Monday, May 3, 2010

petitio quæsiti

Mark Liberman in his wonderful post over on Language Log, “Begging the Question”: We Have Answers, asks, in an aside, Some medieval translator (does anyone know who?) decided to translate Aristotle’s ‘assuming the conclusion’ into petitio principii. I thought that would make a good blog entry. Here’s what I found out.

Prior to the 19th century, it was thought that Boethius had translated the whole of Aristotle’s Organum from Greek into Latin, but it is now thought that the Analytica Priora was translated by Jacobus Clericus de Venetia in 1128. This is based on a single entry in Gesta Normannorum Ducum added by Robert de Torigni: Jacobus Clericus de Venecia transtulit de græco in latinum quosdam libros Aristotelis et commentatus est, scilicet Topica, Anal. priores et posteriores et Elenchos, quamvis antiquior translatio super eosdem libros haberetur. I found the passage in Migne‘s Patrologia Latina 54, 703.

In principio autem petere et accipere est quidem, ut in genere, sumere in eo quod non est demonstrare propositum.
Compare this with another 19th century translation by Emil Heitz (Aristotelis Omnia Opera, I, 109):
Id autem, quod in principio quæsitum erat, ut concederetur petere, tanquam concessum sumere, si in genere accipiatur, consistit in eo, si quis, quod positum est, non demonstret.

Now for Jacobus’ translation. It seems pretty straightforward. We drop the τό ‘it’; autem for the elided δή; in principio for ἠν ἀρχῇ ‘in the beginning’; petere ‘to beg, beseech’ for αἰτεῖσθαι ‘to ask, demand’; accipere for λαμβάνειν ‘to take, receive’. Heitz’ translation is more word for word literal. What is interesting is how the infinitive for petere became an abstract noun petitio ‘a requesting, beseeching’ and the prepositional phrase a simple noun in the genitive. What is stranger is how the Latin (or the Greek to be charitable) got Englished: begging the question.

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Blogger Kevin said...


Your later post, grammatici ordinis parvuli, of 26 May, contains an interesting alternative way of expressing the idea of petitio principii / quæsiti in English. It includes a reference to Robert Latham's having written "To call such expressions [as it is me] incorrect English, is to assume the point" [my emphasis]. For me, Dr Latham's formulation is a neat way of avoiding the problem of "begging the question" being commonly taken to mean "calling for the question to be raised" ...although to call that very phenomenon a problem is, of course, to assume the point!

June 20, 2010 at 4:01 AM  

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