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Begging the question

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Begging the question

Bust of Aristotle, whose Prior Analytics contained an early discussion of this fallacy

Begging the question means "assuming the conclusion (of an argument)", a type of circular reasoning. This is an informal fallacy where the conclusion that one is attempting to prove is included in the initial premises of an argument, often in an indirect way that conceals this fact.[1]

The term "begging the question" originated in the 16th century as a mistranslation of Latin petitio principii "assuming the initial point".[2] In modern vernacular usage, "to beg the question" is sometimes also used to mean "to raise the question" (as in "This begs the question of whether...") or "to dodge the question".[2] This usage is often proscribed.[3]


The original phrase used by Aristotle from which "begging the question" descends is: τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς (or sometimes ἐν ἀρχῇ) αἰτεῖν, "asking for the initial thing". The meaning of this in Aristotle is closely tied to the type of dialectical argument he discusses in his Topics, book VIII: a formalized debate in which the defending party asserts a thesis that the attacking party must attempt to refute by asking yes-or-no questions and deducing some inconsistency between the responses and the original thesis. In this stylized form of debate, the proposition that the answerer undertakes to defend is called "the initial thing" (τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς, τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ) and one of the rules of the debate is that the questioner cannot simply ask for it (that would be trivial and uninteresting). Aristotle discusses this in Sophistical Refutations and in Prior Analytics book II, (64b, 34–65a 9, for circular reasoning see 57b, 18 – 59b, 1).

The stylized dialectical exchanges Aristotle discusses in the Topics included rules for scoring the debate, and one issue of importance was precisely the matter of "asking for the initial thing", which was understood to include not simply making the actual thesis adopted by the answerer into a question but also making a question out of a sentence that was judged to be too close to that thesis (for example, PA II 16).

The term was translated into English from Latin in the 16th century. The Latin version, petitio principii, "asking for the starting point", can be interpreted in different ways. Petitio (from peto), in the post-classical context in which the phrase arose, means "assuming" or "postulating", but in the older classical sense means "petition", "request" or "beseeching".[2][4] Principii, genitive of principium, means "beginning", "basis" or "premise" (of an argument). Literally petitio principii means "assuming the premise" or "assuming the original point".

The Latin phrase comes from the Greek τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (to en archei aiteisthai, "asking the original point")[5] in Aristotle's Prior Analytics II xvi 64b28–65a26:

Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) [of] failing to demonstrate the required proposition. But there are several other ways in which this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken syllogistic form at all, he may argue from premises which are less known or equally unknown, or he may establish the antecedent by means of its consequents; for demonstration proceeds from what is more certain and is prior. Now begging the question is none of these. [...] If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue.... [B]egging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself...either because predicates which are identical belong to the same subject, or because the same predicate belongs to subjects which are identical.
—Aristotle, Hugh Tredennick (trans.) Prior Analytics

Aristotle's distinction between apodictic science and other forms of non-demonstrative knowledge rests on an epistemology and metaphysics wherein the appropriate first principles will become apparent to the trained dialectician:

Aristotle's advice in 'S.E. 27 for resolving fallacies of Begging the Question is brief. If one realizes that one is being asked to concede the original point, one should refuse to do so, even if the point being asked is a reputable belief. On the other hand, if one fails to realize that one has conceded the point at issue and the questioner uses the concession to produce the apparent refutation, then one should turn the tables on the sophistical opponent by oneself pointing out the fallacy committed. In dialectical exchange it is a worse mistake to be caught asking for the original point than to have inadvertently granted such a request. The answerer in such a position has failed to detect when different utterances mean the same thing. The questioner, if he did not realize he was asking the original point, has committed the same error. But if he has knowingly asked for the original point, then he reveals himself to be ontologically confùsed: he has mistaken what is non-self-explanatory (known through other things) to be something self-explanatory (known through itself). In pointing this out to the false reasoner, one is not just pointing out a tactical psychological misjudgment by the questioner. It is not simply that the questioner falsely thought that the original point, if placed under the guise of a semantic equivalent, or a logical equivalent, or a covering universal, or divided up into exhaustive parts, would be more persuasive to the answerer. Rather, the questioner falsely thought that a non-self-explanatory fact about the world was an explanatory first principle. For Aristotle, that certain facts are self-explanatory while others are not is not a reflection solely of the cognitive abilities of humans. It is primarily a reflection of the structure of noncognitive reality. In short, a successful resolution of such a fallacy requires a firm grasp of the correct explanatory powers of things. Without a knowledge of which things are self-explanatory and which are not, the reasoner is liable to find a question-begging argument persuasive.[5]
—Scott Gregory Schreiber, Aristotle on False Reasoning: Language and the World in the Sophistical Refutations

Thomas Fowler believed that Petitio Principii would be more properly called Petitio Quæsiti, which is literally "begging the question".[6]


The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof".[7]

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in a single step, it is sometimes called a hysteron proteron,[8][9] as in the statement

Such fallacies may not be immediately obvious because of the use of synonyms or synonymous phrases; one way to beg the question is to make a statement first in concrete terms, then in abstract ones, or vice-versa.[10] Another is to "bring forth a proposition expressed in words of Saxon origin, and give as a reason for it the very same proposition stated in words of Norman origin",[11] as in this example:

  • "To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments".[12]

When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in more than one step, some authors consider it circulus in probando or "reasoning in a circle".[8][13] However, there is no fallacy if the missing premise is acknowledged, and if not, there is no circle.

"Begging the question" can also refer to an argument in which the unstated premise is essential to, but not identical with the conclusion, or is "controversial or questionable for the same reasons that typically might lead someone to question the conclusion".[14]

...[S]eldom is anyone going to simply place the conclusion word-for-word into the premises ... Rather, an arguer might use phraseology that conceals the fact that the conclusion is masquerading as a premise. The conclusion is rephrased to look different and is then placed in the premises.
—Paul Herrick[15]

Begging the question is not considered to be a formal fallacy (an argument that is defective because it uses an incorrect deductive step). Rather, it is a type of informal fallacy that is logically valid but unpersuasive, in that it fails to prove anything other than what is already assumed.[16][17][18]

Related fallacies

Closely connected with begging the question is the fallacy of circular reasoning (circulus in probando), a fallacy in which "the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with".[19] The individual components of a circular argument can be logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and will not lack relevance. However, circular reasoning is not persuasive because, if the conclusion is doubted, the premise which leads to it will also be doubted.[20]

In fact, begging the question is often considered to be a type of circular reasoning.

Begging the question is similar to the complex question (also known as trick question or fallacy of many questions): a question that, in order to be valid, requires the truth of another question that has not been established. For example, "Which color dress is Mary wearing?" may be fallacious because it presupposes that Mary is wearing a dress. Unless it has previously been established that her outfit is a dress, the question is fallacious because she could be wearing a pantsuit.[21][22]

Another related fallacy is ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant conclusion: an argument that fails to address the issue in question, but appears to do so. An example might be a situation where A and B are debating whether the law permits A to do something. If A attempts to support his position with an argument that the law ought to allow him to do the thing in question, then he is guilty of ignoratio elenchi.[23]

Modern usage

Many English speakers use "begs the question" to mean "raises the question", "evades the question", or even "ignores the question", and follow that phrase with the question, for example: "I am 120kg and have severely clogged arteries, which begs the question: why have I not started exercising?"

In philosophical, logical, grammatical, and legal contexts, some commenters deem such usage to be mistaken or at best unclear.[1][24][25][26]

See also


  1. ^ a b Garner, B.A. (1995). Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 101.  
  2. ^ a b c  
  3. ^ Corbett, Philip B. (25 September 2008). "Begging the Question, Again". New York Times. 
  4. ^ Kretzmann, N.; Stump, E. (1988). Logic and the Philosophy of Language. The Cambridge Translations of Medieval Philosophical Texts. Volume 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 374.  
  5. ^ a b Schreiber, S.G. (2003). Aristotle on False Reasoning: Language and the World in the Sophistical Refutations. SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy. State University of New York Press. pp. 99, 106, 214.  
  6. ^ Fowler, Thomas (1887). The Elements of Deductive Logic, Ninth Edition (p. 145). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
  7. ^ Welton (1905), 279.
  8. ^ a b Davies (1915), 572.
  9. ^ Welton (1905), 280–282.
  10. ^ a b Welton (1905), 281.
  11. ^ Gibson (1908), 291.
  12. ^ Richard Whately, Elements of Logic (1826) quoted in Gibson (1908), 291.
  13. ^ Bradley Dowden, "Fallacies" in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  14. ^ Kahane and Cavender (2005), 60.
  15. ^ Herrick (2000) 248.
  16. ^ "Fallacy".  
  17. ^ Walton, Douglas (1992). Plausible argument in everyday conversation. SUNY Press. pp. 206–207.  
  18. ^ The reason petitio principii is considered to be a fallacy is not that the inference is invalid (because any statement is indeed equivalent to itself), but that the argument can be deceptive. A statement cannot prove itself. A premiss [sic] must have a different source of reason, ground or evidence for its truth from that of the conclusion: Lander University, "Petitio Principii".
  19. ^ Dowden, Bradley (27 March 2003). "Fallacies". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved April 5, 2012. 
  20. ^ Nolt, John Eric; Rohatyn, Dennis; Varzi, Achille (1998). Schaum's Outline of Theory and Problems of Logic. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 205.  
  21. ^ Meyer, M. (1988). Questions and Questioning. Foundations of Communication. W. de Gruyter. pp. 198–199.  
  22. ^ Walton, D.N. (1989). Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argument. Cambridge University Press. pp. 36–37.  
  23. ^ H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Entry for ignoratio elenchi.
  24. ^ Houghton Mifflin Company (2005). The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. p. 56.  
    If an editorial argues that
    • same-sex marriage is wrong because marriage is a bond between a man and a woman,
    the editorial assumes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman — the very notion that same-sex marriage calls into question. The editorial thus begs the question. Such is the traditional or strict use of the term. Trouble arises, however, because the "question" or assumption is usually left unstated in the statements it describes, and consequently beg the question often means "to evade or ignore the question." And since the point of claiming that something begs the question is to make explicit what has been assumed to be true, the expression is also used to mean simply "to raise the question." These looser meanings have long been condemned by usage commentators as incorrect or sloppy. But sorting out exactly what is meant by beg the question is not always easy, especially in constructions such as beg the question of whether and beg the question of how, where the door is opened to more than one question. Consider the sentence The proposal to increase funding for agricultural subsidies begs the question of whether these programs were successful in the first place. If you interpret this to mean that the proposal assumes that the programs were successful, when that is precisely what needs to be established, then beg the question is used properly to refer to the logical fallacy. But we can easily substitute evade the question or even raise the question, and the sentence will be perfectly clear, even though it will violate the traditional usage rule.
    The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style
  25. ^ Brians, Common Errors in English Usage: Online Edition (full text of book: 2nd Edition, November, 2008, William, James & Company) [1] (accessed 1 July 2011)
  26. ^ Follett (1966), 228; Kilpatrick (1997); Martin (2002), 71; Safire (1998).


  • Cohen, Morris Raphael, Ernest Nagel, and John Corcoran. An Introduction to Logic. Hackett Publishing, 1993. ISBN 0-87220-144-9.
  • Davies, Arthur Ernest. A Text-book of Logic. R.G. Adams and Company, 1915.
  • Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Macmillan, 1966. ISBN 0-8090-0139-X.
  • Gibson, William Ralph Boyce, and Augusta Klein. The Problem of Logic. A. and C. Black, 1908.
  • Herrick, Paul. The Many Worlds of Logic. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-515503-3
  • Kahane, Howard, and Nancy Cavender. Logic and contemporary rhetoric : the use of reason in everyday life. Cengage Learning, 2005. ISBN 0-534-62604-1.
  • Kilpatrick, James. "Begging Question Assumes Proof of an Unproved Proposition." Rocky Mountain News (CO) 6 April 1997. Accessed through Access World News on 3 June 2009.
  • Martin, Robert M. There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A sourcebook of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and problems. Broadview Press, 2002. ISBN 1-55111-493-3.
  • Mercier, Charles Arthur. A New Logic. Open Court Publishing Company, 1912.
  • Mill, John Stuart. A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive: being a connected view of the principles of evidence, and the methods of scientific investigation. J.W. Parker, 1851.
  • Safire, William. "On Language: Take my question please!." The New York Times 26 July 1998. Accessed 3 June 2009.
  • Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott. Formal logic, a scientific and social problem. London: Macmillan, 1912.
  • Welton, James. "Fallacies incident to method." A Manual of Logic, Vol. 2. London: W.B. Clive University Tutorial Press, 1905.
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