Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 113 (May 2001): 11-13.
G. E. M. Anscombe, widely recognized as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, died on January 5 in Cambridge, England, at the age of eighty–one. Few thinkers 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. From the time she denounced Britain’s participation in World War II as a girl (because it was plain to her, just months out of her teens, that Britain would be carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians), through her widely publicized opposition as a young don to Oxford’s awarding an honorary degree to Harry Truman (on the ground that “having a couple of massacres to his credit” disqualifies a man for public honors), to her recent arrests in her seventies for participation in pro–life actions parallel to those carried out by “Operation Rescue” in the United States (because she found the life of a conceived child as worthy of protection and respect as any other), her life recalls John Paul II’s injunction: “Always seek the truth; venerate the truth discovered; obey the truth. There is no joy beyond this search, this veneration and obedience.” She knew the joy of that search, and she knew what it is to “obey the truth.” It is fitting that her last major discourse, the inaugural lecture for an endowed chair she held at the International Institute for Philosophy in Liechtenstein, was titled “Die Wahrheit Thun” (“Doing the Truth”).
The daughter of Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe and Alan Wells Anscombe (science master at Dulwich College), Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, known to the academic world as “Miss Anscombe” and to her friends as “Elizabeth,” was born on March 18, 1919 in Limerick, Ireland, where her father, then a British army officer, was posted. In 1937, she graduated from Sydenham High School and entered Oxford where she read “Mods & Greats” (classics, ancient history, and philosophy) at St. Hugh’s College. In her first year at Oxford, she converted to Catholicism. In 1938, after mass at Blackfriars on the Feast of Corpus Christi, she met Peter Geach, a young man three years her senior who was also a recent convert to Catholicism. Like her, Geach was destined to achieve eminence in philosophy, but philosophy played no role in bringing about the romance that blossomed. Smitten by Miss Anscombe’s beauty and voice, Geach immediately inquired of mutual friends whether she was “reliably Catholic.” Upon learning that she was, he pursued her and, swiftly, their hearts were entangled. Since three years of the Greats curriculum were still before her, they postponed marriage. As Miss Anscombe pursued her undergraduate studies, Geach was her philosophical mentor (remaining her deeply valued philosophical interlocutor and collaborator the rest of her life). They married in 1941, after she had graduated (with a First) and been awarded a research fellowship at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. The following year, 1942, she was awarded a research fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge. When this fellowship expired, she was elected to a research fellowship (later to an official fellowship) at Somerville College, Oxford, remaining there until 1970.
Though she was a beginning graduate student when she and Ludwig Wittgenstein met in Cambridge in the 1940s, he soon recognized her remarkable philosophical powers and they became good friends. He named her an executor (along with Rush Rhees and G. H. von Wright) of his literary estate and entrusted to her the task of translating his works, including his masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations. Before his death in 1951, he arranged for her to spend an extended time in Vienna to strengthen her German and absorb nuances of his own Viennese dialect. In 1970, Anscombe was appointed to the chair Wittgenstein had occupied at Cambridge University, a position she held until her retirement from teaching in 1986.
Her international reputation as a formidable debater had early roots. At Oxford in 1948, she took on (and trounced) C. S. Lewis in a debate still discussed a half–century later. It focused on the third chapter of his book Miracles. Everyone present (including Lewis) recognized that the young philosophy don’s penetrating critique had undone his arguments. Some writers think that it had also undone him. A. N. Wilson, ignoring Lewis’ 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). Sayer asserts that the experience led Lewis to abandon theology and characterizes his subsequent religious writings as “devotional” and “without contentious arguments.” Anscombe rejected claims that Lewis altered his aims as a result of the debate. Lewis undeniably did do something: he rewrote the contested chapter, taking into account her criticisms. Anscombe deemed this an act of admirable intellectual honesty. She and Lewis were dinner companions a few weeks after the debate and enjoyed a pleasant evening—scarcely the sequel one would expect if the encounter had left Lewis quivering in self–doubt. (Anscombe’s critique of Lewis, her first purely philosophical publication, appeared in the Socratic Digest [Oxford] in 1948 and is reprinted, with comments by her about the debate, in volume two of her collected papers, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind.)
Anscombe, an analytic philosopher, wrote:
Analytical philosophy is more characterized 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 rigor 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 currently absorbing her energies. A contributor to a Festschrift in her honor 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.
Anscombe’s writing is pure and concentrated, often making severe demands on her reader. Hers is not prose for the inattentive or hasty. A baffled reader might try reading her difficult passages aloud slowly in order to grasp them. According to a possibly apocry phal tale, she once said to A. J. Ayer: “If you didn’t talk so quickly, people wouldn’t think you were so clever”; to which Ayer replied: “If you didn’t talk so slowly, people wouldn’t think you were so profound.”
The task of translating a great work of philosophy, apart from requiring exquisite command of two languages, demands philosophical powers of a high order. 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. The publication in 1953 of Anscombe’s translation of Philosophical Investigations was a landmark of twentieth–century thought. It is worth observing that there has never appeared a corrected or revised version of her translation, a work “quoted all over the world,” as a recent article in the Guardian remarks, “as if it were verbatim Wittgenstein rather than a translation, being written in an English style which is itself compelling.” 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. Apart from contributing to several volumes (e.g., New Essays on Plato and Aristotle, 1965), she published various monographs, many influential articles, and seven books. Among her articles is “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), which introduced the term “consequentialism” and transformed twentieth–century moral philosophy by delivering a damaging blow to the utilitarianism that had until then reigned largely unquestioned.
Her book Intention (1957), the founding document of the field of action theory and an undisputed classic of twentieth–century philosophy, is the stunning realization of a goal she mentioned in a 1939 pamphlet: “Before considering whether or not there are any persons who may not be attacked in war, we must try to elucidate . . . the doctrine of intention in human action.” Donald Davidson, who with W. V. O. Quine’s death last Christmas (eleven days before Anscombe’s) is now dean of American philosophers, asserts that “Ans combe’s Intention is the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.” When Harvard University Press reissued it last fall, the new printing sold out within weeks.
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 (as she later put it: “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 papers of note, 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 Anselm’s nine–hundred–year–old “Ontological Argument” exploring interpretations under which it doesn’t 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 “[I have] 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.”
Anscombe was a Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the holder of Honorary Doctorates from Notre Dame University (1987) and the Université Catholique de Louvain (1989). Her awards include the Ehrenkreuz Pro Litteris et Artibus (1978), the Forschungspreis, Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (1983), the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophers Association (1984), and a Papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (1999).
Her philosophical progeny include former students who are distinguished philosophers (including Nicholas Denyer, Sir Michael Dummett, Hidé Ishiguro, Sir Anthony Kenny, Anselm Müller, Thomas Nagel, and Roger Scruton) and a number of distinguished philosophers who, though never formally her students, have publicly acknowledged deep indebtedness to her, including Donald Davidson, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch.
She worked in the field of medical ethics at four levels: composing penetrating analyses of ethical issues posed by euthanasia and other problems; cofounding (with the late Dr. Hymie Gordon of the Mayo Clinic and the present writer) the Program in Human Rights and Medicine at the University of Minnesota; speaking before many groups, including the National Right to Life Convention; and engaging in direct action, including the rescue acts of civil disobedience mentioned above, twice undergoing arrest and risking arrest a third time. Her youngest children—More and Tamsin—were arrested and fined many times in rescue work, each finally serving time in prison.
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 thus something civil authority can never engage in or authorize. 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.”
The sharp contrast between the response of the press to Anscombe’s earlier activism and to her pro–life work strikingly illustrates the persistent bias concerning abortion pervading the news media. Anscombe’s antiwar efforts as an unknown student attracted notice in the local British press (distressing the Archbishop of Birmingham); her campaign against Truman’s honorary degree attracted worldwide media attention. But her dramatic civil disobedience at abortion mills, carried out long after she had acquired an international scholarly reputation and at an age when such actions put her frail health at risk, went wholly without notice. A newspaper photograph her family cherishes shows her being taken off by two policemen, but she is not identified in the caption or in the text of the accompanying article. It is safe to surmise that, if she had been arrested battling for what is called the “pro–choice” side, the press would have accorded the event widespread and respectful attention.
She was troubled by a heart ailment in her last two decades and was nearly killed in an automobile accident in 1996. Though she never recovered completely from the accident, she spent her final years living happily with her family in Cambridge, enjoying the attention and care they provided under the leadership of her devoted son More. During those years, she enjoyed conversation with visitors, made occasional trips, gave some talks, and (possibly emulating her husband Peter, whose latest book, Truth and Hope, has recently appeared from Notre Dame Press days after his eighty–fifth birthday) continued her philosophical work, composing, among other things, the inaugural address for the chair in Liechtenstein in 1996. The final publication in her lifetime, a paper titled “Practical Truth,” appeared in Logos in 1999. She is survived by Peter Geach, seven children (all practicing Catholics), ten grandchildren, and her brother Thomas.
Last year, Elizabeth spoke to me about her lifelong friend Ruth Daniel, a childhood classmate who went up to Oxford with her in 1937. Although we had talked about Ruth on several occasions over the decades of our friendship, I was struck by the extent to which Elizabeth’s present comments about Ruth applied to herself, and I made some notes. Two of the remarks: “I cannot state with enough truth and simplicity my confidence in the greatness of her intelligence and the holiness of her spirit,” and “Her standards and her way of saying things were always excellent.”
She was attended in her final hour by her husband and four of their children (Jenny, John, More, and Tamsin). Her last intentional act was kissing Peter Geach. She died as the family members at her bedside were concluding their recitation of the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. The world has lost a remarkable philosopher as noteworthy for the moral grandeur of her life and thought as for the originality and power of her intellect—a philosopher who lived the truth.
John M. Dolan is Morse–Alumni Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the
University of Minnesota.