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G. E. M. Anscombe: A Pioneering Philosopher in the 20th Century |

G. E. M. Anscombe: A Pioneering Philosopher in the 20th Century

G. E. M. Anscombe, born Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe on March 18, 1919, in Limerick, Ireland, was a distinguished philosopher whose work significantly impacted the fields of philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, and ethics. Her intellectual journey and contributions have left an indelible mark on 20th-century philosophy.

Early Life and Education

Anscombe was born to Gertrude Thomas and Allen Wells Anscombe, an Oxford graduate and First World War veteran. Her early education was at Sydenham High School and later at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she read Literae Humaniores, or “Greats,” a course that encompasses both ancient literature and philosophy. Her time at Oxford marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the Catholic faith, a conversion that would profoundly influence her philosophical views.

Influences and Mentorship

While at Oxford, Anscombe’s interest in philosophy deepened. She was significantly influenced by the works of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but it was her encounter with Ludwig Wittgenstein that would shape her philosophical trajectory. Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, was then a professor at Cambridge. Anscombe attended his lectures and later became one of his closest students. Wittgenstein’s complex ideas and methods left a lasting impression on her, and she eventually became one of his literary executors, dedicating a considerable portion of her career to translating and interpreting his works.

Major Philosophical Contributions

1. Intention (1957)

Anscombe’s seminal work, “Intention,” is a cornerstone in the philosophy of action. In this book, she delves into the nature of human intentionality, a fundamental aspect of understanding human behavior. She introduces the concept of “practical knowledge,” which refers to the knowledge an agent has of their own actions, distinguishing it from theoretical knowledge. This work challenged existing paradigms and laid the groundwork for future research in action theory, influencing philosophers like Donald Davidson and Michael Thompson.

2. Modern Moral Philosophy (1958)

Anscombe’s essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” is considered one of the most influential critiques of contemporary ethical theory. In this essay, she argues against consequentialism, the ethical theory that judges the morality of an action based on its outcomes. She contends that this approach neglects the importance of moral character and intentions, advocating instead for a return to virtue ethics as espoused by Aristotle and Aquinas. Her critique has been pivotal in reviving interest in virtue ethics, making it a central topic in modern ethical discourse.

3. Translation and Interpretation of Wittgenstein

As Wittgenstein’s literary executor, Anscombe played a crucial role in translating and editing his works, including “Philosophical Investigations.” Her translation work is highly regarded for its accuracy and fidelity to Wittgenstein’s complex ideas. This effort was instrumental in making Wittgenstein’s later philosophy accessible to the English-speaking world, thereby influencing a wide range of philosophical discussions in the latter half of the 20th century.

Personal Life and Academic Career

Anscombe’s personal and professional lives were closely intertwined. She married Peter Geach, a fellow philosopher, and the couple had seven children. Despite her demanding personal life, Anscombe’s academic career flourished. She held various teaching positions, including a long tenure at the University of Cambridge, where she was eventually appointed to the chair of philosophy previously held by Wittgenstein.

Her commitment to her Catholic faith often intersected with her philosophical work. Anscombe was known for her outspoken views on moral issues, including her opposition to birth control, which she articulated in various essays and public debates. Her deep religious convictions informed her ethical philosophy, leading her to critique modern moral theories that she believed were disconnected from a proper understanding of human nature and virtue.

Legacy and Influence

Anscombe’s work continues to resonate in contemporary philosophical discourse. Her contributions to the philosophy of action and ethics have been foundational, influencing not only her contemporaries but also successive generations of philosophers. Her rigorous analytical style, combined with a deep commitment to ethical inquiry, set a high standard for philosophical practice.

Her impact is perhaps most evident in the revival of interest in virtue ethics. Anscombe’s call for a return to Aristotelian ethics has inspired a significant body of work exploring the role of virtues in moral philosophy. Philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse have built upon her insights, developing robust frameworks for understanding moral character and ethical behaviour.

Moreover, her translations of Wittgenstein’s works have ensured that his complex ideas remain accessible and influential. By bridging the gap between Wittgenstein’s dense prose and the broader philosophical community, Anscombe facilitated a deeper engagement with his philosophy, which continues to shape discussions in philosophical logic, language, and mind.

Conclusion

G. E. M. Anscombe’s legacy as a philosopher is profound and enduring. Her work in action theory, ethics, and her role as a translator of Wittgenstein’s works have cemented her place as a pivotal figure in 20th-century philosophy. Her insistence on the importance of intention in ethical and philosophical analysis has reshaped how scholars approach these subjects. Anscombe’s intellectual rigour, combined with her deep moral convictions, has left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern philosophy, ensuring that her ideas will continue to be studied and debated for years to come.

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