Anscombe, G. E. M.

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Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret (G. E. M.) Anscombe (1919–2001), arguably England's greatest female philosopher and one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, was born on March 18 in South London and died on January 5 in Cambridge, England. Trained at Cambridge and Oxford universities in the classics, ancient history, and philosophy, Anscombe converted to Catholicism while at college. She married Peter Geach, also a philosopher and converted Catholic, with whom she had seven children.

A student and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Anscombe was one of his three literary executors (along with Georg von Wright and Rush Rhees) and was tasked with translating much of Wittgenstein's work. Her An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractactus (1959) is considered the basic analysis of that work. The recipient of many honors and awards, Anscombe eventually succeeded to Wittgenstein's chair of philosophy at Cambridge. A renowned debater, she was reputably responsible for C. S. Lewis's decision to give up theology and turn to writing children's literature.

While steeped in all aspects of philosophy, Anscombe was well aware of progress in the sciences and humanities, discussing the implications of modern physics on causality (referencing works by Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Max Born), noting that there was no point in continuing to work on moral philosophy until psychology was better understood, as well as delving deeply into medical ethics in areas such as abortion, euthanasia, and contraception. A moderately prolific writer, Anscombe wrote for two distinct audiences, her professional colleagues and the Catholic community. Throughout her life she showed no hesitation in publicly acting on her beliefs.

In 1939, while still an undergraduate, she and Norman Daniel coauthored a pamphlet examining British participation in World War II. They concluded that, despite the injustices perpetrated by Nazi Germany, the role of the United Kingdom in the war was immoral. Anscombe argued that U.K. intentions in terms of means, ends, and net probable effects were unjust. In particular, Anscombe predicted, correctly as it turns out, that attacks on civilian targets were likely (blockades were already in effect) and that such actions would constitute murder.

Years later, Anscombe opposed an Oxford University plan to confer an honorary degree on U.S. President Harry S. Truman on similar grounds. The basis of her objection was that Truman was ultimately responsible for what she considered to be the murder of thousands of civilians during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This principle, the immunity of innocents, carried forward in the early-twenty-first century in the international law of war, is the basis for discussions of collateral damage and is one driver for the development of more precise munitions.

When the birth control pill and other devices became generally accessible, Anscombe supported Pope Paul VI's pronouncement that contraceptive measures other than the rhythm method were immoral. She wrote a series of articles aimed at the Catholic laity logically justifying the pope's conclusion. Catholics who support liberalization of the Church's policy on contraception have not successfully countered Anscombe's arguments. Interestingly non-Catholics contend that once the religious precepts of Catholicism are removed from Anscombe's arguments, she makes a persuasive case that nearly any sexual act or form of relationship should be permissible.

To Anscombe, abortion also represented an unjust killing of the innocent. In typical fashion, this motivated her in later years to participate in the British pro-life movement, eventually causing Anscombe and her daughters to be arrested for blocking an abortion clinic. In her life and work, Anscombe represents the possibility of an analytic philosopher taking substantive positions on a variety of issues related to science, technology, and ethics.


SEE ALSO Consequentialism;Just War.


Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret. (1959). An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractactus. London: Hutchinson.

Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret. (1981). Collected Papers: 1. Parmenides to Wittgenstein. 2. Metaphysics and thePhilosophy of Mind. 3. Ethics, Religion and Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Teichmann, Roger, ed. (2000). Logic, Cause & Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Anscombe, G. E. M.

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