Sunday, March 18, 2012

G.E.M. Anscombe

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was born March 18, 1919. Julianne Wiley wrote a great article about her and it appeared in the Christmastide 2010 issue of Voices, the seasonal journal of Women for Faith and Family.

To quote:

Here’s an odd thing: a British bishop and a professor have reported that, in two different papal audiences with Pope John Paul II, as soon as they happened to mention their connection with Oxford University, Pope John Paul immediately leaned forward with an enthusiastic nod and asked, “Do you know Professor Anscombe?”

Do you know Professor Anscombe? No? Me neither, for far too long. Who is she?

Elizabeth Anscombe’s writings provided the intellectual background for key moral teaching found in documents of the Second Vatican Council like Gaudium et Spes (§27), encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (§80), and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§2297-98). The American Catholic Philosophers Association awarded her the Aquinas Medal for her enormous contribution to ethical thought.

In the last homily he gave before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented that modern life is ruled by a “dictatorship of relativism” — an idea that echoes the pioneering work of Elizabeth Anscombe. Mary Warnock, a historian and an unbeliever, said in her survey of women philosophers for the past four centuries — that is, the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries — that Elizabeth Anscombe was “the undoubted giant among women philosophers”. Donald Davidson, the influential American philosopher, went even further — in his opinion Elizabeth Anscombe did the most important work on the ethical theory of action and intention, since Aristotle.

Popes. Encyclicals. Aristotle. “Giant among women”. Wow.

So who was this wonder-woman? To some, she was G.E.M. Anscombe, a great analytical philosopher. To her students, she was Miss Anscombe — though she was married to fellow-philosopher Peter Geach. “Miss” Anscombe, the exhilarating teacher. To some, she was Elizabeth, devoted friend. And to some, no doubt, she was “that awful Anscombe woman”, “the Dragon Lady of Oxford”, the oddball Catholic mother of seven. All in all, she was possibly one of the most holy and courageous women you have never met.

Wikipedia also offers a survey of her life and work. She became the colleague and literary executor for Wittgenstein, who admired her intellect but really could not understand her love of family and faith in Jesus.


  1. Wittgenstein, as you say, could not understand her love of Jesus. It would have been interesting to have overheard the two of them, him having drifted from his Catholicism, her having come fresh to it.

  2. The article I linked to includes a rather poignant vignette of Wittgenstein watching the family pray together. He stands at the door, neither entering the room nor leaving.

  3. wow. She really was some wonder woman.