Elizabeth Anscombe, R.I.P.

Published Date: February 3, 2001 | Topics: Philosophy, Religion

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One of the 20th century’s most remarkable women.

G.E.M. (“Elizabeth”) Anscombe, who died at the age of 81 in January, was a titan in the world of philosophy, and one of the 20th century’s most remarkable women.

At Cambridge, she studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and upon his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. Among her most important early contributions to philosophy were publications (often requiring difficult translations) of Wittgenstein’s unpublished writings, together with a book entitled An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

Despite her personal loyalty to the great man, Anscombe was never one of Wittgenstein’s disciples. What she had most in common with her teacher was a bold and original cast of mind, which led her to views different from his in many important respects.

In 1957, she produced a book entitled Intention, which was to become a philosophical classic. It refocused attention on the role of reasons and reasoning in human choosing and acting. A year later, her paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” offered a critique of dominant academic approaches to philosophical ethics that cleared the field for a new flowering of interest among philosophers (such as Alasdair MacIntyre) in the ancient idea of “virtue.”

In 1970, Anscombe had the satisfaction of being appointed to the professorial chair in Cambridge that had been held by Wittgenstein.

Her impact on academic philosophy was matched by her influence in Catholic intellectual circles. Like so many of the greatest Catholic philosophers of her century — Michael Dummett, John Finnis, Bastiaan van Frassaan, Peter Geach (Anscombe’s husband, with whom she had seven children), Alasdair MacIntyre, Jacques Maritain, Nicholas Rescher, Edith Stein — Elizabeth Anscombe was a convert. Her faith and devotion to the Church were profound. Among her most remarkable essays is a pamphlet on teaching children the meaning of the Eucharist.

In 1968, when much of the rest of the Catholic intellectual world reacted with shock and anger to Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of Catholic teaching regarding the immorality of contraception, the Geach-Anscombe family toasted the announcement with champagne. Her defense of the teaching in the essay “Contraception and Chastity” is an all-too-rare example of rigorous philosophical argumentation on matters of sexual ethics. Catholics who demand the liberalization of their Church’s teachings have yet to come to terms with Anscombe’s arguments.

From the beginning of the controversy over abortion, Anscombe recognized that the practice constituted the unjust killing of innocent human beings. Not content merely to write about the subject, she assumed an active role in the pro-life movement, even participating in the English equivalent of Operation Rescue. When she and her daughters subjected themselves to arrest and prosecution for blockading abortion facilities, they were represented in court by the Oxford philosopher John Finnis, who happens also to be a barrister.

Although legendary for her eccentricities (such as smoking cigars), Anscombe could always say exactly why she thought what she thought, and did what she did, on things that mattered. As befits a philosopher, she led an examined life. RIP.

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