clear links beyond its meaning and a very slight phonological similarity have been found between it and beg. Others say that beg came, via Old French, from the Latin begardus or beguin, a Christian lay mendicant order known in English as Beghards and Beguines. Either way, there's no clear connection to the meaning of beg used in beg the question.

What we're left with, then, is this: beg in this phrase means something like "to take for granted without warrant," but it only has this meaning in this and very similar phrases. It seems to have acquired this meaning sometime in the late sixteenth century, but how that happened is a mystery.

  • 1
    Very nice answer +1 – Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 14:56
  • 7
    The meaning of beg, to take for granted without warrant, probably comes from the phrase begging the question. So saying that this meaning justifies the use of beg in the phrase is a petitio principii fallacy; in other words, begging the question. – Peter Shor Aug 18 '11 at 16:06
  • @Nicholas: thanks! Especially the citations are interesting: this is/was not the only possible phrase with that meaning of beg. Granted, the strange loop Peter points to is quite possible... :) – StackExchange saddens dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:16
  • Nicholas is exactly right to see it as a mystery how 'beg' acquired the sense 'assume without warrant' (which as he says appears only in this expression). The mystery is dissipated, I think, by the connection of the phrase 'beg the question' with a Greek original containing a verb (aiteisthai) that literally means 'ask' but came to mean 'assume' (see my longer post). The same happened with Latin postulare , from which 'postulate' descends, for a similar reason (briefly, translations of Greek mathematical terminology). – Robin Smith Jan 24 '15 at 19:16

Looking at a Latin dictionary, petitio usually means a requesting, asking, desiring, petition, solicitation. The word principii is the genitive declension of principium, which means beginning, commencement, origin. So petitio principium means a petition of the beginning, or an appeal to the thing you started with.

Here the thing you started with is the point you were trying to make, or the question. An appeal to it essentially means assuming it. So petitio principii means assuming the point you were trying to make, or "appealing to the question". However, begging is another translation for petitio. Using this word rather than appealing to, we get "begging the question". Since begging does not have the connotations that appealing to does in English, it is really an inferior (I would even say incorrect) translation.

How did begging the question become the accepted translation for petitio principii? Maybe it started out as a joke. I can't answer this.

ADDED: There is a Language Log blog post that discusses the phrase "begging the question", and goes into more detail.

  • 2
    @Mr: I think this answer is very relevant because it addresses the OPs concern about the particular wording of the English phrase. 'Why "begging"?" 'Because that's one possible synonym of "appealing to" which is the literal translation of "petitio".' And this answer also explains why 'begging' sounds strange and is easy to misunderstand. – Mitch Aug 18 '11 at 13:45
  • 1
    @Mr. Disappointment, this is exactly what OP asks (hence Colins' comment under yours). OP uses a lot of unclear statements which are most likely meant to mean exactly what Peter is answering. Peter: 'To beg the question translates L. petitio principii, and means "to assume something that hasn't been proven as a basis of one's argument," thus "asking" one's opponent to give something unearned, though more of the nature of taking it for granted without warrant.' (etymonline for beg). – Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 14:53
  • 2
    My answer to the question: "does this idiom make sense?" is that it doesn't make sense because it's a slightly-too-literal translation. It's not clear to me that the OP already knew this. – Peter Shor Aug 18 '11 at 19:23
  • 1
    @Peter Shor: thanks for the nice answer! I suspected a mistranslation but wasn't sure. It was hard to believe that such a common phrase really had a faulty translation. Your explanation makes sense -- it's not a mistranslation per se, it's just, well, a strange one. So Nicholas's and your answer together answered all I wanted to know, with nice sources too. I'm sorry I had to choose just one. – StackExchange saddens dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:50
  • 2
    @Peter, re petitio, 1) this is the name of a rhetorical figure/fallacy and 2) petitio has a distinct meaning in the law (from your source): "In law, when a man demands or claims something as his by right." So, since judicial is one of the three branches of oratory in rhetoric, I think that this legal meaning is significant. This would render the meaning of: 'claiming the proposition' which might indeed be the most appropriate to describe the figure (as in simply: claiming the proposition is true). – Unreason Aug 19 '11 at 9:40

The actual story about "beg the question" is far more complicated than virtually all authorities suppose. In its logician's use: it is always used absolutely, that is, "That just begs the question" (full stop: there's no further "question"). In that sense, it means "Assume the very thing you're trying to prove."

That is, of course, a bizarre construction, and it is only explainable on the basis of its historical origin, which descends from a phrase in Aristotle's logical works that can't really be understood without knowing the context in which it arose: a dialectical argument as portrayed in Book VIII of his Topics. As depicted there, a dialectical debate has two participants, a questioner and an answerer; the answerer begins the debate by undertaking to defend some proposition, and the questioner then tries to refute the answerer by asking questions that can be answered by yes or no of the answerer and, from these, deducing the contradictory of the answerer's initial proposition. In this context, Aristotle calls the initial proposition proposed by the answerer "the initial thing" (to en archêi).

One of the rules of this kind of debate is that the questioner cannot simply make the very thesis put forward by the answerer into a question and ask that: to do so is the error of "asking for the initial thing" (to to en archêi aiteisthai). It also counts as "asking for the initial thing" if the questioner asks something not identical to but more or less equivalent to the initial thing, though explaining how close it has to be is a problem for Aristotle.

Translated out of the context of dialectical debate, this same error can be described as "taking the conclusion you are trying to prove as one of the premises of your argument", and that is the original sense of "begging the question" when it enters English in the late 16th century ("question" having taken on the sense "the proposition being debated").

A complicating point in this history is that the Greek verb aitein, "ask", took on the sense "ask for as a premise" in logical and mathematical contexts and thus came to mean "assume" (as a premise). If we assume the same for "beg" in English, then "beg the question" can indeed be read as "assume the thing you're trying to prove", although that is hardly what an ordinary speaker of English would suppose it to mean.

(As a footnote: the translation "in the beginning to assume", given in some authorities as a translation of to en archêi, is grammatically impossible as a rendering of it in Aristotle, since it assumes the definite article to goes with the infinitive aiteisthai; Aristotle's usage, especially in those contexts in which the phrase begins with two definite articles, shows that it goes instead with "in the begining" (so, "to assume the in-the-beginning thing" would be much better).)

  • Hmm your answer has a ring of truth about it, although I am not familiar enough with Aristotelic (and Thomist?) traditions to be sure. Those elements that I know more about seem to be correct. Of course you are under no obligation to do so, but something of a source or a quotation would be nice. Oh, and you have one more instance of aitein that you may want to change, and you have one /em> lacking a <. Oh, and you might want to split your answer into several paragraphs for readability. Oh, and welcome to the site! – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 14 '14 at 23:49
  • I'll try to add a bit. Perhaps I should add that I am the author of published translations with commentary of Aristotle's <em>Prior Analytics</em> (Hackett, 1989) and Books I and VIII of his <em>Topics</em> (Oxford UP, 1994); the latter spells out in some detail the stylized form of debate in which the Greek phrase originated. – Robin Smith Jan 20 '15 at 16:43
  • Yay! I think your answer is already more correct and complete than the others. But it doesn't read well, it is rather a text wall. With paragraphs and perhaps a slightly different structure, it will be unbeatable. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 20 '15 at 17:53
  • I don't see how it would be a problem if the questioner got the answerer to repeat the initial thing. Surely no contradiction could be deduced from that. Also, isn't the questioner trying to prove the negation of the initial thing? – Toothrot May 18 '19 at 23:06
  • Can we be sure the phrase originated there and then? Greek Philosophy surely had an oral tradition, there are not too many earlier Greek writings, and the paradigm has something of a mantra. archeon especially sounds like an allusion to, err, archaism, e.g. the old question. αἰτεῖσθαι is a present passive and the inflectional morpheme is interesting: If it's from PIE *steH- "to stand", then compareGerman "in Frage stehen" (to stand [be] in question); The root is linked to \h2ey- which means e.g. "life, vitality", so "the vital question" comes to mind. to to seems weird enough. – vectory May 20 '19 at 18:35

One possibility that I don't see considered is that the phrase is connected to 'beggar belief', which roughly means to defy belief (something can also beggar description, which means to defy attempts at description). This is more or less exactly the same meaning as 'beg the question' - namely defy the question, by presupposing an answer. I find it doubtful that this is a coincidence. All that would need to happen to get the word 'beggar' into the phrase 'beg the question' would be to shorten it - one of the most common transformations of a word over time.

If this is plausible (as it seems to me) the 'beg the question' would have the same origin as 'beggar belief' or 'beggar description'. A possibility there is that it comes from Shakespeare, in Antony & Cleopatra, 1616:

For her owne person It beggerd all discription.

The word 'beggerd' here is understood to have meant something like 'dispossessed' - to be beggered was to be dispossessed of ones belongings. In that case, the origin of 'beg the question' would be 'beggerd the question' which would mean to have been dispossessed of the question, by having presupposed the answer.

  • are you suggesting that begging the question is not a translation of principium petere? – Toothrot May 19 '19 at 9:54

Begging the question is, as you stated, assuming an initial condition upon which the argument turns. Therefore, when people fall into this logical fallacy, they are literally begging the person with whom they are arguing to question the initial assumption.

  • As I've explained in my longer post, there is just no way to reconstruct the traditional meaning of 'beg the question' on the basis of any normal meanings for 'beg' and 'question'. This is just such an attempt at that, and unfortunately it gets things exactly wrong: when I beg the question, I don't beg you to question (i.e. suspect or distrust) any initial assumption. Instead, I take an initial assumption for granted that I'm not entitled to assume. Trying to extract the traditional meaning from normal English senses of 'beg' and 'question' is just not going to work. – Robin Smith Jan 24 '15 at 18:44
  • How can you say "begging the question" literally means "begging a person"? That's clearly not what it literally means. A question is not a person. Also, a person falling into this logical fallacy would be begging the person with whom they are arguing to accept the initial assumption (and therefore also the conclusion), not question it. Unfortunately, I don't have enough reputation to down-vote. – pabrams Jul 4 '18 at 3:53
  • question does not mean question here, but rather ''point at issue'' – Toothrot May 19 '19 at 10:22

To me this phrase makes sense if you interpret as "asking the question for the answer". In other words, obtaining your answer from the question directly, rather than any kind of reasoning process.

I'm thinking of something like "he came to beg me for money" as the template. Instead, "he went to the question begging for the answer".

  • This seems to me to be an a priori construction that doesn't actually reflect the rather bizarre history the phrase actually has. In begging the question, I do implicitly "beg" <em>my opponent in argument</em> to concede the very thing I claim to be proving, but it's a large stretch to see that as asking <em>a question</em> to concede anything (if indeed that makes sense). – Robin Smith Jan 24 '15 at 18:53
  • @RobinSmith Does the answer have to reflect the phrase's history in order to answer the question? I don't think it's "a large stretch to see [begging the question] as asking the question to concede anything" when that's literally what it says. It seems to me that OP was asking about the inherent meaning of the phrase, not about its history, so it could be argued that this is a better answer than yours. Anyway, I up-voted both answers. – pabrams Jul 4 '18 at 3:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.