Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret (1919–2001)

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G. E. M. Anscombe, English philosopher, was educated at Sydenham High School and St. Hugh's College, Oxford, where she read Literae Humaniores (Greats). She went as a research student to the University of Cambridge, where she became a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951). He and Aristotle were the most important influences on her philosophical thought. Anscombe became a Roman Catholic while in her teens, and her Catholicism was also a shaping influence. She was a Fellow for many years of Somerville College, Oxford, and held the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1970 until 1986. A philosopher of great range, she made important contributions to ethics, philosophy of mind and action, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, and philosophy of language. Much of her most interesting work was in the history of philosophy; her discussions of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophers combine illuminating accounts of challenging texts with penetrating treatment of the philosophical problems themselves. As one of Wittgenstein's literary executors, as an editor and translator of his writings, and as a writer and lecturer about Wittgenstein, she has done more than anyone else to make his work accessible. Her Introduction to Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" (1959) is a superb introduction to the central themes of that work, making clear the character of the problems (like that of negation) treated in it.

Long before it became fashionable in the 1970s for moral philosophers to concern themselves with practical problems, Anscombe was writing about them. Her first published essay, in 1939, shortly after the beginning of World War II, concerned the justice of that war. She discussed closely related topics in her protest against the honorary degree that Oxford University awarded Harry Truman in 1957 and in connection with the policy of nuclear deterrence. She wrote also on contraception, murder, and euthanasia. All her writings on such questions reflect her belief that the concepts of action and intention are important for ethics, especially in connection with questions about our responsibility for the consequences of our actions. She explained and defended the doctrine of double effect (it is sometimes permissible to cause, as a side effect, a merely foreseen harm that is forbidden if sought intentionally). She argued that denial of this doctrine "has been the corruption of non-Catholic thought and its abuse the corruption of Catholic thought" (1981, 3:54).

Anscombe's interest in war and in the concept of murder led her also to more general philosophical questions about political authority. "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1981, 2005) has been the most influential of her papers on ethics and was an important impetus for the development of virtue ethics (which emphasizes the character traits a human being needs in order to flourish). She defended three theses in the paper: that moral philosophy cannot be done until we have an adequate philosophical psychology; that the concepts of moral obligation, moral duty, and moral "ought" are survivals from a now largely abandoned conception of ethics, are incoherent outside that framework, and should therefore be abandoned if possible; and that English moral philosophers from Henry Sidgwick (18381900) on differ only in superficial ways. In explaining the third thesis, Anscombe introduced the term "consequentialism" for the common view that right and wrong are determined by consequences (including among consequences the promotion of intrinsic values), and she argued that consequentialism is a corrupt and shallow philosophy.

In her ground-breaking monograph Intention (1957), Anscombe raised and discussed questions about intention, action, and practical thought (practical reasoning and practical knowledge). Widely prevalent philosophical ideas about intention had treated it as some special kind of mental state or event. Departing radically from that tradition, Anscombe gave an account of intentional action in terms of the applicability to it of a kind of question asking for the agent's reason. This account enabled her to show how conceptions of good are important for practical thought. The questions with which Anscombe was concerned frequently straddled metaphysics, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mind. For example, in "The First Person" (1981), she explained how we are led into confusion by misunderstandings of "I" on the model of a proper name. In "The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Feature" (1981) she drew on philosophy of language in explaining grammatical analogies between intention and sensation, and was able to give a very interesting and original account of what is right in sense-impression philosophy and of what is misleading in it.

Anscombe explored the topic of causation in several papers, questioning in them widely held assumptions. "Causality and Determination" (1981) begins by formulating two such assumptions: that causality is a necessary connection of some kind, and that it involves a universal generalization connecting events of two kinds. One or the other or both of the assumptions are accepted by virtually all writers on causation, but Anscombe questioned both, together with the related idea that if two courses of events appear similar but have different outcomes, there must be some further relevant difference. She argued that the root idea in all our causal notions is that of one thing deriving from another, and that this need not involve necessitation. In "Times, Beginnings, and Causes" (1981) she challenged two widely accepted views of Hume's: that causal relations are never logically necessary, and that logically something can begin to exist without being caused to do so. Questions about time figure centrally in other papers as well. For example, in "The Reality of the Past" (1981) she treats a problem raised by Parmenides (b. c. 515 BCE) and shows how attempts to explain the concept of the past by reference to memory must fail. This paper also contains one of the best short discussions of Wittgenstein's later approach to philosophy.

While Anscombe worked within the tradition of twentieth-century analytic philosophy, she challenged many of the assumptions of her contemporaries. Although her work, especially on intention and action, has exercised wide influence, much of her thought has not yet been assimilated, owing partly to the fact that she maintained a critical distance from the ideas of her contemporaries and partly to the fact that many of her later papers are not readily accessible.

See also Aristotle; Consequentialism; Euthanasia; Feminist Philosophy; Intention; Metaphysics, History of; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Mind; Sidgwick, Henry; Virtue Ethics; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann; Women in the History of Philosophy.


works by anscombe

Intention. Oxford: Blackwell, 1957. 2nd ed., 1963.

An Introduction to Wittgenstein's "Tractatus." 3rd ed. London: Hutchinson, 1959, 1971.

With P. T. Geach. Three Philosophers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1963.

Collected Philosophical Papers. Vol. 1: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein. Vol. 2: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind. Vol. 3: Ethics, Religion, and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.

Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe, edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005.

works on anscombe

Diamond, Cora, and Jenny Teichman, eds. Intention and Intentionality: Essays in Honour of G. E. M. Anscombe. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1979.

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

Haber, Joram Graf, ed. Absolutism and Its Consequentialist Critics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Müller, Anselm. "G. E. M. Anscombe (19192001)." In A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, edited by A. P. Martinich and David Sosa, 315325. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Teichman, Jenny. "Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 19192001." Proceedings of the British Academy 115 (2001): 3150.

Teichmann, Roger, ed. Logic, Cause, and Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Cora Diamond (1996, 2005)