Philosophy G. E. M. Anscombe
Rachael Wiseman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0330


G. E. M. Anscombe (b. 1919–d. 2001) is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant philosophers of the 20th century. Donald Davidson described her monograph Intention (see Anscombe 1957, cited under Intention) as the most important work on action since Aristotle’s Ethics, and her much-anthologized paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (see Anscombe 1958, cited under Anti-consequentialism) is the genesis of modern virtue ethics. Anscombe’s claim that “I” is not a referring expression (in her “The First Person,” cited as Anscombe 1975, cited under Self-Consciousness and “I”) remains as a provocative counterpoint to the consensus position among philosophers of mind. Alongside her own writing, she edited and translated much of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work. Her translation of the Philosophical Investigations—a task that also involved substantial editorial work—is viewed by many as authoritative. Given these credentials, one might expect to find Anscombe’s work well represented in the secondary literature. But in fact, only a tiny proportion of her published writings have attracted critical engagement. As this article highlights, some areas of Anscombe’s thought—for example, her writings on memory, mental events, and sensation—have received almost no attention in the literature, despite their insight and relevance, and even where her work has made a significant impact—for example, in ethics and causation—it has not been subject to scholarly study. It is really only in the area of philosophy of action that substantial and high-quality discussion of her thought has taken place. To date, the literature contains no detailed discussion of Anscombe’s philosophical method. Her main interlocutors are David Hume and René Descartes, and her contemporaries at Oxford—R. M. Hare, J. L. Austin, and Stuart Hampshire. Her aim is to recover premodern thinking—in particular the thinking of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—about core topics in mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics (for example, human nature, mind-body relation, causation, substance, sensation, perception, human action, practical reason). However, her methods are those of post-linguistic-turn philosophy. In particular, she follows Gottlob Frege and, more explicitly, Wittgenstein in thinking that the way to study these topics is not as a scientist but as a logician or grammarian. Her concern is not the properties of material (or immaterial) objects but the formal order that belongs to our concepts and to human life in which they have their home. This explains the deep interconnectedness that is a feature of her work.

General Overviews

Teichmann 2008 is currently the only overview of Anscombe’s work taken as a whole. It is a reliable guide, covering the core areas of Anscombe’s thought and usefully putting her in conversation with Aristotle, David Hume, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Discussion often lacks the depth to satisfy a reader looking to understand the more difficult and puzzling aspects of her view, and there is no substantial engagement with Anscombe’s Thomism. The introduction and first two chapters of Wiseman 2016 contain the only general discussion of Anscombe’s method and its relation to Wittgenstein’s. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Anscombe (Driver 2011) is thin and the bibliography is out of date; the discussion of Anscombe’s philosophy of action is very much out of step with the current interpretative orthodoxy (such as it is). Some useful background to Anscombe’s life, as well as impressionistic discussion of her key ideas, can be found Teichman 2002 and Gormally 2012. Kenny 2016 and Gibson 2016 provide background to Anscombe’s time at Oxford and Cambridge.

  • Driver, Julia. “Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

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    Short overview divided into “Life,” “Wittgenstein’s Influence,” “Metaphysics,” “Action Theory,” and “Moral Philosophy”; limited and dated bibliography. Not to be taken as authoritative.

  • Gibson, Arthur. “Anscombe, Cambridge, and the Challenges of Wittgenstein.” In Special Issue: Elizabeth Anscombe. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90.2 (2016): 191–206.

    DOI: 10.5840/acpq201642086E-mail Citation »

    Idiosyncratic but revealing reflections on Anscombe’s relationship with Wittgenstein and his male acolytes.

  • Gormally, Luke. “Anscombe, G. E. M. (1919–2001).” In Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. Vol. 3, Supplement. Edited by Michael L. Coulter, Richard S. Myers, and Joseph A. Varacalli, 5–8. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

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    A clear overview of Anscombe’s life and thought; focuses on the ethical and religious character of her work. Helpful for context and introduction but no deep philosophical discussion.

  • Kenny, Anthony. “Elizabeth Anscombe at Oxford.” In Special Issue: Elizabeth Anscombe. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90.2 (2016): 181–189.

    DOI: 10.5840/acpq201621176E-mail Citation »

    Recollections of Anscombe’s time at Oxford, including her opposition to President Harry Truman’s honorary degree and the publication and reception of Intention.

  • Teichman, Jenny. “Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 1919–2001.” Proceedings of the British Academy 115 (2002): 31–50.

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    Clear and helpful short introductory survey of the most-important works in Vols. 2 and 3 of Collected Papers (see Anscombe 1981b and Anscombe 1981c, both cited under Anthologies); some bibliographical information.

  • Teichmann, Roger. The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199299331.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A reliable and readable introduction though lacking interpretative depth. Would be good background reading for undergraduates but would need to be supplemented.

  • Wiseman, Rachael. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Anscombe’s Intention. Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks. New York: Routledge, 2016.

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    Guidebook to Intention, with early chapters on Anscombe’s life and philosophical method and the influence of her Catholicism. Suitable reading for undergraduates and postgraduates.

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