15 October 2019

Elizabeth Anscombe
Limerick-born philosopher

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick,

October Lunchtime Lecture Series,

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick,

1 p.m., Tuesday 15 October 2019

Professor Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919-2001), one of the greatest English philosophers of the 20th century … she was born in Limerick in 1919


Professor Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919-2001) was one of the greatest English philosophers of the 20th century. Few modern philosophers can claim solid footing in two traditions, she was deeply grounded in three: classical philosophy (particularly Aristotle), Catholicism (especially Aquinas and Anselm), and the flowering of modern philosophy stimulated by Gottlieb Frege.

To summarise her work and her importance, Elizabeth Anscombe was an analytic philosopher who wrote on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics, and she was a prominent figure of analytical Thomism.

But she is also remembered as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s student, and she became an authority on his work, introducing him to the English-speaking world and editing and translating many of books and writings, above all his Philosophical Investigations.

Her 1957 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.

Her paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958) introduced the term ‘consequentialism’ into the language of analytic philosophy, and had a seminal influence on contemporary virtue ethics.

There was a persistent tenacity in Elizabeth Anscombe’s moral activism too, from the time she denounced Britain’s participation in World War II as an undergraduate, because it was plain to her that Britain would be carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians, through her widely publicised opposition as a young don to Oxford awarding an honorary degree to Harry Truman – on the ground that ‘having a couple of massacres to his credit’ disqualifies a man for public honours – to her arrests in her 70s for participation in ‘pro-life’ protests.

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was baptised in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on 7 May 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was born 18 or 19 March 1919, at Glanmire House, North Strand (now Clancy’s Strand), Limerick. Her baptismal record in Saint Mary’s Cathedral says she was born on 19 March, but all her biographies and obituaries say she was born the day before in Limerick.

She was baptised in this cathedral seven weeks later on 7 May 1919. Her father, Allen Wells Anscombe (1885-1939), was born in London on 11 February 1885, and at the time of her birth he was a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was posted to Limerick at the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. Other officers in the same regiment in Limerick at the same time included the poet and writer Robert Graves (1895-1985), and his friend the war poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967).

Allen Anscombe’s father, Alfred Wells Anscombe (1859-1934), was a commercial traveller, from Brighton, who lived in Highgate.

Elizabeth’s mother, Gertrude Elizabeth (Thomas), a former headmistress in Wales and was from Radnor, which may explain why Allen Anscombe was in a Welsh regiment.

There were two older brothers in the family, John and Tom, and who were twins who were born in Wales in 1915.

From Limerick, the family returned to England, and her father became head of physics and engineering at Dulwich College in south London. He died on 25 August 1939 in Beckenham, Kent, aged 54.

Elizabeth Anscombe read ‘Mods & Greats’ at Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Student days

Elizabeth went to Sydenham High School for Girls, where she became intensely interested in Roman Catholicism and the writings of GK Chesterton.

She went up to Oxford in 1937, where she read ‘Mods & Greats’ (classics, ancient history, and philosophy) at Saint Hugh’s College. During her first undergraduate year she received instruction from Father Richard Kehoe, a Dominican priest at Blackfriars. She was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and she remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout her life.

After Mass at Blackfriars on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1938, she met Peter Geach (1916-2013), who was three years older than her. Three years earlier, he too had become a Roman Catholic. He too was a student of Wittgenstein and he too would become an eminent philosopher. But philosophy played no role in bringing about the romance that blossomed. Smitten by Elizabeth’s beauty and voice, Peter immediately inquired of mutual friends whether she was ‘reliably Catholic.’

But three years of the ‘Greats’ curriculum were still before her, and they postponed marriage. Meanwhile, she did not avoid controversy: as an undergraduate she publicly criticised Britain’s entry into World War II in 1939.

After she graduated with a First in Greats in 1941, she was awarded a research fellowship at Saint Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1941. Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe married in the Brompton Oratory in London on 26 December 1941.

Elizabeth Anscombe accepted a research fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, so she could attend the lectures of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s student and friend

After graduating, she was awarded a research fellowship for postgraduate study at Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1942 to 1945. Her purpose was to attend the lectures of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

During his lifetime, he published just one small, 75-page book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article, one book review and a children’s dictionary. His major work, Philosophical Investigations, was not published until two years after his death, yet it has become an important modern classic. Bertrand Russell said he was ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived.’

Anscombe’s interest in Wittgenstein’s philosophy arose from reading the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as an undergraduate. She said she decided to study with Wittgenstein as soon as she opened that 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.’

After her fellowship at Cambridge ended, she was awarded a research fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford. But during the academic year of 1946-1947 she continued to travel to Cambridge once a week to attend tutorials with Wittgenstein that were devoted mainly to the philosophy of religion.

She became one of Wittgenstein’s favourite students and one of his closest friends. Wittgenstein affectionately referred to her by the pet name ‘old man.’ According to Ray Monk, she was ‘an exception to his general dislike of academic women.’

Wittgenstein’s confidence in Anscombe’s understanding of his perspective is shown by his choice of her as translator of his major work, Philosophical Investigations, published after his death.

The plaque at the Ashling Hotel on Parkgate Street, Dublin, recalls Wittgenstein’s time as a guest when it was Ross’s Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wittgenstein visited his Irish friend the psychiatrist Con Drury in Dublin in August 1947, and when he returned to Cambridge he resigned his professorship, planning to move to Dublin.

He arrived back in Dublin in November, and stayed at Ross’s Hotel, now the Ashling Hoteloin Parkgate Street, until 9 December, when he moved to Kilpatrick House in Red Cross, Co Wicklow, as a guest of the Kingston family.

At first, Wittgenstein enjoyed life in the countryside, between the Wicklow Mountains and Brittas Bay. But by early 1948 he was complaining of indigestion, then ‘nervous instability,’ ‘terrible depressions’ and a bad ’flu. He suffered what we now call a nervous breakdown, and was attended at Saint Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin by Dr Moore.

After spending Easter 1948 with the Kingstons, Wittgenstein moved to the Drury cottage at Killary Harbour, Co Mayo, where he worked hard and had few visitors. He was back in Dublin for a few days that August, and then returned to Cambridge to complete his Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, although it was not published until 1980.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Anscombe visited Wittgenstein many times after he left Cambridge in 1947. By then, he was a friend as well as a mentor and lodged with Anscombe and her family in Oxford from April 1950 to February 1951.

Before his death in 1951, Wittgenstein arranged for Anscombe to spend an extended time in Vienna to strengthen her German and absorb nuances of his own Viennese dialect. She travelled to Cambridge in April 1951 to visit him on his death bed.

Wittgenstein named Anscombe, along with Rush Rhees and Georg Henrik von Wright, as his literary executor. After he died, she was responsible for editing, translating, and publishing many of Wittgenstein’s manuscripts and notebooks.

A jubilee feature in ‘Koinonia’ in 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis

CS Lewis and Harry S Truman

Her international reputation as a formidable debater had early roots. In a paper at a meeting of the Socratic Club in Oxford in 1948, she disputed CS Lewis’s argument that naturalism was self-refuting, found in the third chapter of the original publication of his book Miracles.

Of course, CS Lewis (1898-1963) was also Irish-born, having been born in Belfast.

Everyone present that evening, including Lewis, recognised that the young philosophy don’s penetrating critique had undone his arguments.

Some writers think that it had also undone Lewis. AN Wilson, ignoring Lewis’s actual literary production after 1948, asserts that ‘The confrontation with Elizabeth Anscombe drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children’s stories.’ More scrupulous writers also portray the debate as a ‘humiliating experience’ (George Sayer), a turning point in his life that Lewis recalled ‘with real horror’ (Derek Brewer).

George Sayer asserts that the experience led Lewis to abandon theology and turned entirely to devotional writing and children’s literature.

However, Anscombe’s impression of the effect upon CS Lewis was different. She pointed out that Lewis rewrote that chapter, taking account of her objections, and she said this ‘shows his honesty and seriousness.’

In 1956, she protested against Oxford awarding an honorary degree to Harry S Truman. She denounced him as a mass murderer for using the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and she privately published a pamphlet in which she said she ‘should fear to go’ to the Encaenia or degree conferral ceremony ‘in case God’s patience suddenly ends.’

She courted controversy with some of her colleagues by defending the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception. Later in life, she was arrested protesting outside an abortion clinic after abortion had been legalised in Britain.

Elizabeth Anscombe was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1970 to 1986 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reputation as a philosopher

Anscombe remained at Somerville College from 1946 until 1970, when she was elected Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, the chair once held by Wittgenstein. She also became a Professorial Fellow of New Hall, now Murray Edwards College. She retired in 1986. Indeed, but she continued to live in Cambridge for the rest of her life.

Some of Anscombe’s most frequently cited works are her translations, editions, and expositions of Wittgenstein’s work, including an influential exegesis of his 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 or Philosophical Investigations (1953). Her English translation of the book appeared simultaneously and remains the standard.

The publication in 1953 of Anscombe’s translation of Philosophical Investigations was a landmark of 20th century thought. One writer has noted that a corrected or revised version of her translation has ever appeared. Her translation is quoted everywhere as if it were verbatim Wittgenstein rather than a translation, being written in an English style that is compelling.

The task of translating a great work of philosophy, apart from requiring exquisite command of two languages, demands philosophical powers of a high order. Had her translations of Wittgenstein constituted her entire corpus, she would have made a signal contribution to philosophy. But those valuable translations were only part of her life’s work.

Her most important work is the monograph Intention (1957). This book is regarded as the founding document of the field of action theory and it is an undisputed classic of 20th century philosophy. The American philosopher Donald Davidson has said that ‘Anscombe’s Intention is the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.’

The aim of Intention 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.

This book 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.

Anscombe used the example of a shopping list to illustrate the difference. 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.

She held that Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese centres of civilian population had been a violation both of international law and of Christian teachings about justice in warfare. When the proposal for the honorary degree was put to the meeting of congregation Anscombe said ‘Non placet,’ the formula for voting No. Many dons had turned up for the vote and a large majority were in favour of giving the president his degree; Anscombe and three others voted against. The incident gained much publicity.

Among her articles, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958) introduced the term ‘consequentialism’ and transformed 20th century moral philosophy by delivering a damaging blow to the utilitarianism that had until then reigned largely unquestioned.

This essay is credited with reviving interest in and study of virtue ethics in Western academic philosophy.

Her paper ‘The First Person’ buttressed remarks by Wittgenstein arguing for the now-notorious conclusion that the first-person pronoun, ‘I,’ does not refer to anything (not, for example, 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 her 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.

She edited or co-edited several volumes of selections from Wittgenstein’s notebooks, translating or co-translating many important works such as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956) and Wittgenstein’s ‘sustained treatment’ of GE Moore’s epistemology, On Certainty (1969).

Three volumes of collected papers were published in 1981: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein; Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind; and Ethics, Religion and Politics. A posthumous collection, Human Life, Action and Ethics was published in 2005.

As well as contributing to several volumes, such as New Essays on Plato and Aristotle (1965), she published various monographs, many influential articles, and seven books.

Anscombe made great contributions to ethics as well as metaphysics. She is credited with having coined the term ‘consequentialism.’

Hawkesyard Priory at Spode House, near Rugeley and Lichfield … Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach took part in Father Columba Ryan’s Philosophical Enquiry Group in 1954-1974

Anscombe at Hawkesyard Priory

Anscombe was a close friend of Father Columba Ryan OP (1916-2009), the Dominican priest, philosopher, university chaplain and peace activist. Father Columba was born Patrick Ryan in Hampstead on 13 January 1916 into an Irish family, the second son of the Cork-born diplomat Sir Andrew Ryan (1876-1949).

Father Columba was teaching philosophy at the Dominican House of Studies at Hawkesyard Priory in Spode House, between Rugeley and Lichfield in Staffordshire, when he set up the Philosophical Enquiry Group in 1954.

This annual meeting for Catholic philosophers continued to took place at Spode House for 20 years, until 1974. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach were among the first philosophers invited to those gatherings at Spode House. They remained leading figures of the group for the 20 years it lasted. Other participants included Sir Anthony Kenny of Oxford and Herbert McCabe (1926-2001), editor of New Blackriars.

I knew Hawkesyard Priory and Spode House well in my late teens and early 20s, when the Philosophical Enquiry Group was still meeting there with Father Ryan and Elizabeth Anscombe. At the time, the Folk Masses in the priory chapel were popular with many of my friends from Rugeley, Brereton and Lichfield. But we were too young, or too immature, at that time to appreciate that we were in the company of some of the great minds of our time.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s memorial in the chapel in Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Elizabeth Anscome’s reputation and legacy

Anscombe’s writing is pure and concentrated, often making severe demands on her reader. A baffled reader might try reading her difficult passages aloud slowly in order to grasp them. According to a possibly apocryphal tale, she once said to AJ Ayer: ‘If you didn’t talk so quickly, people wouldn’t think you were so clever.’ To this, Ayer replied: ‘If you didn’t talk so slowly, people wouldn’t think you were so profound.’

Uncritical scholars who view such translation as mostly routine transposition not requiring creative philosophical ability are badly mistaken. When the text in question is by an author as deep and as passionately concerned with precise expression as Wittgenstein, the demands on the translator’s powers of expression and philosophical discernment are especially severe.

Anscombe combined her philosophy and her faith throughout her life. She wrote:

‘Analytical philosophy is more characterised by styles of argument and investigation than by doctrinal content. It is thus possible for people of widely different beliefs to be practitioners of this sort of philosophy. It ought not to surprise anyone that a seriously believing Catholic Christian should also be an analytical philosopher.’

Her own standards of rigour in argument and trenchancy of expression were uncommonly high even in a field that prizes those virtues. She also had a rare gift of drawing others into the projects on which she was working. Colleagues and students found themselves caught up in the excitement and difficulties of the problem or line of investigation then absorbing her energies.

A contributor to a Festschrift in her honour wrote: ‘Philosophy as she does it is fresh; her arguments take unexpected turns and make unexpected connections, and show always how much there is that had not been seen before.’ She had a knack of beginning with seemingly obvious remarks and proceeding by apparently simple steps to the nerve of deep problems and truths.

She also published articles brilliantly articulating and defending Catholic teachings, including ‘On Transubstantiation’ (1967), which explores the mysteries of the Eucharist, ‘Faith’ (1981), and ‘Contraception and Chastity’ (1974), which argues against contraception. She once declared, ‘You might as well accept any sexual goings-on, if you accept contraceptive intercourse.’

After the publication of her collected papers in 1981, Anscombe published a number of other notable papers, including a delightful syllabus of errors (‘Twenty Opinions Common Among Modern Anglo-American Philosophers’) in the proceedings of a Vatican conference (1986); bold reassessments of Saint Anselm’s 900-year-old ‘Ontological Argument,’ exploring interpretations under which it does not treat existence as a property and, thus, escapes Kant’s criticism (Thoreau Quarterly, 1985, and Philosophical Quarterly, 1993); and a searching, unsigned study of euthanasia and murder in the third chapter of the first part of Euthanasia, Clinical Practice, and the Law (1994).

Writing about her work on Anselm, Anscombe remarked she had ‘thought harder about Anselm’s argument than I did before. But I still think that I haven’t thought hard enough. I don’t know whether Anselm’s argument is valid or invalid – only that it is a great deal more interesting than its common interpretation makes it.’

Her work remains topical and relevant to today’s political debates in Britain and debates about war and ethics. In ‘The Source of the Authority of the State,’ Anscombe explores the state’s claim to exclusive authority over the exercise of deadly force and decides that the ground of this claim is the state’s assumption of a particular task, namely, the protection of the innocent from unjust attack. She concludes that deliberate killing of the innocent, the canonical case of murder, is something civil authority can never engage in or authorise.

She writes: ‘There is one consideration here which has something like the position of absolute zero or the velocity of light in current physics. It cannot possibly be an exercise of civic authority deliberately to kill or mutilate innocent subjects.’

Cardinal Seán Brady preached at Elizabeth Anscombe’s memorial service in the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Final years

In her later years, Anscombe suffered from heart disease, and she was almost 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. She died of kidney failure in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, on 5 January 2001. She was 81, and her husband and four of their seven children at her hospital bedside.

Her funeral Mass took place on 20 January in the Dominican chapel in Buckingham Road, Cambridge. She was buried in Saint Giles’s graveyard, Huntingdon Road, near her home, in a grave that is corner-to-corner with the plot where Wittgenstein had been buried half a century earlier.

Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, delivered the homily at her memorial service in the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Hills Road, Cambridge, on 24 February 2001.

She was survived by her husband Peter Geach, seven children, Barbara, John, Mary, Charles, Jennifer, More, and Tamsin (all practicing Roman Catholics), ten grandchildren, and her brother Thomas.

Her elder twin brothers John and Tom were born in Llandudno in Wales during World War I, on 23 April 1915.

Captain John Allen Anscombe (1915-1944) was a captain in the South Staffordshire Regiment, and died in Burma on 21 April 1944, at the age of 28, a casualty of World War II.

The Revd Canon Thomas Anscombe (1915-2004), who died on 6 December 2004, was the Principal of Clifton Theological College, Bristol, in the 1950s and 1960s. It grew and flourished it those years, but he struggled with those who wanted to drive the Bristol colleges down a conservative and Reformed path. He had the courage to leave and return to parish ministry rather than yield what he believed to be in the best interests of the college.

What is Elizabeth Anscombe’s standing in the field of philosophy today?


What is Elizabeth Anscombe’s standing in the field of philosophy today?

Her progeny of former students and distinguished philosophers includes Nicholas Denyer, Sir Michael Dummett, Hidé Ishiguro, Sir Anthony Kenny, Anselm Müller, Thomas Nagel and Roger Scruton. Other distinguished philosophers who were not her students have acknowledged their indebtedness to her, including Donald Davidson, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Candace Vogler says her ‘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.’

Roger Scruton, whose PhD she co-supervised, has said that she was ‘perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English.’ Mary Warnock has described her as ‘the undoubted giant among women philosophers.’ John Haldane said she ‘certainly has a good claim to be the greatest woman philosopher of whom we know.’

So, this afternoon we remember a Limerick-born philosopher, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, who was baptised in this cathedral 100 years ago, and who is responsible for introducing Wittgenstein to the English-speaking world and, perhaps, for CS Lewis taking a new direction in his life that has given us the Chronicles of Narnia.

Elizabeth Anscombe was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1970 to 1986 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and former Adjunct Assistant Professor, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Trinity College Dublin.

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