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Elizabeth Anscombe

by Duncan Richter

G.E.M. Anscombe was a colourful figure, known for smoking cigars, wearing a monocle, and staunchly defending implausible ideas. She was no posing contrarian though. Her unfashionable views on ethics reflected her strong Christian faith, and her often counterintuitive philosophical work was strongly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, her friend and teacher. That said, the originality of her mind is undeniable.

Elizabeth Anscombe was born on 18th March 1919 and died on 5th January 2001 after suffering from chronic heart disease. She went to Sydenham School and St Hugh’s College, Oxford. After this she became a research student at Newnham College, Cambridge, then a Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, where she later became a Fellow. In 1941 she married Peter Geach, although she continued to be called Miss Anscombe. With Geach she had seven children and wrote Three Philosophers (1961), about Aristotle, Aquinas, and Frege. From 1970 to 1986 Anscombe was Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, a post held previously by her mentor Wittgenstein.

Anscombe’s interests ranged widely, but her main impact has been through her work in three areas: on the philosophy of action, on ethics, and on Wittgenstein. Anscombe’s contribution to Wittgenstein scholarship was immense. She was one of his three literary executors (the others were Rush Rhees and G.H. von Wright), translated some of his best work, including the Philosophical Investigations, into English, and wrote one of the best books on his earlier classic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as well as numerous papers on various aspects of Wittgenstein’s work. She has thus, arguably, done more than anyone else to make Wittgenstein’s work available to the English-speaking world and to further our understanding of it.

She almost single-handedly invented the philosophy of action as a field of inquiry in her classic book Intention (1957), which explores action and related concepts in a Wittgensteinian style with noticeable Aristotelian influence. Like Wittgenstein’s, her work resists summary, but its aim is to expose the sources of the philosophical confusion that typically occurs in thinking about action, reasons, intention, our knowledge of our minds, and so on. In particular, Anscombe shows that knowledge need not always be passive. My knowledge of what I intend to do is not derived from introspection, for instance, or any other kind of observation.

This is just the kind of work that needs to be done in order for moral philosophy to be productive, or so Anscombe argued in her 1958 paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. This is the paper that started the contemporary interest in virtue ethics. In it she argued that: (1) we should stop doing moral philosophy, (2) seemingly essential moral concepts, such as moral obligation and the moral sense of ‘ought’, are incoherent, and (3) all modern moral philosophy is basically the same. Thesis (3) is true because modern ethics depends on the concepts rejected in thesis (2). Anscombe’s claim here can be traced back to people such as Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, and Dostoyevsky, but it was she who developed it and most successfully argued for its relevance to moral philosophy. The idea is that ethicists spend their time wondering what is permissible or forbidden in various circumstances without, it seems, having anyone in mind who might do the permitting or forbidding. God used to fill this position but if he does not exist, or is not methodologically acceptable, then nothing can be either permitted or forbidden. Nor is it clear how it could be ‘obligatory’ or even ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Anscombe suggests that most modern moral philosophy incoherently tries both to rely on theism (for the concepts it uses) and to reject it (for methodological reasons of assuming as little as possible, or else from simple atheism). The rest is corrupt. The charge of corruption applies most obviously and most importantly to consequentialism (a term she invented), which countenances even the most unthinkable evil (and thus makes it thinkable, she suggests) so long as the consequences are sufficiently beneficial. So all modern moral philosophy should be abandoned.

Instead, Anscombe suggests we look to the ancient moral philosophy of Aristotle, who concerned himself primarily with questions of virtue and vice, that is of character. However, Aristotle’s own theory was also found wanting by Anscombe, who criticized his notion of eudaimonia or flourishing as hopelessly vague. Before we can revive Aristotelian moral philosophy we need to explain the relation between acts and character traits, and to explain exactly what makes for a good character. “[P]hilosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing’. And it is the last concept that seems the most doubtful,” she wrote. Intention had been a step in the right direction, but Anscombe clearly did not think that it was all that needed to be done. Until the project described in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ is complete her advice, if she was not being purely ironical, was to stop doing moral philosophy altogether.

As a devout theist Anscombe herself saw no reason to shut up about moral matters. She became a Roman Catholic in 1940 and publicly opposed unjust wars (including, in her view, the Second World War), the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contraception, homosexuality, and pacifism (which, she argued, is not only wrong but also encourages the in-for-apenny attitude that anything goes in war). She boldly and brilliantly defended unfashionable and unpopular beliefs. Despite her efforts, most of those beliefs remain unpopular, but her impact on the history of philosophy is undeniable.

© Duncan Richter 2001

Duncan Richter is the author of Ethics After Anscombe (published by Kluwer, 2000).

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