I heard Bob Schieffer of CBS’ “Face the Nation” utter the phrase “begs the question” on Sunday morning (June 5). Although I make allowances for spoken language, the use of this phrase by a respected broadcast journalist made me take notice. As I learned from a colleague some years ago, the phrase “begs the question” doesn’t mean what many people think it does.Here is the context of the Schieffer quote. He was interviewing Ben Bradlee, the retired executive editor of the Washington Post, about the disclosure that former FBI official Mark Felt was Deep Throat, the mysterious source in Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting. Bradlee had just said that he thought Felt probably had help. Schieffer said, “Well, let me just say, that just begs the question, you know, …” and went on to ask Bradlee how he thought Felt’s identity stayed a secret for so long. What Schieffer meant was that Bradlee assertion prompted him to ask, that it raised the question. That is what most people who say “begs the question” actually mean: That a statement or a situation raises a question or prompts someone to ask what appears to be a logical next question.But “begging the question” does not mean that, strictly speaking. It is a term used in logic, rhetoric and debate, and it means to use part of the premise to argue the question. So if, for instance, a lawyer says in court, “My client couldn’t have embezzled that money because he is an honest man,” he is begging the question. That is, he has taken part of what is at issue in the case, his client’s honesty, and has used it to argue his case. It is what people familiar with logic call a logical fallacy. It is also sometimes called a circular argument.Usage experts have noted another misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” Some people use it to mean “evades the question.” You can see how that might have developed from the original meaning. Truly, if you use part of what you are trying to prove to make your argument, you are evading the question.
The Fallacy Files, a site maintained by a man who holds a doctorate in philosophy and is an expert in logic, explains begging the question.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.