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G.E.M. Anscombe

The life and Work of Elizabeth Anscombe

John Haldane


Elizabeth Anscombe was a remarkable and formidable woman, an exceptional philosopher and a committed Roman Catholic. While orders of intellectual greatness are hard to assign particularly when the person belongs to one’s own time, there is no doubt that Anscombe was one of the most gifted and accomplished philosophers of the twentieth century. Her work will continue to be read long into the future and a place for her in the history of philosophy is assured.

Considering her standing in the category of women philosophers she is the clear leader, marked out by her creativity, imagination, industry, insight, range and rigour. There is also a kind of singularity about her writings: she proceeds directly to the topic of her investigation, makes few if any references to academic contemporaries or current trends, writes in a concentrated and often indirect manner, eschews academic jargon, generally avoids footnotes, and sometimes ends with an expression of perplexity. Again, unlike most philosophers of her standing, she engaged in philosophical analysis and argumentation before non-academic audiences usually Catholic ones. In this connection while she proportioned the depth of her thinking to their likely knowledge and comprehension she never resorted to glibness or misleading oversimplification.

She had considerable intellectual commitment, stamina, and toughness. Of themselves these do not make for brilliance, but without them there tends only to be, at best, unsustained cleverness. There was an occasion on which she is reported to have said to the famous logical positivist A.J. Ayer ‘if you didn’t speak so quickly people wouldn’t think you were so clever’ to which, to his credit, he speedily replied ‘and if you didn’t speak so slowly people wouldn’t think you were so profound’; but the fact is that he was merely clever while she was penetrating and profound.

In addition, she had tremendous powers of analysis and argument, and a ‘nose’ for fakes and mistakes, not the superficial yet pervasive sort that characterise the work of many philosophers in any period; but the deeper kind that give rise to ways of thinking that seem inescapable until the error and the escape routes are pointed out. She was invariably frank and often brusque. I am not sure to what extent she intended to be rude, though something perceived as such might be in evidence where she regarded what had been said as stupid or vacuous, or suspected vainglorious pretension.

She had no inclination to suppose that contemporary philosophy was in general an improvement on the thought of the past, and she had a particular feeling for philosophers from the pre-modern period, particularly Plato, Aristotle, Anselm and Aquinas, but also, though she studied them less, Spinoza and Kierkegaard. She was, however, deeply influenced by the methods of Wittgenstein with whom she studied and who chose her to translate his masterpiece Philosophical Investigations, which was one of the major turning points in twentieth-century philosophy.

Elizabeth Anscombe was born on 18 March 1919 the youngest of three children and only daughter of Allen Anscombe, a science master at Dulwich College and of his wife Gertrude Elizabeth, a classics teacher, after whom she was named. Her father was a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Irish War of Independence and Elizabeth was born in Limerick during the first year of his service there. While he was an atheist her mother was a nominal Anglican. Before she entered her teenage years and up to the middle of them Elizabeth discovered Roman Catholicism by reading a book on the lives and work of English recusant priests, and read her way into the Catholic faith.

In 1942 she moved to Cambridge to take up a post-graduate research studentship at Newnham College. It was in Cambridge that she met Wittgenstein who then held the Chair of Philosophy and whose lectures she attended, becoming increasingly enthusiastic about his revolutionary ideas. Although he is quoted as saying of Anscombe and of another philosopher convert that he “could not possibly believe all the things they believe”, in his final year, when he knew he was dying, Wittgenstein asked Anscombe to put him in touch with a “non-philosophical priest”. That she did calling upon Fr Conrad Pepler OP. of Blackfriars, Cambridge. Notwithstanding that she effected the introduction, however, Anscombe never presumed that Wittgenstein had resumed the faith of his childhood, and speculations to that effect are wishful thinking.

Anscombe’s short book Intention, first published in 1957 is universally regarded as a classic account of the nature of intentional behaviour, and as the founding text of the theory of action. Anscombe’s motive in investigating intention was her perplexity and frustration at attempts to excuse or minimise culpability by saying that an agent only intended immediate acts or to extend it by denying a morally relevant difference between foreseen and intended consequences. Thus she forged a link between philosophical and moral psychology which was further adverted to in her 1958 article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, which introduced the term “consequentialism” into the English language. That article is rightly credited as being the principal cause of the revival of an ethics focussed on virtue rather than on rule or outcome. Though Anscombe never supposed that the whole of ethics could be done in terms of the concept of virtue and on that account she cannot correctly be termed a ‘virtue ethicist’.

Anscombe’s work was for the most part highly academic, usually difficult to comprehend, and often combative in expression. From her student days, however, she had discussed and written about issues of moral, political and religious interests. In 1939 she co-authored a then highly controversial pamphlet predicting that Britain’s conduct in the Second World War would be unjust, and in 1956/7 she protested the award by the University of Oxford of an honorary degree to President Truman, charging that he had commanded the murderous use of nuclear weapons against innocent Japanese civilians. Troubled by how people found it easy to defend Truman she came to the conclusion that they failed to understand the nature of his actions, and she showed in Intention, that in doing one thing (moving one’s hand) one may intentionally be doing another (directing the death of human beings).

In 1948, in debate with C.S. Lewis at the Socratic Club in Oxford she demolished his favoured argument against “the self-refuting character of naturalism”. Where some apologists viewed this as giving comfort to the enemy (atheism), Anscombe characteristically saw herself as simply exposing bad argumentation. Her own verdict on the event “that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quire definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought were accurate” seems the correct one. In any event, no-one could seriously doubt her belief in the value of Christian apologetics if they read the likes of her pamphlets On Transubstantiation (1974), and on Contraception and Chastity (1977), where she argued passionately in favour of traditional Catholic teachings.

In 1967 Anscombe was elected Fellow of the British Academy. She subsequently received a number of other distinctions including foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1999 along with her husband the Catholic philosopher Peter Geach, a Papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. Since her death four volumes of her writings have been published: Human Life, Action and Ethics (2005), Faith in a Hard Ground (2009), From Plato to Wittgenstein (2011), and Logic, Truth and Meaning (2015), and several collections of essays, and studies of her work have appeared. These have contributed to the significant revival of interest in her writings which is now likely to be further encouraged by the marking of the centenary of her birth.

Anscombe Publications

The book series St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs (Founding and General Editor John Haldane) has made available a large collection of writings by the late G.E.M. Anscombe. For the most part this collection is comprised of essays published subsequent to her three volumes of Collected Papers (1980) or never previously published but it also includes a critical edition of her Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. There are four volumes of writings by Anscombe herself and two collections of essays about her work.

  1. Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe eds Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: ImprintAcademic, 2004).
  2. Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G.E.M. Anscombe eds Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: ImprintAcademic, 2008).
  3. From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe eds Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: ImprintAcademic, 2011).
  4. Logic, Truth and Meaning: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe eds Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Exeter: ImprintAcademic, 2015).
  5. The Moral Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe eds L. Gormally, D.A Jones and R. Teichmann (Exeter: ImprintAcademic, 2016).
  6. The Life and Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe ed J. Haldane (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2019).

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