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Elizabeth Anscombe: Faithful and Fearless
Written by Elizabeth Drummond Young, part of the Illustrious Women series.
Elizabeth Anscombe 1919 -2001 – a faithful philosopher, without fear or favour
How did a woman who called the President of the United States a murderer, protested outside abortion clinics, and thought that artificial contraception was wrong come to be considered one of analytic philosophy’s biggest stars? Anscombe could not be ignored, despite her sex and her Catholic faith. She was an unabashed Catholic convert from her early years, and when reading theology as a young girl uncovered philosophical problems which engaged her for the rest of her life. For example, she was fascinated by causation; what did it mean to say that there was a necessary connection between the cause and the event? She was still concerned about the subject when she came to deliver her Inaugural lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge in 1971, in which she asked the audience to reconsider that necessary connection which is assumed by so many philosophers.
Anscombe’s philosophy might seem to have a bifurcated character; on the one hand there is her deep engagement with metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, as well as with the enigmatic work of Wittgenstein, and on the other, there are her forthright papers on applied ethics and religious topics, which leave the reader in no doubt as to her Catholic allegiance. She didn’t compartmentalize though, as some have suggested. Philosophy was her life. She was intensely, perpetually occupied with its problems, and she found a new way of examining those through the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who focussed on language as a way of ‘dissolving’ philosophical challenges. A close friend, he admired her challenging and original thinking (she was no mere docile disciple). She became his executor and translator of his work and her translation and commentaries on his work have allowed it to flourish, and even to impact modern theology.
She’s not an easy read, even for a professional philosopher, but she is original, painstaking and completely fearless in tackling major issues where she thinks something has gone wrong in the argument. Her philosophical approach was to tackle a question head on, but from a variety of angles, trying to trace the problem back to its roots. You had to start from scratch to find the truth, she thought, but ‘the only problem was that it took a long time to get to scratch’.
The problem about causes which so engaged her when a teenager re-emerged in a public debate with C S Lewis: Lewis, wanting to uphold Christian belief and the possibility of miracles in the face of growing atheism and scientism, rounded on the doctrine of naturalism (roughly construed as the scientific view of the world, where everything, including our actions can be considered to have physical and therefore non rational causes). This doctrine was self-defeating, he claimed, because it was arrived at through reason which the doctrine itself must dismiss as having ultimate non-rational causes. This wasn’t right, countered Anscombe: Lewis had been too quick in his criticism; there’s a distinction between causes and reasons which Lewis had conflated. When questioning someone’s reasoning, we ask for the grounds of the reasoning; how the argument goes. We are not asking for the causes of your issuing forth with a series of premises and a conclusion, neurons firing and so on. The young Anscombe had the better of this argument and Lewis duly amended the second edition of his work. Christians might wince a little at this bruising friendly fire encounter; but it was typical of Anscombe to attack an argument which wasn’t right, even – or perhaps especially! - if came from the side of faith.
Anscombe’s concern about causation developed into a philosophical interest in the concept of intention. Her monograph Intention (1957) is regarded as the modern starting point for the philosophy of action. Intention is of course linked to the Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect, which requires a careful distinction to be made between intended consequences and those that are merely foreseen. Anscombe took issue with those Catholics who misused the Doctrine of Double Effect: many are trapped into an ‘interior’ view of intention which meant that, as a private act of the mind, it could be turned so that something that was in fact intended, became accidental or ‘merely foreseen’. For Anscombe, intention was related to a description of action and could be discerned by asking ‘why?’ of those actions.
This theoretical discussion had a prior practical application: Anscombe had ruffled feathers when she opposed the award of an honorary degree at Oxford to President Harry Truman. Truman did not just ‘foresee’ the deaths of millions of Japanese civilians when he ordered the bombing of Japanese cities at the end of World War Two, he ‘intended’ them, so that there would be a Japanese unconditional surrender, she claimed. Therefore, he was a murderer, reasoned Anscombe. Although her opposition to Truman’s degree wasn’t successful, it made news and she was congratulated on her stand, by her Classics tutor at Oxford, Donald MacKinnon.
MacKinnon, a Scot, was another Christian thriving in analytic philosophy’s slipstream (he eventually became Professor of Theology at Cambridge). He and Anscombe were both influenced by discussions with the Oxford Dominicans where, amongst the Thomists, radical views on warfare provided indirect support to both Anscombe’s interpretation of just war theory and MacKinnon’s conscientious objection during the Second World War. MacKinnon thought we were all ‘metaphysical animals’; we cannot help but address metaphysical issues in our daily lives and conversations. Anscombe certainly did this in the company of her group of friends and fellow MacKinnon tutees, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch. The four women mounted a challenge to British moral philosophy in the latter part of the 20th century, each in their distinctive way. Moral philosophy had been fossilised by an insistence that meaningful statements excluded moral statements which were thought to be merely expressions of emotions and therefore not subject to analysis. MacKinnon, along with his tutees, realised that moral philosophy was deficient if it didn’t address the horrors revealed in the immediate aftermath of the second World War.
Intriguingly, in her paper Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), Anscombe appeared to call a halt to all moral philosophy. She thought philosophers were approaching ethics using left-over vocabulary from a Judeo-Christian world whose principles no longer prevailed. What was she up to here? Surely a philosopher of deep Christian faith should be restoring that world and those principles rather than binning them? Anscombe’s reasoning was subtle. She saw that trying to find principles which determined right action in a non-Christian world had meant a lurch to consequentialism (a term she invented) where only outcomes mattered… much can be justified if actions are evaluated on ‘good consequences’ alone, as the example of Truman and the bombs showed. A different approach was needed in which our moral discussion embraced virtuous or vicious descriptions rather than describing actions as plain right or wrong; to say, for example, that someone’s remarks were kind, or an action was unjust. And of course, this approach fitted well with Christian ethics.
Anscombe’s influence on the faith through her mainstream philosophy might seem indirect, focussing as it does on technical clarification of important concepts, but because she dealt with the big issues ‘from scratch’ and with a view to getting at the truth, her philosophy is a powerful testimony to her faith. If you read Anscombe hoping to shore up Catholic viewpoints from a liberal or traditional viewpoint, you might be surprised –she can’t be packaged. (She thought that simony should still be banned by the Church, for example – and of course had an argument for it!) She had tough words for those who thought that bending God’s law was acceptable if it helped the Church survive; are you prepared to say to God ‘We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises?’ she contested.
She married another philosopher, Peter Geach and they had seven children, all of whom remained practising and believing Catholics. Perhaps this was because she combined genuine piety and prayerfulness with her relentless philosophical questioning, and she could do this precisely because her faith was unshakeable. Her legacy lives on in the Oxford based Anscombe Bioethics centre; you can read more its work and about Anscombe here: https://www.bioethics.org.uk/
Further reading and references:
An introduction to her philosophy with full references to her professional and published work is available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anscombe/
For a friendly read about Anscombe’s life and philosophy and the tutees of Donald MacKinnon: Metaphysical animals: how four women brought philosophy back to life / Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. London: Chatto & Windus, 2022
For family detail see the Introduction by her daughter, Mary Geach in: Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G.E.M Anscombe , Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (eds.), Imprint Academic , 2008
“War and Murder,” in Nuclear Weapons: a Catholic Response, Walter Stein (ed.), London: Merlin, 1961, 43–62;
 See the Introduction by her daughter, Mary Geach in Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G.E.M Anscombe , Mary Geach and Luke Gormally ( eds. ), Imprint Academic , 2008.
Written by Elizabeth Drummond Young
Elizabeth is a teaching Fellow at the Centre for Open Learning University of Edinburgh and runs a philosophy course for the International Foundation Programme. She also teaches short courses in Philosophy - applied ethics, love and friendship, women in philosophy and critical thinking. Her research interests are supererogation, extremes of moral behaviour and associated language and philosophical puzzles and philosophy of religion.