Great Thinkers: Jane Heal FBA on Elizabeth Anscombe FBA

by Professor Jane Heal FBA

13 May 2019

She was not afraid of controversy, nor yet indeed of offending people, especially when she thought that morally important matters were at stake.

Professor Jane Heal FBA

Elizabeth Anscombe FBA was one of the most important moral philosophers of the 20th century. In this episode, Jane Heal FBA and Dr Rachael Wiseman discuss highlights of her exceptional life, including working with Wittgenstein, pioneering ‘action theory’, and taking a stand against a US President.

If somebody really thinks in advance that it is open to question that such an action as procuring the judicial execution of an innocent should be quite excluded from consideration, I do not want to argue with him. He shows a corrupt mind.

Professor Elizabeth Anscombe FBA

The moral philosopher G.E.M Anscombe, known by her middle name, Elizabeth, was born in Ireland in 1919 but moved to England at an early age. She studied Greats (Classics and Philosophy) at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. While there, she converted to Catholicism, met her future husband and graduated with a first-class degree. Unusually for the time, she never took her husband’s name, answering only to Miss Anscombe. They had seven children together.

Anscombe’s early university career also coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, which sent many male undergraduates to the Western Front. As one of an unprecedented number of female students at Oxford, she met and befriended three notable others: Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot FBA. The ‘quartet’ became arguably the first all-female school of philosophy in western history, challenging each other to push further in their explorations of theoretical and moral principles. Professor Jane Heal speaks to Dr Rachael Wiseman, a lecturer who will present her research on the four women at the British Academy’s Summer Showcase, about this formative period in Anscombe’s life.

Young women in the 1930s and 40 were not expected to be philosophising – and they certainly weren’t expected to be philosophising and having seven children.

Rachael Wiseman

In 1942, Anscombe took up a studentship at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she attended lectures by the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was then the university’s Chair of Philosophy. She was immensely excited by Wittgenstein’s thoughts and became first his pupil, then a close friend and, after he died, one of his literary executors, translating his unpublished works from German into English. As Heal points out, it is her “lucid and gripping version” of his Philosophical Investigations that is “so familiar around the world today”. In 1970, Anscombe herself became Chair of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, stepping into her mentor’s former position.

Anscombe published notable papers challenging the theories of consequentialism, exploring causality and determination, and investigating the philosophical implications of speaking in the first person, but perhaps her best-known work is a 1957 book titled Intention. In it, she asks what it is to act intentionally and how we understand and justify our own and others’ actions.

While Heal cautions against focusing on Anscombe’s ‘eccentricities’ at the expense of the fundamental philosophical and moral questions that she raised, Anscombe’s personality was as memorable as her academic output. As Heal recounts, “she mainly wore trousers and, on being told at the entrance to a restaurant that women in trousers were not allowed in, she just took the trousers off”. She didn’t hesitate to speak up for her beliefs; in 1956, she publicly opposed the University of Oxford’s decision to award an honorary degree to former President Harry Truman, arguing that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowingly killing innocents as a means to an end, could never be justified.

Professor Jane Heal FBA is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Dr Rachael Wiseman is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. She and Dr Clare Mac Cumhaill are presenting their exhibit on the quartet, titled What is philosophy for?, at the British Academy Summer Showcase 2019.

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