On Monday last week, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford hosted a centenary symposium to remember the great Catholic philosopher after whom it was named: Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (March 19, 1919 – January 5, 2001).
Elizabeth Anscombe converted to Catholicism as a result of her own reading as a teenager, though it was not until she was an undergraduate at Oxford that she was instructed by a Dominican friar and formally received into the Church. As a Catholic and as a woman (women had only been admitted as full members of the university in 1920), Anscombe was viewed by many in Oxford with a double suspicion. However, this only reinforced her fiercely independent cast of mind.
In 1939, while still an undergraduate, she co-wrote a pamphlet on the injustice (as she thought at the time) of declaring war on Germany. She later came to admit the shortcomings of that paper but retained a concern with the morality of war. Part of her intellectual legacy is the revival in interest in “just war” theory not only within but also beyond Catholic circles.
After the Second World War she caused embarrassment to the university by objecting to the proposal that Oxford grant an honorary degree to former President Harry Truman. She saw the use of weapons of mass destruction against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for what it was – not war but murder, the kind of action that anyone would recognise as a massacre had it been done by the Japanese or by the Germans.
At around this time Anscombe became interested in the concept of intention. The intention to wage war on civilians, to demoralise the population and weaken the enemy’s fighting spirit is quite different from the knowledge that, where military installations are targeted, some civilians will be killed.
Intention matters, and Anscombe was a resolute defender of the moral truth that there are some kinds of intentional actions, such as the targeted massacre of civilians, that are always wrong. She held the same view of the intentional killing of unborn children: “Each nation that has ‘liberal’ abortion laws has rapidly become, if it was not already, a nation of murderers.”
Anscombe thought philosophy a great tool for dispelling the errors or sophistries by which people mask their bad intentions. Of course the use of reason, and especially creative engagement with non-Christian philosophers, can easily lead to error. Catholics are blessed with the authority of the Church for guidance in matters of faith and morals, but they are also bound, by that authority, to use their reason. This is the teaching of the First Vatican Council. “How can one instruct an archer to aim at an unseen target?” Anscombe asked. There is an interplay of faith and reason; we need to use our reason to apply what we believe by faith, but faith strengthens that use of reason.
Anscombe is known among academic philosophers in particular for her writing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, the teacher to whom she was devoted on a personal level and of whom she became translator, commentator and literary executor. This was despite the fact that Wittgenstein held some views deeply hostile not only to religious philosophy but also to all classical metaphysical systems.
What Anscombe saw in Wittgenstein, however, was a rare genius who asked questions that people had not asked before and who unmasked errors that were so deeply entrenched that we were no longer able to see them.
One way to see the positive influence of Wittgenstein is as freeing philosophy from false dualistic forms of thought that still frame how people think today. For example, the idea that “the self” or “the person”, the real “me”, is like an invisible man inside my head. No, I am this living body. To touch this body is to touch me and what happens to it happens to me.
The relationship of Wittgenstein and Anscombe is a bit like the relationship of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Their Catholic faith enabled Aquinas and Anscombe to see what was most profound in the writings of Aristotle and Wittgenstein.
According to the Dominican theologian Fr Vincent McNabb, no one who has a good memory can hope to be a philosopher. He meant that someone with a good memory might be tempted to rely on remembering the thoughts of others instead of thinking for themselves. Of course, we often have to start by learning what others have thought, but to think properly is to think for ourselves. Anscombe shows that a Catholic with the ability to think must have the courage to do so, having the humility to be guided by reliable sources of wisdom but also the willingness to ask hard questions.
There are many truths about ourselves and about the world that we do not yet know or understand. However, we can be confident in facing new issues honestly and critically, knowing that none will ultimately contradict the truths we know already – including the greatest truth that has been revealed to us, the Love of God.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.