Untempted by the Consequences

G.E.M. Anscombe’s Life of ‘Doing the Truth’
G.E.M. Anscombe in 1990 (Photograph by Steve Pyke, Getty Images)

“The women are up to something in Convocation,” the dons of St. John’s College, Oxford, were warned. “We have to go and vote them down.”

The women at issue were led by a young philosopher named G.E.M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe, who was then a tutor at Somerville, one of the oldest women’s colleges at the University of Oxford. Anscombe had come to Somerville in 1946 on a research fellowship. At that time she was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who entrusted her with the translation of his Philosophical Investigations, which appeared in 1953, two years after his death. Now, in 1956, Anscombe was opposing the university’s decision to grant an honorary degree to former U.S. President Harry Truman.

Speaking on the floor of Convocation to her colleagues on May 1, 1956, Anscombe said that her opposition to granting Truman’s degree was based on his responsibility for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. “If you do give this honor,” she asked, “what Nero, what Genghis Khan, what Hitler, or what Stalin will not be honored in the future?” In response, a representative of the Hebdomadal Council, then the university’s chief executive body, argued that Anscombe had overstated Truman’s responsibility. “A great many people were involved in the responsibility of the manufacture and delivery of the bomb,” he told the faculty, “and we cannot select one man as being solely responsible, even if his was the signature at the bottom of the order for the bomb to be dropped.”

Anscombe’s cause was doomed to fail. Reports in the Manchester Guardian and the Times of London claimed that no other faculty echoed her dissenting vote, though subsequent reports indicate that three or four had joined her—and Anscombe later dedicated the pamphlet “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” in which she explained the rationale for her opposition, “with respect, but without permission, to the others who said ‘Non placet.’” In the speech she gave to her colleagues on the day of the vote, she acknowledged that these voices were not going to prevail, saying that she had “no ambition or hope to carry the House with me in this, but my hope is that this honorary degree will not be offered without opposition being expressed.”

Truman received his degree at the university’s Encaenia ceremony on June 20, 1956. In a speech awarding the degree, the Chancellor praised him as “most staunch of allies, direct in your speech and in your writings, and ever a pattern of simple courage.” Anscombe, who had concluded her pamphlet with the warning that she herself “should fear to go” to Encaenia “in case God’s patience suddenly ends,” had kept away from the ceremony, telling the Guardian that she “would spend the day working as usual.”

 

The influence of Wittgenstein on Anscombe’s philosophical writing is immense, in both substance and style.

The protest against Truman was hardly Elizabeth Anscombe’s first foray into public controversy. As an undergraduate in 1939, just a year after entering the Catholic Church under the tutelage of the Dominican friars at Oxford, Anscombe and her friend Norman Daniel published a pamphlet titled “The Justice of the Present War Examined: A criticism based on traditional Catholic principles and on natural reason.” It presented “the results achieved in a series of open discussions held at Oxford both before and after” Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany in September of that year. Anscombe and Daniel concluded that the war against Germany was unjust, partly because it would involve the deliberate massacre of civilian populations.

“We have it,” they wrote, following Thomas Aquinas, “that no one may be deliberately attacked in war, unless his actions constitute an attack on the rights which are being defended or restored. To deny this will be to assert that we may attack any one anywhere, whose life in any way hinders the prosecution of the war, or in any way assists our enemies; and such a conclusion is as immoral as to be a reductio ad absurdum in itself.”

Anscombe and Daniel’s pamphlet did not receive anything like the attention of her protest against Truman seventeen years later, which was picked up by the Associated Press and covered in newspapers across the United States and other parts of the world. (A report from Reuters, under the headline “WOMAN DON FAILS TO HALT TRUMAN DEGREE TO OXFORD,” mistakenly gave her first name as “Gladys” rather than “Gertrude.”) The pamphlet did, however, make enough of an impact that in 1940 the Archbishop of Birmingham wrote to a priest at Oxford complaining that Anscombe and Daniel had it “printed and brought out without submitting it to ecclesiastical authority,” and inquiring as to whether they were “deliberately taking a line opposed to that of the hierarchy of this country.”

Despite the need for some sort of military action against Nazi Germany, Anscombe and Daniel were clearly right on two very important points. First, the war that Britain actually waged against the Axis Powers did involve attacks that were targeted directly at civilian populations and, second, a war carried out by such means does violate a central principle of the church’s just-war teaching. It is possible that the war could have been fought without deploying these tactics, and it might have been just if it had been. But Anscombe and Daniel were correct in predicting that it would not be waged in that way. Acknowledging that “to some their arguments may seem temerarious,” they aimed in their pamphlet “to make the Christian tradition clear, to examine the mind of the Church in a rational and scientific manner.”

While Anscombe and Daniel’s 1939 pamphlet was addressed exclusively to fellow Catholics and Christians, Anscombe’s protest of 1956 had a quite different audience. Indeed, in writing her pamphlet “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” Anscombe saw that many of her Oxford colleagues were prepared to accept a conclusion that she and Daniel had presented as a reductio ad absurdum. These philosophers endorsed a doctrine that Anscombe came to call consequentialism, according to which there are no kinds of action—such as murder, rape, torture, and adultery, for example—that any person is prohibited from doing regardless of the situation he or she is in. According to this doctrine it can be right to “attack any one anywhere,” as long as the balance of the consequences speaks strongly enough in favor of it. Faced with a group that found this conclusion acceptable, Anscombe needed to try a different tack.

 

It was as an Oxford undergraduate that Anscombe met her husband, a fellow Catholic convert named Peter Geach, at a Corpus Christi procession in 1938. They married three years later, and during the first few years of marriage they lived apart from one another. Geach worked in a pine forest as a conscientious objector to World War II while Anscombe studied at Oxford and Cambridge. During this time they had two children—the first of seven they would have together, despite often working at universities in separate cities.

Anscombe became a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein shortly after arriving at Cambridge on a research fellowship in 1942, during which time Geach was engaged in forestry work. Wittgenstein was by then a major figure in the world of philosophy, having published his influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus two decades earlier. Many students at Cambridge were extremely devoted to him. The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle would later describe the reverential atmosphere at Wittgenstein’s lectures as “pedagogically disastrous for the students and unhealthy for Wittgenstein himself.” But Anscombe’s own view of this dynamic was quite different. In her remembrances of Wittgenstein, she described the attention he would pay to his students as he helped them work through philosophical questions. “Wittgenstein very often seemed to understand one’s philosophical thought and problems better than one did oneself,” she wrote. “One would say what one thought—then he would amplify it, make it seem more convincing, carry it deeper—and then undo it.”

As a teacher Wittgenstein was notoriously unaccommodating for female students, but he quickly took a liking to Anscombe and would refer to her, affectionately, as “old man.” In his biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk writes that on one occasion, when Wittgenstein found that there were no other women students remaining at his lecture, he turned to Anscombe and said, “Thank God we’ve got rid of the women!” A letter that he wrote in 1945 in support of Anscombe’s application for a research fellowship characterized her as “undoubtedly, the most talented female student I have had since 1930, when I began to lecture; and among my male students only eight, or ten have surpassed her.” It was not long before Anscombe would surpass those eight or ten as well.

The influence of Wittgenstein on Anscombe’s philosophical writing is immense, in both substance and style. Both of them attend closely to ordinary speech and other forms of human expression and interaction, and reject the demand that philosophy deliver a theory to resolve the questions that we face. While Anscombe presented arguments for straightforward conclusions in many of her philosophical writings, this was always in a way that gave intense consideration to conceptual difficulties and counterarguments. Meanwhile, others of her writings are like Wittgenstein’s in that they deliver no thesis at all but rather take up a question and simply attack it from all sides. In her remembrances of Wittgenstein, Anscombe wrote that he once reproached her for the tendency they both shared to get stuck in philosophical problems. “You know,” he told her, “you strike me as like a person who is walking along a road and comes to a lamp post which is in his way. And [this person] says: ‘There’s a lamp post. I can’t go on.’ It doesn’t occur to you to walk around the lamp post—I have a prejudice, which is that problems are insoluble.”

Wittgenstein could be critical of Anscombe’s written work to a degree that most academics today could barely imagine. Her notebooks recall how, of some of her writing, “he said, ‘Bought for a farthing’ and ‘Shit on the floor’—though the way he put this latter to me was ‘Not house-trained.’” Her husband Peter Geach once told her that having Wittgenstein come to stay with them “was like having a young atom bomb in the house.” Yet Anscombe also wrote of how “kind and considerate” Wittgenstein was, always prepared to help and advise even when this meant interrupting his work, and of how he “hated meanness” and was not “carelessly amiable or carelessly generous.” (Upon discovering once that Anscombe had no wastepaper basket at her lodging in Oxford, Wittgenstein said “You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket”—and he took her out to buy one.) And she also expressed a wish to capture better in her remembrances of her teacher “how funny he could be—but it is possible that the jokes which came often in his lectures and his talks were just for the moment.”

Anscombe’s attitude toward religious topics stood in stark contrast to Wittgenstein’s. While she was a convert to Catholicism whose earliest encounter with philosophy came in an attempt to formalize a proof of God’s existence, Wittgenstein was raised in a Catholic household but had decided around the age of nine that, as Anscombe put it, “the Christian religion (that Catholic one which they were taught) was all a rubble.” Though some of Wittgenstein’s unpublished remarks from the 1930s show him expressing an openness to Christianity, he is reported to have said, in reference to Anscombe and another Catholic student of his, Yorick Smythies, that “I could not possibly bring myself to believe all the things they believe.” In his posthumous work On Certainty, Wittgenstein described this kind of clash between irreconcilable attitudes as one in which two worldviews are so totally opposed that there is no way to give reasons that can be engaged by the other side. The discovery of having been wrong to such an extent would be such that “the foundation of all judging would be taken away from me.”

Despite all this, at one point in 1950 Wittgenstein asked Anscombe to put him in touch with a “non-philosophical” priest, wishing as Ray Monk puts it “to talk to [the] priest as a priest” rather than “to discuss philosophical problems.” While the priest took this as part of an attempt by Wittgenstein to return to his childhood Catholicism, Anscombe herself reportedly doubted this. There were, however, arrangements made by this priest for Wittgenstein to live the life of a brother in a Dominican priory—a plan that had to be abandoned due to his bad health. When Wittgenstein died in 1951 Anscombe was one of a small group at his side that included Yorick Smythies, who brought with him the priest Wittgenstein had met. It was agreed that, since Wittgenstein had expressed hope that his Catholic friends would pray for him, this priest should be allowed to administer last rites.

Wittgenstein was given a Catholic burial the next morning—a decision that was, as Monk argues, surely improper given his professed lack of faith, even as it reflected the religious intensity with which Wittgenstein had lived.

 

Anscombe’s Intention is an extraordinarily dense and difficult book, even by the standards of contemporary philosophy.

After her contribution to the pamphlet with Norman Daniel, the earliest of Anscombe’s published writings is from 1948, based on a debate she had with C. S. Lewis, who was then a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. The debate took place in Oxford’s Socratic Club, and concerned the third chapter of Lewis’s book Miracles, which argues that human thought cannot be relied on “if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes.” This argument was supposed to show that the only way to have a reasonable belief in the reliability of human reason is to believe in a supernatural God.

Anscombe criticized Lewis’s argument, claiming that it was based “on a confusion between the concepts of cause and reason.” In evaluating, for example, the quality of the argument in a piece of writing, our concern with whether it expresses good reasoning is not about “the circumstances of its production,” but rather about whether the evidence it offers is sufficient to prove its conclusion. She also argued that the term “explanation” can encompass many different things, and that a causal explanation of human thought and behavior in terms of regular patterns in the universe would not preclude there also being explanations in terms of the reasons why people act and believe as they do. Both of these arguments likely had their roots in Anscombe’s interactions with Wittgenstein, as they mirrored ideas that were central to his Philosophical Investigations, and that Anscombe would develop in her own work of the following decade.

There was for some time a lot of controversy over how Lewis was affected by this episode. Anscombe wrote to Wittgenstein the day after the debate that Lewis had been “much more decent in discussion than I expected, though he was glib and played all sorts of tricks to obscure the issue.” She did add, however, that during the discussion the secretary of the club “started going for Lewis, who had said something about having written the book ‘at a fairly popular level’—he [the secretary] reproached him almost in moral terms, that one should not, for the sake of popularizing, put up a bad argument.” While several of Lewis’s biographers claimed that the debate humiliated him and was the end of his career as a public intellectual, Anscombe later wrote that those who knew Lewis reported no such thing at the time, and noted that Lewis revised the argument of that chapter for the second edition of Miracles, presenting it in a way that she found more appropriate “to the actual depth and difficulty of the question being discussed.”

 

The closing paragraphs of Anscombe’s pamphlet “Mr. Truman’s Degree” raised the question of “why so many Oxford people are willing to flatter” a man who had approved the massacre of entire cities. “I get some small light on this subject,” Anscombe wrote, “when I consider the productions of Oxford moral philosophy since the First World War, which I have lately had occasion to read.” (While her early research interests had been in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, it was when her Somerville colleague Philippa Foot spent a year visiting in America that Anscombe began reading modern ethicists in order to take over Foot’s course in moral philosophy.) One important strand that Anscombe identified in these philosophers was “a doctrine that it is impossible to have any quite general moral laws.” According to this doctrine:

[S]uch laws as “It is wrong to lie” or “Never commit sodomy” are rules of thumb which an experienced person knows when to break. Further, both his selection of these as the rules on which to proceed, and his tactful adjustments of them in particular cases, are based on their fitting together with the “way of life” which is his preference.… These philosophies, then, contain a repudiation of the idea that any class of actions, such as murder, may be absolutely excluded.

This, again, is what Anscombe would call the consequentialist doctrine that any type of action can in principle be justified by considering its likely consequences. According to this logic, it was because his action ended up saving lives, by bringing an earlier end to the war, that Truman was justified in massacring the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In “Modern Moral Philosophy,” the influential 1958 paper in which she introduced the term “consequentialism,” Anscombe went to greater length in identifying the error that her Oxford colleagues had committed. This followed a BBC radio address given about a year earlier, in which Anscombe had posed the question “Does Oxford moral philosophy corrupt youth?” and answered it in the negative: the youth were not corrupted, she said, since these philosophers only taught the bad moral views that young people held anyway. Anscombe’s 1958 paper began with a whirlwind history in which she dismissed a series of moral philosophers from David Hume (“sophistical”) to Immanuel Kant (“useless”) to John Stuart Mill (“stupid”) to Henry Sidgwick (“dull” and “vulgar”), and then took aim at the “shallow,” “provincial,” and “corrupt” work of her contemporaries. The latter criticism centered on a conception of intentional action that Anscombe located in the work of Sidgwick, according to which a person “must be said to intend any foreseen consequences of [their] voluntary action.” On Anscombe’s reading, Sidgwick used this definition “to put forward an ethical thesis which would now be accepted by many people: the thesis that it does not make any difference to a man’s responsibility for something that he foresaw, that he felt no desire for it, either as an end or as a means to an end.”

Anscombe illustrated the upshot of this thesis with a simple example. According to a view like Sidgwick’s, there is no difference between the responsibility a man has for withdrawing material support from his children if he does this in order to achieve some further end, and the responsibility the same man would have if he was imprisoned for refusing to commit a disgraceful act. In both cases the man foresees that his choice will have the consequence of withdrawing material support from his children. Therefore, according to Sidgwick’s view, in each case the man is responsible in the same way for this outcome.

It is straightforward to extend this analysis to Truman’s decision to bomb the Japanese cities. Truman could foresee that his decision would lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Yet, his defenders claim, a similar or greater number of civilians would have been killed had he chosen not to drop the bombs. On this analysis, Truman would have been equally responsible for the civilian deaths in either case. So the only thing that matters is whether he made the choice that led to better consequences overall—that is, to fewer total deaths.

Anscombe noted in “Modern Moral Philosophy” how surprising it was that none of the philosophers who accepted this position displayed any awareness of how their conclusions were “quite incompatible with the Hebrew–Christian ethic.” According to this ethic, she wrote, “there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten,” and faced with the possibility of doing these things “you are not to be tempted by fear or hope of consequences.” But she saw that in her context she could not respond to this situation simply by defending traditional moral absolutes. Instead, the way forward was to begin “by banishing ethics totally from our minds,” in order to consider “simply as part of the philosophy of psychology” the concepts that ethical thinking presupposes. Among these she listed “action,” “intention,” and “wanting”—all of which are explored at length in the short book she had published a year earlier under the simple title Intention.

 

Anscombe’s Intention is an extraordinarily dense and difficult book, even by the standards of contemporary philosophy. It is just ninety-four pages long, comprising fifty-two numbered sections that range in length from a single paragraph to four or five pages. In this space the book treats an exhausting range of topics—and yet it has no obvious structure, no theses introduced at the beginning or stated clearly at the end, and barely any reference to the authors whose work it engages. It baffled several reviewers when it first appeared, and for a while went out of print. Yet when Harvard University Press reissued Anscombe’s book in 2001, the following quotation from the philosopher Donald Davidson appeared on the cover: “Anscombe’s Intention is the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.”

Anscombe would likely have objected that such praise overlooked at least the importance of Thomas Aquinas, whose influence is everywhere in Intention, even though his name appears only in one stray footnote. Anscombe’s daughter, Mary Geach, wrote in 2011 that her mother “drew on [Aquinas’s] thought to an unknowable extent: she said to me that it aroused prejudice in people to tell them that a thought came from him: to my sister she said that to ascribe a thought to him made people boringly ignore the philosophical interest of it, whether they were for Aquinas or against him.” Because of this, rather than repeating Aquinas’s theses and rehearsing his arguments for them—an approach entirely out of keeping with the way Aquinas himself built on the work of philosophers like Aristotle and St. Augustine—Anscombe’s writing appropriates Aquinas’s ideas in a fresh and novel guise, free of scholastic terminology and ready to be engaged by the contemporary reader.

Because of its scope and style, Intention resists easy summary. Anscombe is opposed throughout the book to thinking of intention primarily as a matter of one’s internal psychology—as the objective one has in doing a certain thing, or the willingness to do a thing on a certain occasion. At one point she identifies Wittgenstein as having advanced such a view in his Tractatus: “The world is independent of my will,” Wittgenstein wrote, and so action depends on a “presumed physical connexion” between one’s will and one’s bodily movements. In a notebook that likely dates from the 1950s, Anscombe cited this passage and wrote of feeling “more certain that there is a mistake here than about anything else in the Tractatus.” She continued: “I wish to say that ‘I do what happens’ when I act. The extraordinary thing is that this assumes an air of paradox.” This quoted remark reappeared in the text of Intention, where Anscombe wrote that though “everyone who heard this formula found it extremely paradoxical,” in fact it can be shown to make good sense.

In order to save this remark from paradox, Anscombe argued in her book that we use the concept of intention to describe what happens in most of our ordinary ways of describing human life. Imagine, for example, that you come into Anscombe’s study and find her sitting at her desk, with a pen in her hand that she is moving across the page. What is she doing? Writing, you will answer—and in describing her movements in this way you have already gone beyond a description in terms of physical bodies and forces. Mere physical objects can shatter, rise, and roll down hills, but they cannot write, jump, or walk. To describe a movement with words like these is to describe it as the execution of an intention.

How does this account apply to the case of Truman? The analysis of intention that Anscombe rejected holds that since Truman did not want the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to die—since their deaths were not part of his ultimate objective—they therefore fall outside the scope of his intention. By contrast, Anscombe argues that any sensible description of what Truman did must include the fact that he used these civilian deaths as a means to his end. These deaths were not merely incidental, since it was by killing the civilians that Truman brought the war to a close. Truman had innocent people killed in order to achieve his aims—and to do such a thing is to commit an act of murder.

 

To do the truth is not merely to grasp or to speak it; it also entails the kind of activism and advocacy that were such a part of Anscombe’s life.

Apart from her scholarly work, Anscombe also wrote and lectured extensively for wider audiences, usually of Catholics, on matters of popular concern. A frequent topic of this popular work is the Catholic teaching on contraception—a topic Anscombe wrote about as early as 1963, in an exchange with the Dominican friar Herbert McCabe in the pages of New Blackfriars. Later on, in an essay from 1972 published in The Human World under the title “Contraception and Chastity,” Anscombe defended what she called the Christian “ideal of chastity” and argued that the use of contraceptives is in conflict with it.

For Anscombe, what made the Christian teaching on sexuality so important was precisely that this teaching was not “traditional”: the teaching put Christians “at odds with the heathen world,” not only in the life of monastics but “as part of the ordinary calling of a Christian.” And, she argued, it is this view of marriage and family life that provides the rationale for the Christian ideal of chastity:

[T]he ground of [Christian] objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If it’s all right to exclude children, if you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act (I don’t mean of course that every act is reproductive any more than every acorn leads to an oak-tree but it’s a reproductive type of act) then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married? Restricted, that is, to partners bound in a formal, legal, union whose fundamental purpose is the bringing up of children?

Anscombe’s argument here is supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that contraceptive intercourse is permissible: if this is allowed, she says, then all other restrictions on sexual behavior go with it. It seems possible to resist this conclusion by holding that using contraceptives only sometimes would not sever entirely the link between sex and reproduction. Just as a writer lands most of her words in the wastepaper basket, so most of a married couple’s sexual acts won’t result in any children. And what is the difference between using contraceptives and refraining from intercourse during fertile periods in order not to become pregnant?

Questions like these were the focus of two replies to Anscombe’s article that were published in a subsequent issue of The Human World, one by Peter Winch and the other by Bernard Williams and Michael Tanner—all three professional philosophers, the latter two colleagues of Anscombe’s at Cambridge, where in 1970 she had taken up the chair previously held by Wittgenstein. Winch’s reply was short and substantive, arguing that the method of avoiding procreative intercourse does seem to change the character of “an act of intercourse considered as intentional,” in just the same way as taking a contraceptive pill. Williams and Tanner made a similar argument at greater length, and also voiced displeasure with what they called Anscombe’s “offensive” conclusions and spoke of how hard it was “to suppress feelings of outrage at some of her attacks on the spirit of the age, and the relish with which she launches them.”

Anscombe’s reply to these substantive arguments appealed to some simple analogies. In replying to Winch she asked the reader to imagine a man who operates some machinery in the course of doing his job, compared with another who deliberately sabotages this machinery and then manipulates it, perhaps by turning a crank, in a way that is superficially the same as the first man. The “wider context” between the two men’s actions means that there is a difference in what each of them does—since the fact that the second man has sabotaged the machine means that he is not doing his job, or even “operating” the machine in a strict sense at all. So have the contracepting couple “sabotaged” the sex act by preventing it from achieving its natural end. In replying to Williams and Tanner (whom she addressed as “my friendly neighborhood philosophers”) she pointed to the difference between arranging a meeting at a time when one knows a certain person will not be able to come, in order thereby to exclude that person, and physically barring an unwanted person from a meeting. The former, she wrote, “may be correctly describable as doing my organiser’s duties, namely to arrange the meeting.” But in physically barring an unwanted person, “I would be transgressing [those duties] by arranging to refuse him admission.”

This argument raises the question of whether a married couple has any duty toward their would-be children corresponding to the one that Anscombe’s organizer has to his potential guests. That is a question about the end or aim of married life, and such a question cannot be reduced to the casuistic application of moral principles. Here is how Anscombe addressed that wider question in the 1972 essay:

What people are for is to home in on God, God who is the one truth that is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It’s this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God and of sharing in His nature which Christianity holds out to people and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, is infinitely precious. Its potentialities in all things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it’s for.

In this context, Williams and Tanner’s complaints on behalf of “the spirit of the age,” and their charge that Anscombe was “preaching impoverishment of life,” come into a different light, as she noted in her reply to them: “That one must be prepared to lose one’s life to save it, that ‘being poor in spirit’ is blessed, that what looks like deprivation and mutilation may be the path of life, the alternative death: all this Christianity has indeed taught.” She then added how strange it is “that ordinary chaste and faithful marriage should seem to exemplify” this spiritual poverty: “But that’s what our age is like.”

           

It is hard to imagine a phrase less descriptive of the life of Elizabeth Anscombe than Williams and Tanner’s charge of “impoverishment.” She was, by all accounts, an astoundingly rich personality, not at all mediocre or ordinary. Her house was filled with children as well as all sorts of visitors. She joked and swore, was famous for smoking cigars and drinking champagne, and loved to eat good food and cook it with her children. One great Oxford philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny, recalls how in his days as a graduate student it was possible to drop into Anscombe’s house “at any hour of day or night and start discussion of a philosophical problem.” Sir Michael Dummett—who also converted to Catholicism, and who disagreed with Anscombe about contraception—recalls that tutorial meetings with her would last up to three hours rather than the usual one hour.

While not a feminist in any usual sense, Anscombe did keep her maiden name (on aesthetic grounds, apparently—“G.E.M. Anscombe” sounded better, she thought, than “G.E.M. Geach”), and she wore pants exclusively, often under a tunic. This made for some good stories. In one, Anscombe entered a restaurant in Boston where she was told that ladies were not permitted to wear pants, and so she took her pants off. In another, someone at the university told her that ladies had to wear skirts when they were lecturing, and so she began carrying a plastic bag with a skirt in it and then putting it on, over her trousers, just outside the lecture room.

The characteristics that made Anscombe one of the most exhilarating and intellectually formidable philosophers of her time also make most of her scholarly work quite inaccessible to non-specialists. Her popular writings, many of which are collected in Faith in a Hard Ground (2008), are a different story, though these too are not the sort of thing one is used to finding in a popular magazine. Her writing is focused, incisive, uncompromising in its commitment to what she called “doing the truth.” To do the truth is not merely to grasp or to speak it; it also entails the kind of activism and advocacy that were such a part of Anscombe’s life. A remark in one of her notebooks glosses this phrase as equivalent to “acting truthfully”—acting, that is, in such a way that this truth that we long for fills us up entirely as its vessel, animating our life and shining forth through our deeds.

In the final hours before her death, Anscombe was attended by her husband and four of her children, and she died as they finished reciting the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. Anthony Kenny, who had been a student of Anscombe’s and then carried on with her an extensive correspondence via postcard after confessing to her that he was losing his Catholic faith, recently told the story of her burial. Following a funeral Mass in Blackfriars, Cambridge, the mourners processed to the grounds in Ascension Parish where Wittgenstein had been buried some fifty years earlier. Anscombe had secured special permission to be buried next to her teacher, and the grave was dug at double the usual depth, so her husband could be laid to rest above her. Peter Geach followed her there in 2013.

Published in the December 2019 issue: 

John Schwenkler is associate professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of Anscombe’s Intention: A Guide (Oxford University Press). You can follow him on Twitter @johnschwenkler. This essay draws on materials from the Collegium Institute Anscombe Archive at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. This research was supported by a grant from the Collegium Institute.

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