Tuesday, September 23, 2008

bout of pedantry #2, "begs the question"

Truly, you cannot surf the political blogosphere for ten minutes without running into the misuse of this venerable old phrase, so much so that I’m almost ready to hoist the white flag and let it be, let it mean what everyone seems to want it to mean, which is “prompts the question” or “makes one want to ask the question” (As in, “the sudden reaction of conservative pundits against the prospect of a government bail-out of the nation’s financial system, on the grounds that it vests too much control in the hands of one unchecked entity, begs the question ‘where were you guys for the last eight friggin’ years?’”)

After all, the sheer extent of abuse (of the phrase, that is) speaks to the apparently urgent need for some expression to do the work for which this one has been drafted, so why not surrender the old meaning and give over to the new. Is the original meaning of “begs the question” really all that important?

Well, the truth is, it was pretty good. Back in the day, to "beg the question" meant to give an answer that really only sounded like an answer, but which was, in fact, really just a clever restatement of the premise upon which the question was asked in the first place.

To give an example, you might ask: "How has Jose Reyes managed to raise his average from .250 to .333 in just two short years?" (Just play with me here.)

I might answer, "Well, that's simple. Whereas two years ago he was only getting one hit every four times up, now he's getting one hit every three times up."

THAT is "begging the question." Clearly in asking, you wanted to gain some insight into Jose's swing or new command of the strike zone. My answer, while seeming quite knowledgeable and responsive, was really nothing of the kind, just a more crafty restatement of the premise of your question. No new information was provided.

The technique has many more significant real word applications, of course. When the Bush Administration, asked whether it has sanctioned the use of torture, replies that American Law forbids torture and we follow the Law, that’s a version of begging the question. When your four-year-old son, in the course of one of his why-jags wants to know why grandma’s cat died, and you find yourself, after the eleventh straight “why?” saying, “Because God decided?” and he says, “ Why did God decide?” and you say, “Because God makes the decisions,” that is certainly another form begging the question, and it isn’t pretty, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will allow you to get back to your newspaper. Begging the question is the only thing that will silence him, not so much because you’ve satisfied his curiosity -- you haven’t – but because your son now realizes you’re not really as smart as he thought you were.

But that is neither here nor there. The point is, “begging the question” is a very real, very common, very deceitful little maneuver, and one worries that if we give up the phrase – or the meaning of the phrase -- we may in some way give up our capacity to recognize and to identify what is among the most important weapons in the arsenal of all cheats, liars, crooks, politicians, schoolchildren, ne’er-do-wells, and parents. And that would be a loss. We really can’t let that happen, and so I ask, if we do let “begs the question” mean “prompts the question,” it prompts the question, what should we then call begging the question?

Soon to return to more pressing matters. There seem to be several.