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How G. E. M. Anscombe revolutionised 20th-century western philosophy

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (b. 1919-d. 2001) was an important figure and gave significant contributions to the field of analytic philosophy, philosophy of mind, and moral and religious philosophy. Born in Limerick in March 1919 to Allen Anscombe and Gertrude Anscombe (nee Thomas), the family returned to England when her father returned from the British Army to teach as a schoolmaster. With an impressive academic career, Anscombe attended St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford, when she achieved a first-class degree in Literae Humanities (Classics and Philosophy) in 1941. She then continued to study at St Hugh’s as a research student, but shortly afterwards moved to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1946, Somerville College, Oxford, offered her a Research Fellowship, and then a teaching Fellowship in 1964, which she accepted. However, she did return to Cambridge in 1970 to accept the chair of philosophy at Cambridge University. The chair, interestingly, was previously held by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom she deeply admired both personally and professionally as a philosopher, for his theories on logic.

Anscombe first met Wittgenstein in Cambridge after she had graduated from Oxford, and attended his lectures regularly. She continued to study and then work with him even after her return to Oxford. Following his death in 1951, she translated some of his most important works into English, including Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953. She also translated and published many of his notebooks and manuscripts. Curiously, in life Wittgenstein disliked female academics, though he evidently made an exception for Anscombe.

Anscombe’s Intention is arguably the most important and influential piece of philosophical work from the 20th Century, and it continues to be used as a point of reference for students, scholars, and those working in action theory and philosophical psychology. Written after she opposed the decision by the University of Oxford to award an honorary degree to President Harry S. Truman following the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Intention considers the nature of agency through an understanding of intention, and drew the ethical evaluation of these actions. Anscombe believed that there was a distinction between intention and acting intentionally.

She developed her action theory, or intention, in part a way to give clarity to the reasons behind her own condemnation of certain aspects, events, and actions of others. It was important in her denunciation of Oxford’s decision to award Truman, a murderer in Anscombe’s perspective, with an honorary degree. It was also important to her sorting out controversial topics such as contraception, which as a devout Catholic, Anscombe also opposed. She discussed her opposition in Intention.

Modern Moral Philosophy (1958) is another incredibly significant piece of philosophical writing, and it is from this book that Anscombe was credited for first coining the term consequentialism. Modern Moral Philosophy reinvigorated an interest in virtue ethics, which emphasises a virtue of mind, amongst Western philosophy. Anscombe drew upon work from the ancient philosopher Aristotle taking inspiration from his stance on virtue ethics, and criticising modern approaches to it.

Some of Anscombe’s most influential work was on the nature of causation, particularly adopting a more singularist approach to it. As the nature of cause and effect has always been difficult to distinguish clearly, Anscombe’s belief was that cause cannot be defined or observed in a single instance, but that a particular action, or cause, triggers a particular effect.

Throughout her life, Anscombe was inspired by many philosophers, ancient and modern. Aristotle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Thomas Aquinas were three key sources of inspiration. However, she created new and original work which revolutionised action theory and moral, religious and ethical philosophy.

She died in 2001, aged 81. G E. Anscombe remains an inspiring and highly relevant philosopher, whose work is still studied by students, scholars, theorists, and those who generally take an interest in philosophy.

Featured Image Credit by Yeshi Kangrang via Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Richard W. Clinnick

    Anscombe’s work is indeed very important. Thank you for featuring her. Many nowadays would shrink from highlighting the work of a 20th century Catholic scholar, especially a faithful woman. Like her you have demonstrated genuine integrity.

  2. George

    Having read Intention a couple of times, I recall no mention of contraception. Are you sure about that?

  3. Alan Nelson

    The “OUP Philosophy Team” seems to be a bot. There are some bottish errors…

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