G. E. M. Anscombe

From Academic Kids

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (March 18, 1919January 5, 2001) (known as Elizabeth Anscombe, published as G. E. M. Anscombe) was a British philosopher and theologian and a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein (See also: Analytic philosophy, Wittgensteinian). She contributed extensively to the fields of ethics, especially to the modern revival of virtue ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, Logic, Semiotics, and language theory. Her 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy", introduced the term "consequentialism" into the English language.


1 Further Reading
2 Sources


Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was born to Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe and Alan Wells Anscombe, on March 18, 1919, in Limerick, Ireland (where her father had been posted as an officer in the British army). She graduated from Sydenham High School in 1937, and went on to read "Mods & Greats" (a course of study in classics, ancient history, and philosophy) at St Hugh's College of the University of Oxford, graduating with a First in 1941. During her first year as an undergraduate she converted to Roman Catholicism, and remained a devout Catholic thereafter. She was married to Peter Geach, also a Catholic convert and student of Wittgenstein, and also a distinguished British academic philosopher. They eventually had three sons and four daughters.

After graduating from Oxford, Anscombe was awarded a research fellowship for postgraduate study at Newnham College, Cambridge from 1942 to 1945. While studying at Cambridge she began to attend Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. She became an enthusiastic student, feeling that Wittgenstein's therapeutic method helped to free her from philosophical boggles in ways that her training in traditional systematic philosophy could not. As she wrote (in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, pp. vii-ix, quoted in Monk [1990] 497):

For years, I would spend time, in cafés, for example, staring at objects saying to myself: "I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?" ... I always hated phenomenalism and felt trapped by it. I couldn't see my way out of it but I didn't believe it. It was no good pointing to difficulties about it, things which Russell found wrong with it, for example. The strength, the central nerve of it remained alive and raged achingly. It was only in Wittgenstein's classes in 1944 that I saw the nerve being extracted, the central thought 'I have got this, and I define "yellow" (say) as this' being effectively attacked.

After her fellowship at Cambridge ended, she was awarded a research fellowship at Sommerville College, Oxford, but during the academic year of 1946-1947, she continued to travel to Cambridge once a week, together with her fellow student W. A. Hijab, to attend tutorials with Wittgenstein on the philosophy of religion. She became one of Wittgenstein's favorite students and one of his closest friends (Monk [1990] 497-498). Anscombe visited with Wittgenstein many times after he left Cambridge in 1947, and traveled to Cambridge in April 1951 to visit him on his deathbed. Wittgenstein named her, along with Rush Rhees and G. H. von Wright, as his literary executor, and after his death in 1951, she was responsible for editing, translating, and publishing many of Wittgenstein's manuscripts and notebooks.

Anscombe remained at Sommerville College from 1946 to 1970. As a young philosophy don, she soon acquired a reputation as a formidable debater; her 1948 with C. S. Lewis (over the argument for the existence of God in the third chapter of his book Miracles) was said by friends such as George Sayer and Derek Brewer to be so humiliating for Lewis that he abandoned theological argument and turned entirely to devotional writing and children's literature. Anscombe objected to the portrayal of the debate by some of Lewis's friends, and did not remember any hard feelings expressed by Lewis at either the debate or the pleasant dinner they shared together a few weeks later; but whatever Lewis's feelings were, it seemed quite clear to everyone present (including Lewis) that his arguments had been demolished, and Lewis substantially rewrote the third chapter of Miracles to take Anscombe's criticisms into account [1] (http://www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/exposes/lewis/cs-lewis.htm) [2] (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0105/opinion/dolan.html). She was also known for her willingness to face fierce public controversy in the name of her Catholic faith. In 1956, while a research fellow at Oxford University, she protested against Oxford's decision to grant an honorary degree to Harry S. Truman, who she denounced as a mass murderer for his use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She scandalized liberal colleagues with articles defending the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and contraception, and she underwent arrest twice while protesting outside an abortion clinic in Britain.

Anscombe was elected Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1970, where she served until her retirement in 1986. In her later years, Anscombe suffered from heart disease, and was nearly killed by an automobile accident in 1996. She spent her last years in the care of her family in Cambridge. She died at the age of eighty-one, with her husband and four of their children at her bedside, on January 5, 2001.


In 1942 Anscombe became a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge, where she met Ludwig Wittgenstein, of whom she became one of the foremost interpreters. She wrote a substantial introduction (1959) to his pre-war Tractatus. Her translation of his other master work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), remains the standard edition in English; she also translated several of his other, lesser works. Her own books include Intention (1957) and three volumes of collected papers, published in 1981: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein; Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind; and Ethics, Religion and Politics. She was for many years the Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, a position to which she was elected in 1970.

Anscombe is credited with having coined the term "consequentialism". In her 1958 essay "Modern Moral Philosophy", Anscombe wrote, "The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences, as far as responsibility is concerned, was not made by Sidgwick in developing any one 'method of ethics'; he made this important move on behalf of everybody and just on its own account; and I think it plausible to suggest that this move on the part of Sidgwick explains the difference between old-fashioned Utilitarianism and the consequentialism, as I name it, which marks him and every English academic moral philosopher since him."

Anscombe also coined the term brute facts, as opposed to institutions. The term had a major role to play in John Searle's philosophy and speech act theory.

Further Reading


fr:Gertrude Elizabeth Marie Anscombe pl:Elizabeth Anscombe sk:Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombová


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