Elizabeth Anscombe

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Elizabeth Anscombe
Anscombe as a young woman
Born (1919-03-18)18 March 1919
Limerick, Ireland
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Cambridge, England
Resting place Ascension Parish Burial Ground, Cambridge
Nationality British[1]
Fields philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, ethics
Institutions Somerville College, Oxford; University of Cambridge
Education Sydenham High School
Alma mater St Hugh's College, Oxford
Known for Brute facts, "Under a description", Direction of fit
Influences Ludwig Wittgenstein
Spouse Peter Geach

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, FBA (/ˈænskm/; 18 March 1919 – 5 January 2001), usually cited as G. E. M. 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.

Born in Ireland, 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.


G. E. M. Anscombe was born to Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe and Allen Wells Anscombe, on 18 March 1919, in Limerick, Ireland, where her father had been posted as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Irish War of Independence.

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 First in 1941. During her first undergraduate year she converted to Roman Catholicism, and remained a lifelong devout Catholic. She garnered controversy when she publicly opposed Britain's entry into World War II, although her father had been a soldier, and one of her brothers was to serve during the war.

In 1941 she married Peter Geach, like her a Roman Catholic convert, a student of Wittgenstein, and a distinguished British 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

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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.[2]

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, together with her fellow student Wasfi Ahmad Hijab,[3] to attend tutorials with Wittgenstein on the philosophy of religion. She became one of Wittgenstein's favourite students and one of his closest friends.[4] 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.

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.

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).

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 Oxford University, she protested against 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.

Anscombe was elected Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University 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.[5]

In her later years, Anscombe suffered from heart disease, and was nearly killed in a car crash in 1996. She spent her last years in the care of her family in Cambridge. She died, aged 81, with her husband and four of their seven children at her bedside, on 5 January 2001.

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.[6]

Debate with C. S. Lewis

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.[7] Anscombe's impression of the effect upon Lewis is somewhat different:

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The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to meet 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's 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.[8]

As a result of the debate, Lewis substantially rewrote chapter 3 of Miracles for the 1960 paperback edition.[9]


On Wittgenstein

Some of Anscombe's most frequently cited works are translations, editions, and expositions of the work of her teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein. She wrote an introduction (1959) to Wittgenstein's 1921 book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which 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 also edited or co-edited several volumes of selections from his notebooks, translating some of them, for example the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956).

In 1978, Anscombe was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class for her work on Wittgenstein.[10]


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 (Intention, par. 5–8). 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 (sections 18–21). 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 (see Anscombe (1981) as well as Anscombe (1957)).

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. (This theme is later taken up and discussed by Searle in Intentionality (1983)). 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 (see Intention (1957), par.32). 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 belief. 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.'[11]


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:

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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.[12][13]

Brute and institutional facts

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 lf they had been." [14] 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 brute facts are not a distinct class of facts, to be distinguished from another class, 'institutional facts': the essential concept to grasp here is that of a set of facts being 'brute relative to' some fact. The term 'brute facts' had a major role to play in John Searle's philosophy of speech acts and institutional reality.

First person

Her paper "The First Person" follows up remarks by Wittgenstein, coming to the now-notorious conclusion that the first-person pronoun, "I", does not refer to anything (not, e.g., to the speaker). 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.

Views of her work

Philosopher Candace Vogler says that Anscombe's "strength" is that when she writes 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."[15] In 2010, philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that Anscombe was "perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English".[16] 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".[12]

Selected bibliography


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  2. In Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, pp. vii–ix, quoted in Monk, 1990, p. 497.
  3. Hijab, Wasfi Ahmad (18 April 1919 – 16 September 2004) – He passed away in Philadelphia, PA, at the age of 85 after a short illness.
  4. Monk, 1990, pp. 497–498
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  6. The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe by Roger Teichmann
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  8. From the introduction to her Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, 1981. [1]
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  11. See Intention (1957), par. 48, p. 87
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  14. "On Brute Facts" (1958), pp. 69–72
  15. Quoted in "Renaissance for Outspoken Catholic Philosopher" by Mark Oppenheimer, 7 January 2011 [2]
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Further reading

External links