How G. E. M. Anscombe revolutionised 20th-century western philosophy | OUPblog

Anscombe’s Intention is arguably the most important and influential piece of philosophical work from the 20th Century, and it continues to be used as a point of reference for students, scholars, and those working in action theory and philosophical psychology. Written after she opposed the decision by the University of Oxford to award an honorary degree to President Harry S. Truman following the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Intention considers the nature of agency through an understanding of intention, and drew the ethical evaluation of these actions. Anscombe believed that there was a distinction between intention and acting intentionally.

She developed her action

Everybody stares

She kept a SIM card in her vest
It kept warm against her chest
But if she put her smart phone there
Its ringing sound would curl men’s hair
Every body stares

How much does a SIM card know
As the numbers go by slow?
Is it proof you are a thief
If you hide it in your briefs?
Noone even cares

What a peaceful world it was
Just the radio and God
No landline phone,no TV set
Wilfred Pickles, what no net?
Never cared to dare

Playing rounders in the road
Helping mother with her load
Learning how to stitch a hem
Buttons came off now and then
Just another year

Now it’s USB cords fine
Sign yourself up , wi fi time
Get connected to someone
From Palestine to Wellington
Photos are the lure

Time has shrunk, our posts impinge
Messages and twenty rings
I have three phones in my bag
One for mother, one for dad
They are dead but I ain’t sad
It’s much worse,I’m going mad.
Oh,everybody shares📷

[Does God live there any more?]

Come here ,Kathryn, come here quick,
‘Cos your Daddy’s very sick.
Run as fast as fast, you can,
Get the priest, get Father Dan.
Run,run went my eight year old feet,
Down the lane and up the street
I ran right up to Father’s door,
[Does God live there any more?]
“Come please, Mam said Daddy’s ill”
“Oh”,said Father,”that I will.”
Revving up his motor bike
With The Sacrament beside;
He lifted me up onto the back
And roared off up the church-side track.
It was the best thrill of my life;
If only Daddy had not died.


The patience of gardens

The enclosed garden had a peaceful air.

Nothing untoward could happen there.

The irises are famous and diverse

No thorns to prick the finger or to curse.

We sat beneath the tree still holding hands

And let the peace  we felt on us descend.

But now I am alone I feel despair

Where now shall I love, where shall I care?


We cannot love another till we find

A felt connection to the heart and mind

When we’re anxious we cannot perceive

The mind and feelings shuttered may deceive.

Patience is so hard when we feel sad.

The tears in our own eyes make us feel bad

Elizabeth Anscombe | Higher education | The Guardian

She gives the famous illustration of the contents of a basket which a shopper fills according to a list, and which a detective compiles a list of. If the shopper finds any discrepancy between his list and what is actually in the basket, he rectifies this not by altering the list (practical thought) but by altering what’s in the basket (the action performed). If the detective wants to rectify discrepancies between his list (observational thought) and what’s in the basket (the other’s action observed), then he can indeed do so merely by altering the list. But our actions are intentional only under a description, said Anscombe, so that under one description (“I wanted to help”) an action may be intentional, under others (“I interfered”, “I stopped play”) unintentional.

Anscombe thought that modern philosophy had also misunderstood ethics. In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), she argued that notions like “moral obligation”, “moral duty”, “morally right”, and “morally wrong”, are now vacuous hangovers from the Judaeo-Christian idea of a law-giving God. Anscombe, of course, firmly believed in God herself, but she was examining the way language was actually used, and ethics done. She argued that “ought” has become “a word of mere mesmeric force”, since it no longer has the corollary “because we are commanded by God”.

Philosophers, however, have tried to find content in the deracinated ethical concepts, and failing to, have been induced to supply “an alternative (very fishy) content”, such as that the right action is the one that produces the best possible consequences. However purportedly different, in fact, all contemporary moral philosophies lead to this sort of “consequentialism” (it was Anscombe who coined that now-indispensable term), which blithely countenances the execution of an innocent person as a potentially right action. Anscombe famously asserted of someone who thought in this way, “I do not want to argue with him: he shows a corrupt mind.” She urged the abandonment of “the law conception of ethics” and a return to the avowedly secular Aristotelian concepts of practical reasoning and virtue. And she insisted that it was no longer possible to do moral philosophy without doing philosophy of mind, thoroughly investigating concepts such as “action”, “intention”, and “pleasure” in their non-moral sense.

Two years earlier, in 1956, she had demonstrated in a very practical way her opposition to consequentialism. When it was proposed that Oxford should give President Truman an honorary degree, she and two others opposed this because of his responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although overruled, they forced a vote, instead of the customary automatic rubber-stamping of the proposal. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder,” declared Anscombe’s pamphlet, Mr Truman’s Degree. It sarcastically condoled with the Censor of St Catherine’s for having to make a speech “which should pretend to show that a couple of massacres to a man’s credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour”.

Anscombe was never afraid to voice unpopular views, scandalising liberal colleagues such as Bernard Williams with her paper against contraception (later published in revised form by the Catholic Truth Society) and condemnation of homosexuality.

Outspoken, often rude, she was sometimes dubbed “Dragon Lady”. For a time she sported a monocle, and had a trick of raising her eyebrows and letting it fall on her ample bosom, which somehow made her yet more daunting. But, while giving short shrift to pretension and pomposity, she took endless pains with those students she considered serious. Her exhilarating tutorials went on for hours, leaving everyone exhausted; students could drop into her house at any time to discuss philosophy among the dirty nappies. Married to Peter Geach, a fellow-philosopher and Catholic, she was always called “Miss Anscombe”, which caused some consternation at the Radcliffe Infirmary whenever she turned up to give birth (she had seven children).

Perhaps Anscombe’s best work was done in the 50s, but her three-volume Collected Philosophical Papers (1981) contain trenchant papers on epistemology, metaphysics, history of philosophy, and philosophy of religion. Causality and Determination, her inaugural lecture on becoming professor of Cambridge in 1970, presented an extraordinarily original and controversial view of causation.

An affectionate tribute on her retirement in 1986 called her “a modern Daniel in the lions’ den”, but, although doggedly Catholic, Anscombe could also be radical and was never straitlaced. She was notorious for a forthright foulmouthedness which was only enhanced by the beauty of her voice. When presenting a paper on pleasure, she distinguished extrinsic pleasures – things we enjoy because of the description they fall under – and intrinsic pleasures – things we enjoy regardless of how they are described; and she cited, as an example of the latter, “shitting”, strongly pronouncing the double “t”, and with such sternness that her academic audience were too daunted to laugh. (Unfortunately this was probably one of the many papers she threw away as insufficiently good.)

Once, threatened by a mugger in Chicago, she told him that that was no way to treat a visitor. They soon fell into conversation and he accompanied her, admonishing her for being in such a dangerous neighbourhood. She chain-smoked for some years, but bargained with God, when her second son was seriously ill, that she would give up smoking cigarettes if he recovered. Feeling the strain of this the following year, she decided that her bargain had not mentioned cigars or pipes, and took to smoking these.

Except when pregnant, she wore trousers, often under a tunic, which, in the 50s and 60s, was often disapproved of. Once, entering a smart restaurant in Boston, she was told that ladies were not admitted in trousers. She simply took them off. When she threatened one of her children, “If you do that again, I’ll put you on the train to Bicester”, and he did, she felt obliged, given her views on fulfilling promises, actually to put him on the train. Bluff, courageous, determined, loyal, she argued that the word “I” does not refer to anything, but she certainly believed in the soul.

She is survived by her husband and their four daughters and three sons.

• Gertrude Elizabeth Mary Anscombe, philosopher, born March 18 1919; died January 5 2001

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Loving memories

I look up our small street,
To see if you are coming.
I don’t know what time it is,
But I think I hear you humming.

You sang sweet songs for us,
And you could whistle well.
You wore an old tweed jacket
You loved us,I could tell.

I look out there each day,
But I can’t see your tall, thin shape.
I saved your Woodbine packet,
It made me feel some hope.

What does death’s door mean?
Where has Daddy gone?
When will be the welcome day,
When we hear his songs again?

I’ll sing like him all day,
I’ll dream of him all night.
I hope he won’t be angry,
If his cigarettes won’t light!

He can’t write his own songs now.
He went too far away, too soon.
I’ll write down what I think he sang,
And I’ll invent the tune.

I hear him singing now,
He dwells inside my heart.
And though I still can’t see his face,
I recognise his Art.

On a motorbike with God

There were three of us on this motorbike,
Father Dan with me,
And he had Jesus in his bag.
That makes the total three.

Transubstantiation, oh my Lord
I looked at his black bag.
Is Jesus inside there, I thought?
Should it have a tag?

It’s a secret never told
Father Dan gave it me to hold.
So I had Jesus in my lap,
No wonder now I feel a gap.

We zoomed off up an unmade road
As fast as Dan could go.
I felt bewildered and bemused,
I loved my Daddy so.

Father Dan took back his bag,
And went inside our house.
I got my marbles out to roll,
I feared I’d see a mouse.

So Three of had taken a ride
And after that, my Dad had died.
Father Dan said Mass today
Still with Jesus, so I cried.


It’s here again the wild beast with dagger claws

Trying to steal our lives

Using our flesh and bones to feed itself.

A child’s lungs damaged by pollution make a handy home

The beast might sleep for 20 years.

Then may will go on a rampage.

Psychopathic cells take over

They acknowledge no boundaries

Golden rules are not their way of life.

They are crazy blinded mad

They cannot think

Understanding poetry

As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this. But it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal.