When it is OK to Beg the Question

“You are begging the question;” “You are arguing in a circle;” (or for the more self-consciously sophisticated:)  “you are guilty of the petitio principii fallacy.” Such assertions, commonplace in philosophical dialogue are meant to undercut an opponent’s argument. After all, if you assume from the outset what you intend to prove, you are engaged in a kind of circular reasoning, which, most of the time we ought to avoid.But, is it ever ok to beg the question? I think that in one case, it is not only ok, but it is absolutely necessary. Consider, there are clear cases of knowledge. I know that I am now typing this blog post; I know that there is a tree in front of me; I know that I am having a pain in my knee; I know that I ate Cheerios for breakfast; I know that 2+2=4; I know that I exist (thanks for the reminder Descartes); and I know that I have two hands (thanks for the reminder, G.E. Moore). But, how do I know these things?

Take my claim to know there is a tree in front of me. Presumably, I know this is the case because I am having a sense perception of a tree. But how do I know that my sense perception is veridical (that is, capable of reliably providing me with knowledge)? I can’t verify that my perception of the tree is veridical by having another (different) sense perception of the tree to compare it, for then I would be begging the question (in assuming my sense perception is reliable in the first place)—and that is bad, remember? It seems I could only know that there is a tree in front of me by appealing to some other criterion of knowledge. But which one (Introspection? Memory? Rational Intuition? God?)? And how to I know that one? The answer is not obvious….and now I begin to doubt whether I know anything in the first place. Perhaps we should just be skeptics and claim that we don’t know anything. How can we get off of this wheel? Is there any way out of this epistemic circularity?

The problem here isn’t, as odd as it may sound, the fact that we beg the question. For anyone who wants to escape from the perilous hold of skepticism must admit the fact that there is no non-circular way out. Commenting on the problem of skepticism, Roderick Chisholm states, “What few philosophers have had the courage to recognize is this: we can deal with the problem only by begging the question.”[1] More recently, the philosopher Michael Bergmann has argued that we shouldn’t think that all epistemic circularity is a bad thing. Rather, given “the plausible assumption that justified belief isn’t impossible, it follows that justified EC-belief [i.e., beliefs infected with epistemic circularity] is possible-which entails that epistemic circularity is not, in itself, a bad thing.”[2] So, in this one case, when claiming to know things, it is ok to beg the question—for we all do it—and anyway, again, we do know things.

Here is how Chisholm, in an important article called “The Problem of the Criterion,” addresses the problem of the wheel:

Chisholm distinguishes between two pairs of questions:

(A) What do we know?

(B) How are we to decide whether we know?

The skeptic says you cannot answer question (A) until you have an answer for question (B), but you cannot answer question (B) until you have an answer for question (A). Therefore, says the skeptic, you cannot answer either question and there is no possibility of knowledge (NB: note the self-refuting nature of the skeptical claim). Chisholm identifies those who think they have an answer to (B) and that, given their answer to (B), they can figure out their answer to (A) as “methodist.” And finally, there are those, called “particularist” who have it the other way around:  they think they have an answer to (A) and that, given their answer to (A), they can figure out the answer to (B).

The problem with the methodist, says Chisholm, whether an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic, is that the criterion used (i.e., question B) is “very broad and far-reaching and at the same time completely arbitrary.”[3] For how can one begin with a broad generalization?

Following Thomas Reid, Chisholm offers what he takes to be a better way out of the problem of skepticism. For Reid, it is a first principle that our faculties are reliable and therefore able to confer justification: “Another first principle is, that the natural faculties (e.g., sense perception, memory, introspection, etc.), by which we distinguish truth from error are not fallacious.”[4] Thus, Reid takes it that all our natural faculties are reliable, and therefore the senses (e.g.,) should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. The Chisholmian particularist then, says that there are just some things we know and to find out whether or not we know does not require the application or test of any criterion. Michael Bergmann states, “We don’t seem to formulate to ourselves arguments that our faculties are reliable.  Rather, we seem just to take it as obvious (without inference) that our faculties are reliable.”[5] So, in the clear cases of knowledge derived from natural faculties (sense perception, memory, introspection and so on)—it is ok to beg the question.

[1]Chisholm, Roderick, The Foundations of Knowing (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 75.

[2] Bergmann, Michael. 2004. “Epistemic Circularity: Malignant and Benign.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69: 711.

[3] Chisholm,  67.

[4] Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers, edited by Baruch Brody (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969), 630.

[5] Bergmann, 723.

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