G. E. M. Anscombe – A woman of distinctions (People I Admire)

November 6, 2010 | Filed Under People I Admire 

I first became aware of Anscombe in reference to her legendary critique of CS Lewis’ “naturalism argument” at Oxford’s Socratic Club. Perhaps the most brilliant woman I’ve ever encountered in writing, Anscombe was a student and friend of the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

For goodness sake, it was Anscombe who translated Wittgenstein’s Investigations into English which proceeded to scramble my brain in ways previously unknown. My first semester as a graduate student in Philosophy I found myself in a strange and terrible (almost alien) yet invigorating world of thought. It is remarkable to me that Anscombe was able to translate this revolutionary intellectual work with such clarity and precision and care.

And it is this which I admire in Anscombe. She was careful. She was honest. She cared about distinctions as only an analytic philosopher can. To this day she is recognized as the groundbreaking thinker in philosophy of intention, a topic in philosophy of mind which is near and dear to my heart. And yet despite her amazing mind, which shredded arguments like a machete, she was also incredibly humble, wise and grounded. Take for example her response to her debate victory with CS Lewis:

The fact that Lewis rewrote that chapter, and rewrote it so that it now has those qualities [to meet Anscombe's objections], shows his honesty and seriousness. The meeting of the Socratic Club at which I read my paper has been described by several of his friends as a horrible and shocking experience which upset him very much. Neither Dr. Havard (who had Lewis and me to dinner a few weeks later) nor Professor Jack Bennet remembered any such feelings on Lewis’s part [...]. My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’s rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments of the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called projection.

And rather than sit comfortably in an ivory tower, she acted on her beliefs (some of which were very unpopular among her colleagues). In fact, she was arrested numerous times as an abolitionist for the unborn. And she was a prophetic opponent of contraception and the effects this has proven to have on society.

Anscombe was a great thinker. A great woman.

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