G. E. M. Anscombe

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G. E. M. Anscombe
Anscombe as a young woman
Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe

(1919-03-18)18 March 1919
Limerick, Ireland
Died5 January 2001(2001-01-05) (aged 81)
Cambridge, England
Other namesElizabeth Anscombe
Alma mater
Notable work
Intention (1957)
Peter Geach (m. 1941)
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytical Thomism
Main interests
Notable ideas

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe FBA (/ˈænskm/; 18 March 1919 – 5 January 2001), usually cited as G. E. M. Anscombe or Elizabeth Anscombe, was a British[3] 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.

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 Anscombe and Allen Wells Anscombe, on 18 March 1919, in North Strand, Limerick, Ireland, where her British father had been posted as an officer in 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 a department at Dulwich College.[4]

She graduated from Sydenham High School in 1937 and went on to read "Mods & Greats" (classics, ancient history, and philosophy) at St Hugh's College, Oxford, graduating with a second class in Honour Moderations in 1939 and a first class in her degree Finals in 1941.[4] While still at Sydenham High School, she was converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and during her first undergraduate year she was received into the church. She remained a lifelong devout Catholic.[4] She garnered controversy when she publicly opposed Britain's entry into the Second World War, although her father had been a soldier and one of her brothers was to serve during the war.[citation needed]

In 1941 she married Peter Geach, like her a Roman Catholic convert. He became, like her, a student of Wittgenstein and a distinguished British academic philosopher. Together they had three sons and four daughters.[4]

After graduating from Oxford, Anscombe was awarded a research fellowship for postgraduate study at Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1942 to 1945.[4] 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.[5]

After her fellowship at Cambridge ended, she was awarded a research fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford,[4] but during the academic year of 1946/47, she continued to travel to Cambridge once a week to attend tutorials with Wittgenstein on the philosophy of religion. She became one of Wittgenstein's favourite students and one of his closest friends.[6] Wittgenstein affectionately referred to her by the pet name "old man" – 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 before she had learned German, for which purpose he arranged a stay in Vienna.[citation needed]

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, and after his death in 1951 she was responsible for editing, translating, and publishing many of Wittgenstein's manuscripts and notebooks.[citation needed]

She scandalised liberal colleagues with articles defending the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to contraception in the 1960s and early 1970s. Later in life, she was arrested twice while protesting outside an abortion clinic in Britain, after abortion had been legalised (albeit with restrictions).[citation needed]

Anscombe remained at Somerville College from 1946 to 1970. She was also known for her willingness to face fierce public controversy in the name of her Catholic faith. In 1956, while a research fellow at the University of Oxford, she protested Oxford's decision to grant an honorary degree to Harry S. Truman, whom she denounced as a mass murderer for his use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She and three others voted against awarding the honour to Truman. She would later defend her decision in a 1957 pamphlet.[4][verification needed][7]

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.[8]

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.[4] She died on 5 January 2001, aged 81, with her husband and four of their seven children at her 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.[9]

Debate with C. S. Lewis[edit]

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.[10] 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".[11]

As a result of the debate, Lewis substantially rewrote chapter 3 of Miracles for the 1960 paperback edition.[12]


On Wittgenstein[edit]

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[13] 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)[14].

In 1978, Anscombe was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class for her work on Wittgenstein.[15]


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.[16] 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.[17] 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[18]

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] 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.[19] 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".[20]


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.[21]

Brute and institutional facts[edit]

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."[22] 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[23].

First person[edit]

Her paper "The First Person"[24] buttressed remarks by Wittgenstein (in his Lectures on "Private Experience"[25]) 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.[citation needed]

Views of her work[edit]

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."[26] In 2010, philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that Anscombe was "perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English."[27] Mary Warnock described her in 2006 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."[28]



  • Intention. Oxford: Blackwell. 1957.
  • "On Brute Facts". Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 18 (3): 69–72. 1958. doi:10.2307/3326788. ISSN 0003-2638. JSTOR 3326788.
  • An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. 1959. ISBN 978-1-890318-54-3.
  • Three Philosophers. With P. T. Geach. 1961.
  • Causality and Determination. 1971. ISBN 978-0-521-08304-1.
  • Times, Beginnings and Causes. 1975. ISBN 978-0-19-725712-8.
  • From Parmenides to Wittgenstein. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. 1. 1981. ISBN 978-0-631-12922-6.
  • Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (PDF). The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. 2. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. ISBN 978-0-631-12932-5. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
  • Ethics, Religion and Politics. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. 3. 1981. ISBN 978-0-631-12942-4.
  • Human Life, Action and Ethics. Edited by Mary Geach; Luke Gormally. St. Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. 4. Exeter, England: Imprint Academic. 2005. ISBN 978-1-84540-013-2
  • La filosofia analitica y la espiritualidad del hombre (in Spanish). Edited by J. M. Torralba; J. Nubiola. Pamplona, Spain: Ediciones de la Universidad de Navarra S.A. 2005. ISBN 978-84-313-2245-8.
  • Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics. Edited by Mary Geach; Luke Gormally. St. Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. 11. Exeter, England: Imprint Academic. 2008. ISBN 978-1-84540-121-4
  • From Plato to Wittgenstein. Edited by Mary Geach; Luke Gormally. St. Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. 18. Exeter, England: Imprint Academic. 2011. ISBN 978-1-84540-232-7


  • Gormally, Luke, ed. (1994). Moral truth and Moral Tradition: Essays in Honour of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe. Dublin: Four Courts Press.


  1. ^ This theme is later taken up and discussed by Searle 1983.



  1. ^ Dummett 1981, p. xv.
  2. ^ Dolan, John M. (2001). "G. E. M. Anscombe: Living the Truth". First Things. No. 113. New York: Institute on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  3. ^ Boxer, Sarah (13 January 2001). "G. E. M. Anscombe, British Philosopher, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 26 August 2014. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Teichman 2017.
  5. ^ Anscombe 1981, p. viii.
  6. ^ Monk 1990, pp. 497–498.
  7. ^ Anscombe, G. E. M. (2008) [1956]. "Mr. Truman's Degree". AnthonyFlood.com. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  9. ^ Teichmann 2008.
  10. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about C.S. Lewis". Biblical Discernment Ministries. 1999. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  11. ^ Anscombe 1981, p. x.
  12. ^ Smilde 2011.
  13. ^ Anscombe, G. E. M. (1959). An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. London: Hutchinson.
  14. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1969). On Certainty. Oxford: BasilBlackwell.
  15. ^ "Reply to a Parliamentary Question" (pdf) (in German). Vienna. p. 521. Retrieved 21 October 2012.
  16. ^ Anscombe 1957, sec. 5–8.
  17. ^ Anscombe 1957, sec. 18–21.
  18. ^ See Anscombe 1981[full citation needed] as well as Anscombe 1957.
  19. ^ See Anscombe 1957, sec. 32.
  20. ^ See Anscombe 1957, sec. 48.
  21. ^ Crisp & Slote 1997, p. 3; Haldane 2000.
  22. ^ Anscombe 1958.
  23. ^ Searle, John (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press. pp. 120–121. ISBN 0-14-023590-6.
  24. ^ Anscombe, G. E. M. (1981). Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (collected papers vol 2). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. pp. 21–36. ISBN 0-631-12932-4.
  25. ^ Wittgenstein, Lugwig (1993). Notes for Lectures on "Private Experience" and "Sense Data", in "Philosophical Occasions" (eds J. Klagge and A. Nordmann). Indianapolis: Hackett. p. 228.
  26. ^ Oppenheimer, Mark (8 January 2011). "Renaissance for Outspoken Catholic Philosopher". The New York Times. p. A14. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  27. ^ Scruton, Roger (2010). "Wine and Philosophy". Decanter. Vol. 35. pp. 57–59. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  28. ^ Haldane 2000.

Works cited[edit]

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Oxford: Blackwell.
 ———  (1958). "On Brute Facts". Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 18 (3): 69–72. doi:10.2307/3326788. ISSN 0003-2638. JSTOR 3326788.
 ———  (1981). "Introduction". Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (PDF). The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. 2. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. vii–x. ISBN 978-0-631-12932-5. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
Crisp, Roger; Slote, Michael (1997). "Introduction". In Crisp, Roger; Slote, Michael. Virtue Ethics. Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press (published 2007). pp. 1–25. ISBN 978-0-19-875188-5.
Dummett, Michael (1981). The Interpretation of Frege's Philosophy. London: Duckworth.
Haldane, John (2000). "In Memoriam: G. E. M. Anscombe (1919–2001)". The Review of Metaphysics. 53 (4): 1019–1021. ISSN 0034-6632. JSTOR 20131480.
Monk, Ray (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-015995-0.
Searle, John R. (1983). Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-22895-4.
Smilde, Arend (2011). "What Lewis Really Did to Miracles: A Philosophical Layman's Attempt to Understand the Anscombe Affair". Journal of Inklings Studies. 1 (2): 9–24. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Teichman, Jenny (2017) [2005]. "Anscombe, (Gertrude) Elizabeth Margaret (1919–2001)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/75032.
Teichmann, Roger (2008). The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929933-1.

Further reading[edit]

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1975). "The First Person". In Guttenplan, Samuel. Mind and Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Archived from the original on 13 June 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
 ———  (1981). "On Transubstantiation". Ethics, Religion and Politics. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. 3. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 107–112. ISBN 978-0-631-12942-4 – via Second Spring.
 ———  (1993) [rev. ed. first published 1975]. "Contraception and Chastity [rev. ed.]" (PDF). In Smith, Janet E. Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Doyle, Bob. "G. E. M. Anscombe". The Information Philosopher. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
Driver, Julia (2014). "Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California: Stanford University. ISSN 1095-5054. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Gormally, Luke (2011). "G E M Anscombe (1919–2001)" (PDF). Oxford: Anscombe Bioethics Centre. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
O'Grady, Jane (11 January 2011). "Elizabeth Anscombe". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
"Portrait of a Catholic Philosopher". Oxford: Anscombe Bioethics Centre. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
"Professor G E M Anscombe". The Telegraph. London. 22 November 2001. Archived from the original on 7 April 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Richter, Duncan. "G. E. M. Anscombe (1919—2001)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Rutler, George W. (2004). "G. E. M. Anscombe". Cloud of Witnesses. Crisis. Vol. 22 no. 8. Washington: Morley Publishing Group. Archived from the original on 14 August 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
Teichman, Jenny (2003). "Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 1919–2001". In Thompson, F. M. L. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows. Volume 1. Proceedings of the British Academy. 115. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.5871/bacad/9780197262788.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-726278-8.
Torralba, José M. (2014). "G.E.M. Anscombe Bibliography". Pamplona, Spain: University of Navarra. Retrieved 10 November 2017.