G.E.M Anscombe or simply Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) was one of the most important analytical philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. During her early teens, she read a nineteenth-century Jesuit textbook on natural theology. This book sparked her interest in philosophy. It also contributed to her conversion to Catholicism, in her late teens. While studying at Oxford, she met and married Peter Geach. The couple went on to have seven children. During her postgraduate studies at Cambridge, she studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein and befriended him. The Austrian philosopher named her one of the three literary executors of his unpublished manuscripts. She taught at Sommerville College, Oxford and in 1970 was elected Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She authored influential papers on a range of philosophical issues whereas her book Intention is a seminal work on the philosophy of action. She was also a committed Catholic who stood up for her principles in public and was a staunch supporter of Humanae vitae. Some of her public protests against murder by unjust warfare or abortion are renowned.

In this interview, Roger Teichmann discusses Anscombe and her works.

Roger Teichmann is Lecturer in Philosophy at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. His research interests are ethics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, Wittgenstein, and Elizabeth Anscombe. His books include The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford University Press 2008), Nature, Reason and the Good Life (Oxford University Press 2011), Wittgenstein on Thought and Will (Routledge 2015) and Logos and Life: Essays on Mind, Action, Language and Ethics (Anthem Press 2022). He has edited Elizabeth Anscombe: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (4 vols., Routledge 2016), The Oxford Handbook of Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford University Press), and is co-editor of The Moral Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe (Imprint Academic 2016).

  1. Intention
    by G.E.M. Anscombe
  2. Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume III
    by G.E.M. Anscombe
  3. Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G.E.M. Anscombe
    edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally
  4. The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe
    by Roger Teichmann
  5. The Women Are up to Something
    by Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb
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What are the main details of Anscombe’s life and career?
She had a very interesting life.

She was a convert to Catholicism. Her parents were Anglicans but she found Catholicism in her teens.

She was a voracious reader and among the things she read in her teens were a couple of books by Jesuits which introduced her both to Catholic thinking and, more generally, philosophy. Through those books, she felt the pull to Rome.

Her parents were not at all pleased. Indeed, they brought around an Anglican priest to try and dissuade their fourteen-year-old from taking this step. However, the vicar failed completely.

She went up to Oxford in 1938 to read classics or, as it is called in Oxford, literae humaniores at St. Hugh’s College.

While an undergraduate, she took instruction and was accepted into the Church, despite the threats of her parents to cut her off without a penny. She called their bluff, and they did not.

As a student at Oxford, she met the man who would become her husband, Peter Geach. He too was a convert and his life is also an interesting one. They went on to have seven children.

Apart from anything else, Anscombe had an extraordinary capacity to continue working, reading, lecturing, while going back and forth between Oxford and Cambridge, and bearing and bringing up seven children. As friends and colleagues have remarked, this took an enormous energy. She was a woman of great strength of will, intellect, and even physical strength.

Perhaps the two main strands in her intellectual biography are first, her Catholicism, and secondly, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

An Austrian, Wittgenstein is one of the greatest modern philosophers, if not the greatest. He published only two books: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and the Philosophical Investigations. Apart from that, he wrote an enormous amount in notebooks.

Anscombe encountered the Tractatus as a student at Oxford, and was immediately fascinated by it.

She first met Wittgenstein in 1942 when she went to his lectures in Cambridge. They developed a close philosophical friendship.

Recently, I have been editing the reminiscences of Wittgenstein which Anscombe left. It is a fascinating document and indicates the many conversations they had together.

For about a decade, their lives were entwined. She went to his lectures and classes and, when that friendship became closer, he would drop in to visit her, Peter Geach, and their young family.

Around 1950, he fell ill. The illness would kill him. It was around that time that he moved in with Anscombe at 27 St. John Street, Oxford and decided to stop the hormonal treatment for his cancer, because it was interfering with his thinking.

When living at Anscombe’s, he produced some of his most important final philosophical writings and what was to be published posthumously as On Certainty.

Anscombe, along with Rush Rhees and Georg Henrik von Wright, was one of the three philosophers whom he designated to be his literary executors.

She did most of the translations. A very fine linguist, she had learnt German. She even went so far as to stay in Vienna at Wittgenstein’s recommendation, to learn the kind of German that he spoke and to better translate his works.

In the years and decades following his death, most of his Nachlass was brought out under the aegis of Anscombe and the other two executors, but mainly under Anscombe.

Her translation of the Philosophical Investigations is the standard translation and has not been surpassed.

Through your mother, you knew Anscombe and her family as a child. At university, you attended her lectures. What impression did she make upon you? Do you have any memorable experiences?
Yes, indeed. I knew Anscombe through my mother, who had been taught by Anscombe during the 1950s, when she was taking a BPhil in Oxford.

Anscombe was her main supervisor and they formed an intellectual friendship.

In 1967, my mother took up a job in Cambridge, at New Hall, as it then was (now called Murray Edwards College). A few years later, in 1970, Anscombe took up the professorship in Cambridge and was based at the same college as my mother. Thereupon, they renewed their friendship.

Anscombe would come quite often round to our house. My mother would often take me and my brother round to the Geach-Anscombe household. Frankly, I was often eavesdropping on the philosophical conversations that were going on between my mother and Anscombe. However, I got to know the younger generation. All were somewhat older than me but I ended up knowing some of them pretty well.

When I was an undergraduate, I decided to do philosophy at Cambridge and attended some of Anscombe's last lectures. She retired in 1986.

There are many stories about Anscombe. Quite a few are true.

What general impression did she make upon me? She was obviously intensely intelligent. Her lectures were rather like Wittgenstein’s. They were in no way overprepared and she did not read off notes. They were completely unlike the lectures that are given today in any university, including Cambridge or Oxford. Of course, there was no PowerPoint, but there was a blackboard. Sometimes she would scribble something on it, if the fancy took her. It is not that her lectures were unprepared. However, largely she was thinking something through aloud.

Unlike Wittgenstein, she was able to keep to whatever topic the lectures were meant to be on, for the sake of the students studying that subject.

When asked how to advertise his philosophy lectures, Wittgenstein, after a pause, simply said, “Just put Philosophy.” So, every year he lectured in Cambridge on philosophy. All you knew was that you were going to hear Wittgenstein thinking and talking about philosophy.

Anscombe lectured on more specific things. For example, she lectured on Aristotle, Plato, and causality. I went to a series of her lectures on causality. They were very interesting.

Intellectually, she was extremely engaged and never stopped philosophising. She could go on talking philosophy for hours. There are various anecdotes about this. She was not the sort of professional philosopher who only does it during lectures or when they are on the job. There was no real distinction between her general conversation and her philosophical conversation.

Christopher Coope was once talking to Anscombe about philosophy when he was a student at Oxford. About three or four hours had gone by. Chris was exhausted and Anscombe said, “I'm so sorry. I have a dental appointment in a quarter of an hour.”
“Oh well, that's fine,” Christopher said, “We will call it a day.”
“No, no,” she replied, “We can carry on talking.”
So, led him off down the street to the dentist’s, all the while continuing their discussion. “Well, I will leave you here,”
“No, no!”
She continued the discussion right up until the dentist cried, “Miss Anscombe, please!”

It was typical of her to forget time. Though she raised seven children, she had the capacity to continue her work. She did not forget what was going on around her, but put it at a distance. Amid her children running around screaming, she was able to zone out and carry on with what she was doing. She had a major power of concentration.  I am not saying that she neglected her children. On the contrary, it was a very tight-knit family, though very unconventional it must be said. More conventional types sometimes looked askance at the way that she and Peter brought up their children. I remember, from when I went round as a child, that an atmosphere of liberty, with which  I was not acquainted, seemed to pervade the household. It is not that I had a strict upbringing, but at the Geaches’ it felt as if anything could happen.

Anscombe’s husband, Peter Geach, was also an influential philosopher. He specialised in logic and is known for his scholarship on Frege, his contributions to metaethics, and for seminal papers that bridge analytical philosophy and Thomas Aquinas. Moreover, the couple coauthored Three Philosophers. Did Geach influence Anscombe’s thought or did the two simply share the same general philosophical outlook?
That is an interesting question. They were clearly very much of a mind and shared many interests, proclivities, and tendencies of thought. At the same time, they were very different. If you read their works, you can tell immediately whether you are reading Geach or Anscombe.

Geach’s style of writing has clarity and precision. One might liken him to Frege, his great hero, who also wrote with such clarity and precision.

Anscombe's writing is denser and more elusive. Perhaps, you can see Wittgenstein’s influence in that regard.

Of course, they met when they were both very young, about the age of twenty. Obviously, they thought and talked together a great deal. They they read a lot of the same stuff. They both read Aquinas and Wittgenstein. She was main producer of the Wittgenstein texts, but Geach found himself reading a lot of them as a result. Moreover, they had shared philosophical acquaintances, such as Anthony Kenny.

It would be slightly odd to speak of them influencing one another. They were batting around ideas between them. It would be odd if there were not quite a large overlap of theme and direction.

However, their minds were very different. This comes out in the way they wrote.

As a girl, Mary Geach, their daughter, once asked her mother, “Mummy, which is the better philosopher, you or Papa?”
Her mother replied, “Your father has the more powerful intellect, but I have the greater ability to see about and around a problem.”

This is a realistic assessment.

There is a variety of views on whether the Christian faith and reason are compatible with one another. The Catholic Church has declared dogmatically that they are compatible, albeit with certain truths of faith being inaccessible to reason working by its own lights. How did Anscombe construe the relation between her work as a philosopher and her Catholic faith?
Very good question. She took the line that you mentioned: there are many truths that are important for Christianity: in ethics for example, which must be and are accessible to rational thought, regardless of whether you are a Christian. I take it she was a Thomist in that sense.

In her work, it does make a difference whether she is addressing Catholics or not. When addressing Catholics, of course, she can take for granted many shared notions and beliefs. She does not and cannot do this when writing for a more general philosophical audience. The two kinds of article or writing are different in that respect. They are very similar because they share the same Anscombean disentangling of philosophical issues and her profound thought. However, she did not believe that there was any tension between philosophising and thinking about religion. For her, they are not distinct activities. Indeed, in her more general philosophical arts sometimes she brings up what Christianity says and how it backs up her arguments or illustrates them.

"Anscombe’s integrity would not allow her to make simple a problem which she regarded as porcupine-like in its complexity."

Most people do not read works of philosophy. How would you encourage people, particularly Catholics, to read Anscombe?
Just dive in. In contrast to David Hume, A.J. Ayer, or Bertrand Russell, she is one of those philosophers who will be difficult for a layperson.

Sometimes the comprehensibility of philosophers who are easy to read can be misleading. Ayer or Russell are very readable and hoped to be read by non-philosophers. However, if a philosopher is so easy to read, with each step seeming to follow naturally from the other, this might be because they have not noticed the depth of the problem or the quagmire to your left or right.

Like Wittgenstein, Anscombe’s integrity would not allow her to make simple a problem which she regarded as porcupine-like in its complexity. So, she is not an easy read.

Partly, this is down to her desire to be frank with herself and the reader about the complexities and difficulties of a philosophical problem. Partly, it is because in many of her articles she just dives in. She does not give the reader any background or state where this is coming from. Quite often, she starts off where her own thoughts are and just dives in. Of course, that can make things difficult for the reader.

A good place to start for those curious about Anscombe might be her famous article “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Even if you do not notice every nuance, it gives you a strong sense of her intellectual and moral seriousness. In some ways, it is a polemical work and she did have a polemical side.


The first book you have chosen is Intention. It is often credited with launching the philosophy of action as a self-standing field. What is the significance and importance of this work?
It began as a series of lectures she gave in Oxford in 1957.

According to her daughter—and this seems perfectly true—she became particularly interested in intention and associated themes because of the issue surrounding President Truman.

In 1956, Oxford offered Harry Truman an honorary doctorate. Of course, Truman had ordered the atom bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. For that reason, Anscombe considered him responsible for terrible massacres of innocent people. Famously, she protested as a member of the Oxford Congregation, as the body of dons is called, against the conferral of the degree on Truman.

According to Mary Geach, it was partly her thinking about who intended what and what it is to intend something that led to the book. For example, one might say that all Truman did was sign a piece of paper and that he did not kill anyone at all. Ethical concerns, such as the issues of intention, responsibility, and what can count as your own action, were important for Anscombe and she wanted to go deeper into these questions.

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