G.E.M. Anscombe


A bishop and a professor told me that in separate audiences, the first thing John Paul II said when they mentioned Oxford was: "Do you know Professor Anscombe?"

G.E.M. Anscombe

For Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose student and literary executor Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe had been, philosophy is not a thing but an action, rather the way Plato called it the highest form of music, and Elizabeth Anscombe acted upon that, moving from the utilitarian and Kantian concepts of ethics rooted in obligation to a revival of Aristotelian virtues ethics. She may have been the greatest of 20th-century analytic philosophers, a claim staked in her treatise Intention in 1957. One cannot imagine Karol Wojtyla writing The Acting Person without it. A bishop and a professor told me that in separate audiences, the first thing John Paul II said when they mentioned Oxford was: "Do you know Professor Anscombe?"

She lived 81 years, reciting the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary as she died surrounded by her husband, the philosopher Peter Geach, and four of her seven children. From 1970 until her retirement in 1986 she held the chair at Cambridge University first held by Wittgenstein. When she confounded C. S. Lewis in a response at the Oxford Socratic Society on February 2, 1948, he never attempted theology again, except to alter the third chapter of his Miracles. She was surprised and edified that he was so abashed, and their bond was unbroken.

A. J. Ayer once told her: "If you didn't talk so slowly, people wouldn't think you were so profound." Elizabeth talked slowly in part because she was constantly drawing on cigars, blowing smoke rings like the caterpillar in Wonderland before making a pronouncement. Entering a Cambridge common room, she was bemused to hear some earnest women arguing that nothing in the Bible prevented the ordination of women. She calmly leaned her rather comfortable flesh against the mantelpiece, recited the names of the Twelve Apostles, and blew a smoke ring at them. I have that story from my own tutor who later, of a different mind, went on to become archbishop of Canterbury. k

She was too Catholic to be patient with third-rate feminism, outward appearance notwithstanding. Elizabeth always wore trousers. Entering the apostolic palace to see the pope, she approached the gate in trousers and pulled a string, lowering her skirt like a parachute. Her last conscious act on her deathbed was to kiss her husband, but she abjured her married name. Telephoning her in Cambridge from Oxford, which is possibly the world's longest long-distance call, I asked to speak with Mrs. Geach. "There is no such person," said the voice before hanging up. A second call to Professor Anscombe initiated a friendly conversation with no allusion to the faux-pas. She had been diligent in securing an academic posting for me in Oxford, but she could also be absent-minded. Her young children wandered along the canal with signs pinned to them: "Do not feed me, I am a Geach." She was, nevertheless, an utterly devoted mother.

As a maelstrom of dissent groaned at the publication of Humanae Vitae, she and her husband toasted it with champagne. I rather thought her brilliant essays on abortion were academic exercises until she was dragged into court for demonstrating outside an abortion mill. A picture of her standing before the judge, with Professor John Finnis as her barrister, should be painted as an icon for the coming generation. While she was not a Wittgensteinian, she vigorously lived out truth as an action. St. Dionysius thought of history as philosophy teaching by example. Elizabeth Anscombe is now an ageless historical figure, and I think she sensed that possibility as a delightful curiosity, the way she came to reconsider St. Anselm as the sort of fellow whose greatness makes him a constant companion.



Rev. George W. Rutler. "G.E.M. Anscombe." excerpt from Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (New York: Scepter Publishers Inc., 2010): 26-28.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Scepter Publishers Inc.

This article appeared first as one of the "Cloud of Witnesses" columns Father Rutler wrote for Crisis. It is included in his book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2010 Father George William Rutler

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