Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret

views updated


British philosopher, b. March 18, 1919; d. Jan. 5, 2001. G. E. M. ("Elizabeth") Anscombe was the youngest of three children of Alan Wells and Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe; her father taught science at Dulwich College. She attended Oxford University and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in her first year there. In 1941, after her graduation from Oxford with first-class honors in classics, ancient history, and philosophy, she married Peter Geach, who was also a convert and who himself became a prominent philosopher. They had seven children.

A year after graduation, Anscombe became a student fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge and eventually a full fellow at Somerville College, Oxford. In 1970 she was appointed to a chair in philosophy at Cambridge, where she continued until her retirement in 1986. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1967 and, with Peter Geach, she received the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1999.

After the ancients, the main influence on Anscombe's thought was Ludwig wittgenstein. Anscombe first met Wittgenstein in the 1940s at Cambridge and later translated many of his works. She used the rigorous philosophical methods of the analytical school in a wide range of fields, including logic, causality, action theory, and ethics.

Her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958) and her book Intention (1957, revised 1963) constitute the hallmark of her philosophy. Anscombe pursues three arguments in "Modern Moral Philosophy." First, she contends that moral philosophy should cease until philosophers have developed a workable philosophy of psychology. Until philosophers are clear about what they mean by such terms as "intention," "wanting," and "virtue," she believes, they cannot offer any moral guidance. Second, she holds that moral philosophers should avoid using the language of moral obligation because they have abandoned the notion of divine law that gave this language meaning. Without a divine legislator, arguments about "right" and "wrong" can only appeal to personal or societal dispositions, even as they retain an unfounded connotation of special urgency because of their lost roots in divine providence. Anscombe devotes most of her essay to her third thesis, that "the differences between the well-known English writers on moral philosophy from [Henry] Sidgwick [d. 1900] to the present day are of little importance." Against all the major thinkers who preceded them, these philosophers hold that it is impossible to exclude any course of action as a means to some end. Anscombe coined the term "consequentialism" to name this moral philosophy.

In her short monograph 'Intention,' Anscombe illustrates what she means by a philosophy of psychology. She begins by noting that the word "intention" seems to have divergent meanings, depending on whether it refers to wishing, acting, or making a plan. After she has revealed the complexities of these basic notions, Anscombe offers a new and more precise interpretation of practical reasoning, building on Aristotle's discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics. The notion of intention, she believes, helps to explain how referring actions to the desires of those performing them shows the meaning of the actions. For example, Aristotle would explain the action of pumping water by starting with the good one achieves by pumping, then showing the causal chain that links the choice to pump with the good of having water. Anscombe, however, begins with the question of how the man using the pump might describe what he is doing, then relates this to what he might in fact bring about by this action.

A commitment to protect innocent human lives united her life with her philosophical work. In 1939 she and her fellow Oxford student Norman Daniel wrote and privately published a pamphlet, "The War and the Moral Law," in which they examined Britain's participation in World War II in the light of traditional just-war theory and argued that Britain was failing to meet several of the conditions (each of them necessary) for waging war. Anscombe's opposition to the modern practice of war, especially its denial of noncombatant immunity, continued throughout her life. She opposed (unsuccessfully) Oxford University's conferral of an honorary degree on former President Truman in 1957, on the grounds that his authorization of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been grossly immoral. Later, Anscombe became an active opponent of legalized abortion.

Anscombe's work has significantly influenced modern philosophy in a number of ways. Her book Intention is foundational for the contemporary field of action theory. In moral philosophy, she deserves much of the credit for the contemporary interest in virtue theory. Her sensitive translations and creative interpretations of Wittgen-stein have made this great philosopher's thought more readily available to a wide readership.

Bibliography: c. r. pigden, "Anscombe on 'Ought,'" The Philosophical Quarterly 38 (1988) 2041. d. richter, "The Incoherence of the Moral 'Ought,"' Philosophy 70 (1995) 6985; "Ethics after AnscombePost 'Modern Moral Philosophy,"' Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy 5 (Dordrecht 1999). r. teichmann, ed. Logic, Cause and Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, v. 46 (Cambridge 2000).

[r. kennedy]

About this article

Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret

Updated About content Print Article