G. E. M. Anscombe
Anscombe as a young woman
Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe
18 March 1919
|Died||5 January 2001 (aged 81)|
|Other names||Elizabeth Anscombe|
|Part of a series on|
Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe //; 18 March 1919 – 5 January 2001), usually cited as G. E. M. Anscombe or Elizabeth Anscombe, was a British analytic philosopher. She wrote on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. She was a prominent figure of analytical Thomism, a Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.(
Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and became an authority on his work and edited and translated many books drawn from his writings, above all his Philosophical Investigations. Anscombe's 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy" introduced the term consequentialism into the language of analytic philosophy, and had a seminal influence on contemporary virtue ethics. Her monograph Intention is generally recognised as her greatest and most influential work, and the continuing philosophical interest in the concepts of intention, action, and practical reasoning can be said to have taken its main impetus from this work.
Anscombe was born to Gertrude Elizabeth (née Thomas) and Captain Allen Wells Anscombe, on 18 March 1919, in Limerick, Ireland, where her father had been stationed with the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Irish War of Independence. Both her mother and father were involved with education. Her mother was a headmistress and her father went on to head Dulwich College.
Anscombe attended Sydenham High School and then, in 1937, went on to read literae humaniores ('Greats') at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She was awarded a Second Class in her honour moderations in 1939 and (albeit it with reservations on the part of her Ancient History examiners) a First in her degree finals in 1941.
While still at Sydenham High School, she was converted to the Catholic faith. During her first year at St Hugh's she was received into the church, and was a practising Catholic thereafter.
In 1941 she married Peter Geach. Like her, Geach was a Catholic convert who became a student of Wittgenstein and a distinguished academic philosopher. Together they had three sons and four daughters.
After graduating from Oxford, Anscombe was awarded a research fellowship for postgraduate study at Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1942 to 1945. Her purpose was to attend Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. Her interest in Wittgenstein's philosophy arose from reading the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as an undergraduate. She claimed to have conceived the idea of studying with Wittgenstein as soon as she opened the book in Blackwell's and read section 5.53, "Identity of object I express by identity of sign, and not by using a sign for identity. Difference of objects I express by difference of signs." She became an enthusiastic student, feeling that Wittgenstein's therapeutic method helped to free her from philosophical difficulties in ways that her training in traditional systematic philosophy could not. As she wrote:
For years, I would spend time, in cafés, for example, staring at objects saying to myself: 'I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?' ... I always hated phenomenalism and felt trapped by it. I couldn't see my way out of it but I didn't believe it. It was no good pointing to difficulties about it, things which Russell found wrong with it, for example. The strength, the central nerve of it remained alive and raged achingly. It was only in Wittgenstein's classes in 1944 that I saw the nerve being extracted, the central thought "I have got this, and I define 'yellow' (say) as this" being effectively attacked.— Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind: The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, Volume 2 (1981) pp. vii–x.
After her fellowship at Cambridge ended, she was awarded a research fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford, but during the academic year of 1946/47, she continued to travel to Cambridge once a week to attend tutorials with Wittgenstein that were devoted mainly to the philosophy of religion. She became one of Wittgenstein's favourite students and one of his closest friends. Wittgenstein affectionately referred to her by the pet name "old man" – she being (according to Ray Monk) "an exception to his general dislike of academic women". His confidence in Anscombe's understanding of his perspective is shown by his choice of her as translator of his Philosophical Investigations (for which purpose he arranged for her to spend some time in Vienna to improve her German).
Anscombe visited Wittgenstein many times after he left Cambridge in 1947, and travelled to Cambridge in April 1951 to visit him on his death bed. Wittgenstein named her, along with Rush Rhees and Georg Henrik von Wright, as his literary executor. After his death in 1951 she was responsible for editing, translating, and publishing many of Wittgenstein's manuscripts and notebooks.
Anscombe did not avoid controversy. As an undergraduate in 1939 she had publicly criticised Britain's entry into the Second World War. And, in 1956, while a research fellow, she unsuccessfully protested against Oxford granting an honorary degree to Harry S. Truman, whom she denounced as a mass murderer for his use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She would further publicise her position in a (sometimes erroneously dated) pamphlet privately printed soon after Truman's nomination for the degree was approved. In the same she said she "should fear to go" to the Encaenia (the degree conferral ceremony) "in case God's patience suddenly ends." She would also court controversy with some of her colleagues by defending the Catholic Church's opposition to contraception. Later in life, she would be arrested protesting outside an abortion clinic, after abortion had been legalised in Great Britain (albeit with restrictions).
Having remained at Somerville College since 1946, Anscombe was elected Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 1970, where she served until her retirement in 1986. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979.
In her later years, Anscombe suffered from heart disease, and was nearly killed in a car crash in 1996. She never fully recovered and she spent her last years in the care of her family in Cambridge. She died peacefully on 5 January 2001, aged 81, with her husband and four of their seven children at her hospital bedside.
She had not said where she was to be buried and the family chose what is now the Ascension Parish burial ground, as it was the nearest one to their home. There was some difficulty in getting a full-size plot, where she could be buried without being cremated first. This was not possible in the new part of the cemetery, so the site finally obtained – after negotiation with Ely diocesan authorities – was that of an old grave, corner-to-corner with the plot where Wittgenstein had been buried half a century before.
As a young philosophy don, Anscombe acquired a reputation as a formidable debater. In 1948, she presented a paper at a meeting of Oxford's Socratic Club in which she disputed C. S. Lewis's argument that naturalism was self-refuting (found in the third chapter of the original publication of his book Miracles). Some associates of Lewis, primarily George Sayer and Derek Brewer, have remarked that Lewis lost the subsequent debate on her paper and that this loss was so humiliating that he abandoned theological argument and turned entirely to devotional writing and children's literature. Anscombe's impression of the effect upon Lewis is somewhat different:
The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to address Anscombe's objections], shows his honesty and seriousness. The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis's part ... My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis' rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends – who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject-matter – as an interesting example of the phenomenon called "projection".— Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind: The Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe, Volume 2 (1981) p.x.
As a result of the debate, Lewis substantially rewrote chapter 3 of Miracles for the 1960 paperback edition.
Some of Anscombe's most frequently cited works are translations, editions, and expositions of the work of her teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein, including an influential exegesis of Wittgenstein's 1921 book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This brought to the fore the importance of Gottlob Frege for Wittgenstein's thought and, partly on that basis, attacked "positivist" interpretations of the work. She co-edited his posthumous second book, Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations (1953) with Rush Rhees. Her English translation of the book appeared simultaneously and remains standard. She went on to edit or co-edit several volumes of selections from his notebooks, (co-)translating many important works like Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956) and Wittgenstein's "sustained treatment" of G. E. Moore's epistemology, On Certainty (1969).
In 1978, Anscombe was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class for her work on Wittgenstein.
Her most important work is the monograph Intention (1957). Three volumes of collected papers were published in 1981: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein; Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind; and Ethics, Religion and Politics. Another collection, Human Life, Action and Ethics appeared posthumously in 2005.
The aim of Intention (1957) was to make plain the character of human action and will. Anscombe approaches the matter through the concept of intention, which, as she notes, has three modes of appearance in our language:
|She is X'ing intentionally||intentional action|
|She is X'ing with the intention of doing Y
or ... She is X'ing to Y
|intention with which|
or further intention in acting
|She intends to Y
or ... She has expressed the intention to do Y
|expression of intention for the future;|
(what Davidson later called a pure intending)
She suggests that a true account must somehow connect these three uses of the concept, though later students of intention have sometimes denied this, and disputed some of the things she presupposes under the first and third headings. It is clear though that it is the second that is crucial to her main purpose, which is to comprehend the way in which human thought and understanding and conceptualisation relate to the "events in a man's history", or the goings on to which he is subject.
Rather than attempt to define intentions in abstraction from actions, thus taking the third heading first, Anscombe begins with the concept of an intentional action. This soon connected with the second heading. She says that what is up with a human being is an intentional action if the question "Why", taken in a certain sense (and evidently conceived as addressed to him), has application. An agent can answer the "why" question by giving a reason or purpose for her action. "To do Y" or "because I want to do Y" would be typical answers to this sort of "why?"; though they are not the only ones, they are crucial to the constitution of the phenomenon as a typical phenomenon of human life. The agent's answer helps supply the descriptions under which the action is intentional. Anscombe was the first to clearly spell out that actions are intentional under some descriptions and not others. In her famous example, a man's action (which we might observe as consisting in moving an arm up and down while holding a handle) may be intentional under the description "pumping water" but not under other descriptions such as "contracting these muscles", "tapping out this rhythm", and so on. This approach to action influenced Donald Davidson's theory, despite the fact that Davidson went on to argue for a causal theory of action that Anscombe never accepted.
Intention (1957) is also the classic source for the idea that there is a difference in "direction of fit" between cognitive states like beliefs and conative states like desire. (A theme later taken up and discussed by John Searle). Cognitive states describe the world and are causally derived from the facts or objects they depict. Conative states do not describe the world, but aim to bring something about in the world. Anscombe used the example of a shopping list to illustrate the difference. The list can be a straightforward observational report of what is actually bought (thereby acting like a cognitive state), or it can function as a conative state such as a command or desire, dictating what the agent should buy. If the agent fails to buy what is listed, we do not say that the list is untrue or incorrect; we say that the mistake is in the action, not the desire. According to Anscombe, this difference in direction of fit is a major difference between speculative knowledge (theoretical, empirical knowledge) and practical knowledge (knowledge of actions and morals). Whereas "speculative knowledge" is "derived from the objects known", practical knowledge is – in a phrase Anscombe lifts from Aquinas – "the cause of what it understands".
Anscombe made great contributions to ethics as well as metaphysics. She is credited with having coined the term "consequentialism". In her 1958 essay "Modern Moral Philosophy", Anscombe wrote:
The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences, as far as responsibility is concerned, was not made by Sidgwick in developing any one 'method of ethics'; he made this important move on behalf of everybody and just on its own account; and I think it plausible to suggest that this move on the part of Sidgwick explains the difference between old-fashioned Utilitarianism and the consequentialism, as I name it, which marks him and every English academic moral philosopher since him.
"Modern Moral Philosophy" is credited with reviving interest in and study of virtue ethics in Western academic philosophy.
The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford is named after her, and conducts bioethical research in the Catholic tradition.
Anscombe also introduced the idea of a set of facts being 'brute relative to' some fact. When a set of facts xyz stands in this relation to a fact A, they are a subset out of a range some subset among which holds if A holds. Thus if A is the fact that I have paid for something, the brute facts might be that I have handed him a cheque for a sum which he has named as the price for the goods, saying that this is the payment, or that I gave him some cash at the time that he gave me the goods. There tends, according to Anscombe, to be an institutional context which gives its point to the description 'A', but of which 'A' is not itself a description: that I have given someone a shilling is not a description of the institution of money or of the currency of the country. According to her, no brute facts xyz can generally be said to entail the fact A relative to which they are 'brute' except with the proviso "under normal circumstances", for "one cannot mention all the things that were not the case, which would have made a difference if they had been." A set facts xyz ... may be brute relative to a fact A which itself is one of a set of facts ABC ... which is brute relative to some further fact W. Thus Anscombe's account is not of a distinct class of facts, to be distinguished from another class, 'institutional facts': the essential relation is that of a set of facts being 'brute relative to' some fact. Following Anscombe's lead, John Searle derived a sharper conception of 'brute facts' simply as non-mental facts to play the foundational role and generate similar hierarchies in his philosophical account of speech acts and institutional reality.
Her paper "The First Person" buttressed remarks by Wittgenstein (in his Lectures on "Private Experience") arguing for the now-notorious conclusion that the first-person pronoun, "I", does not refer to anything (not, e.g., to the speaker) because of its immunity from reference failure. Having shown by counter-example that 'I' does not refer to the body, Anscombe objected to the implied Cartesianism of its referring at all. Few people accept the conclusion – though the position was later adopted in a more radical form by David Lewis – but the paper was an important contribution to work on indexicals and self-consciousness that has been carried on by philosophers as varied as John Perry, Peter Strawson, David Kaplan, Gareth Evans, John McDowell, and Sebastian Rödl.
The philosopher Candace Vogler says that Anscombe's "strength" is that "'when she is writing for [a] Catholic audience, she presumes they share certain fundamental beliefs,' but she is equally willing to write for people who do not share her assumptions." In 2010, philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that Anscombe was "perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English." Mary Warnock described her as "the undoubted giant among women philosophers" while John Haldane said she "certainly has a good claim to be the greatest woman philosopher of whom we know."
The philosophy examiners wanted to give her a First ... but the ancient history examiners would agree to this only on condition that she showed a minimum knowledge of their subject in a viva voce (oral) examination. Anscombe's performance ... was less than spectacular... To the last two questions she answered 'No', these being 'Can you give us the name of a Roman provincial governor?' and (in some desperation) 'Is there any fact about the period you are supposed to have studied which you would like to tell us?' The examiners cannot have been well pleased, but somehow or other ended up being persuaded by the philosophers ... As Michael Dummett writes in his obituary ... 'For the [ancient historians] to have yielded, her philosophy papers must have been astonishing'.
In the autumn of 1939, while still an undergraduate, she and a friend wrote a pamphlet entitled The Justice of the Present War Examined. In this, Elizabeth Anscombe argued that while Britain was certainly fighting against an unjust cause, it was not fighting for a just one. ... Subsequently, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham told the two students to withdraw the pamphlet because they had described it as Catholic without getting a Church licence.
Anscombe ... opposed Britain's entry into World War II on the grounds that fighting the war would certainly involve killing noncombatants. When Oxford decided to award the U.S. president Harry Truman an honorary degree in 1956, Anscombe protested vigorously, arguing that the atomic bombing of innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki disqualified him for such an honor.
Anscombe ... was a vigorous opponent of the use of nuclear weapons and led a protest of Oxford's awarding a degree to President Harry Truman on the grounds that a mass-murderer should not be so honored. She was also a fierce opponent of abortion; on one occasion late in her life, she had to be dragged bodily by police away from a sit-in at an abortion clinic.
On 1st May 1956, Oxford University's Convocation ...considered nominations for honorary degrees ... One of the nominations was Harry S. Truman ... Anscombe ..."caused a small stir" ... by arguing that the nomination should be rejected on the grounds that Truman was guilty of mass murder ... Anscombe's speech did not persuade ...The House was asked to indicate its attitude toward the nomination, and showed overwhelming support. ... On 20th June, Truman was awarded his honorary degree