Culture

Elisabeth Anscombe (1919-2001): a true philosopher

A convert to Catholicism, a brilliant professional and mother of seven children. Her style of thought, courageous, fresh and always original, is an encouragement and an example for those of us who in the 21st century want to combine thought, faith and life.

Jaime Nubiola-November 7, 2019-Reading time: 4 minutes

March 19, 2019 marked the centenary of the birth of perhaps the greatest Anglo-American philosopher of the 20th century: Gertrude Elizabeth Margareth Anscombe, a disciple of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose chair of philosophy at Cambridge University she held from 1970 until her retirement in 1986. Professor Anscombe, a convert to Catholicism at the age of 21, was not only a brilliant and original philosopher, but throughout her life she was an exceptional example -in the words of Alejandro Llano- of "strong woman, who always stands in the gap in defense of humanity.". She was married to fellow philosopher Peter Geach, who died in 2013, and they had seven children.

Elizabeth Anscombe studied at Sydenham School and graduated from St. Hugh's College, Oxford. In 1942 she met Wittgenstein at Cambridge and soon became one of his most faithful disciples. When, in 1946-47, Anscombe was appointed research fellow at Sommerville College in Oxford traveled every week to Cambridge to attend Wittgenstein's classes. In fact, a few years later, Wittgenstein, already ill with cancer, would move to live for several months at the home of Anscombe and Geach; it is to her that those famous words of his were addressed shortly before his death: "Eliza, I have always loved the truth!". Elizabeth Anscombe, faithful both to Wittgenstein and to her convictions, realized from her youth the philosophical ideal of orienting her whole life towards truth.

After Wittgenstein's death in 1951, Anscombe devoted many years of energy to bringing his master's philosophical legacy, written mostly in German, to light. In particular, mention should be made of his prodigious translation into English of the Philosophical research. In addition to her work as Wittgenstein's literary executor, Elizabeth Anscombe will be remembered among philosophers for her 1957 book Intentionwhich is considered to be the foundational document of contemporary philosophy of action, his 1959 monograph An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatusin which he masterfully studies Wittgenstein's first book, and by many of the articles compiled in his three volumes of Collected Philosophical Papers 1981, which had a singular impact on the philosophical community.

Among all those works, I particularly like to remember his article On transubstantiation (1974) which, with great affection and hard work, my good friend Jorge Vicente and I translated for publication in the magazine Scripta Theologica (1992). Subsequently, that work was compiled in the volume Analytical philosophy and man's spiritualitywhich José María Torralba and I would edit in 2005.

Elizabeth Anscombe was always an original thinker, lively and very often against the tide of majority or political expediency. For example, when the University of Oxford proposed to confer the Ph. honoris causa American President Harry S. Truman, strongly opposed it along with two other colleagues because of Truman's responsibility for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means of achieving their ends is always murder."Anscombe argued strongly in this regard. Similarly, on multiple occasions he wrote courageously and brilliantly on sexuality, childbearing, protection of the unborn and many other topical issues, shocking many colleagues more accommodating to fashions.

Professor Anscombe traveled extensively, giving classes and lectures in many European and American countries. In Spain she was a frequent visitor during the seventies and eighties of the last century to the University of Navarra, which conferred on her the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. honoris causa in January 1989. Professor Alejandro Llano in his laudatio said of her: "His is a beautiful and implacable style, characterized by the ability to ask unusual questions and to answer them with as much finesse as rigor. Socratic irony is once again present at the origin of a philosophizing whose field of action is no longer an attic full of prejudices and habituations, but the free air of inciting enigmas. When Elizabeth Anscombe discusses with Descartes or Hume, when she interprets Aristotle or St. Thomas, what she does is to look with them towards an ever new and surprising reality. And her readers retain the intimate conviction that she has managed to see more.". On that solemn occasion Anscombe explained:"The University of Navarra is dedicated in its search for truth to the service of God. That God is truth is something that is not recognized everywhere today, not even in many, but this recognition is constantly implicit here in the School of Philosophy. That is why I am so grateful to be counted as a colleague in this Faculty.".

Professor Anscombe's life, full of academic results, is also studded with amusing anecdotes. In her obituary in The GuardianJane O'Grady recalled how on one occasion in Chicago, when she was mugged on the street by a robber, she rebuked him, saying that this was no way to treat a visitor. They immediately began to talk and the mugger escorted her to her hotel, reprimanding her for driving through such a dangerous part of the city. The anecdote is very significant, and shows not only the fine heart of a philosopher, but also her conviction - of Wittgensteinian affiliation - in the capacity of the word to achieve true communication.

In collaboration with
Do you want independent, truthful and relevant news?

Dear reader, Omnes reports with rigor and depth on religious news. We do a research work that allows the reader to acquire criteria on the events and stories that happen in the Catholic sphere and the Church. We have star signatures and correspondents in Rome who help us to make the background information stand out from the media noise, with ideological distance and independence.

We need you to face the new challenges of a changing media landscape and a reality that demands reflection, we need your support.

In collaboration with
More on Omnes
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.