Today marks the centenary of the birth of Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, one of the most brilliant and influential Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century.
Anscombe was born in Ireland to a Welsh-English family. She converted to Catholicism as a teenager, then attended the University of Oxford from 1937 to 1941. In 1939, she and her friend Norman Daniels cowrote a pamphlet opposing Britain’s entry into the Second World War, arguing among other things that the prospect of an air attack on civilian populations meant that the conduct of the war would violate the traditional prohibition on adopting unjust means of victory. In her contribution to the pamphlet, Anscombe wrote that “unjust deliberate killing is murder and this is a great sin which ‘cries out to heaven for vengeance’”:
[I]f, therefore, the warring state intends, under any circumstances, to commit it as a means of prosecuting the war, then the war is made wicked. As we have seen, our present government does intend to do that which is unlawful…. The present war is therefore wrong on account of means.
The British government declared war on Nazi Germany shortly thereafter, and prosecuted the war through the deliberate killing of German and Japanese civilians. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham had Anscombe and Daniels withdraw their pamphlet, since they had distributed it without getting a church license.
While at Oxford, Anscombe met her future husband and fellow philosopher Peter Geach, whose death I noted in this space in 2013. Together they would have seven children.
In 1942 Anscombe moved to the University of Cambridge on a research fellowship, where she met Ludwig Wittgenstein and began to attend his lectures. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, describes how she was initiated into his inner circle:
By the end of the year [1946–1947, when Anscombe was attending Wittgenstein’s tutorials while a research student at Oxford] she had become one of Wittgenstein’s closest friends and one of his most trusted students, an exception to his general dislike of academic women and especially of female philosophers. She became, in fact, an honorary male, addressed by him affectionately as “old man.”
A letter that Wittgenstein wrote in 1945 for Anscombe’s application to her fellowship at Oxford, which philosophers circulated on Twitter this time two years ago, described her as “the most talented female student I have had since 1930, when I began to lecture”—before adding that “among my male students only eight, or ten have equaled or surpassed her.”
In 1956, Anscombe caused a major controversy by opposing the University of Oxford’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to former U.S. President Harry Truman. A pamphlet that she wrote to explain her opposition to the degree argued that his decision to bomb the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that Truman was nothing short of a murderer, and “murder is one of the worst of human actions”:
Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder. Naturally, killing the innocent as an end in itself is murder too; but that is no more than a possible future development for us: in our part of the globe it is a practice that has so far been confined to the Nazis. I intend my formulation to be taken strictly; each term in it is necessary. For killing the innocent, even if you know as a matter of statistical certainty that the things you do involve it, is not necessarily murder. I mean that if you attack a lot of military targets, such as munitions factories and naval dockyards, as carefully as you can, you will be certain to kill a number of innocent people; but that is not murder. On the other hand, unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder.