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Elizabeth Anscombe: More Than Wittgenstein’s “Old Man”


Tomas Elliott examines how Elizabeth Anscombe helped to establish the English-language reputation of Ludwig Wittgenstein and highlights her own status as a philosopher.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an imposing figure in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy. If Bertrand Russell was reserved about him when they first met in Cambridge (calling him “obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid”), he was later effusive in his praise:

He was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.

This passage is often repeated in praise of Wittgenstein, but its last adjective, “dominating,” is certainly a curious one. It speaks, first of all, to Wittgenstein’s reputation as an analytical philosopher, a reputation largely cemented by the publication of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922. This seventy-five-page work was the only philosophical book that Wittgenstein published during his lifetime. Perhaps this was only fitting, though, given that circumspection in the pronouncement of philosophical ideas was a principle of the Tractatus itself, as evidenced by its famous final line:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

As this statement suggests, one of the central claims of the Tractatus is that there are precise limits to speech and thought. For Wittgenstein, anything that can be thought can also be said. Therefore, anything that cannot be said is meaningless; it is beyond philosophy’s concern. Near the beginning of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein insists on the same idea, stating: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence.

According to the biographer Edward Kanterian, despite the early success of the Tractatus, when Wittgenstein died in 1951, most of “his later ideas were known only to a small circle of devotees.” Chief among these was a young woman named Elizabeth Anscombe, who had first met Wittgenstein in Cambridge in 1942. Anscombe was a lifelong student and friend of Wittgenstein. As Ray Monk notes, she was even

an exception to his general dislike of academic women and especially of female philosophers. She became, in fact, an honorary male, addressed by him affectionately as ‘old man’.

After Wittgenstein’s death, Anscombe began translating the 20,000 pages of notes that he left behind, eventually compiling some of them into the Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953. This text appeared as a parallel text English and German edition, with the name of Wittgenstein and his translator appearing side-by-side (perhaps tellingly, though, the latter was given not as “Elizabeth Anscombe” but as the rather more gender ambiguous “G. E. M. Anscombe”).

Anscombe’s “skillful and sensitive translation” has rightly garnered considerable praise over the years. Editors of a recently revised version state that “Anscombe’s translation was an impressive achievement,” and contemporary reviewers were right in “rejoicing that she will translate the material for subsequent volumes of Wittgenstein’s work.” In total, Anscombe would go on to translate and publish five more volumes in Wittgenstein’s name: Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), Notebooks, 1914-16 (1961), Zettel (1967), On Certainty (1969), and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (1980).

This shows that Wittgenstein was—to use Russell’s term again—a “dominating” presence in Anscombe’s life and career, even after his death. But she also made extensive philosophical contributions of her own, arguably in fields much more diverse than Wittgenstein. Her book, Intention (1957), for example, was called the “most important treatment of action since Aristotle.” It tried to understand how we make sense of the actions we take and what that means for our sense of self. Alongside this, she also published close to a hundred papers on logic, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and more. In moral philosophy, she actively questioned her former teacher, going against Wittgenstein’s claim in the Tractatus that “there can be no ethical propositions.” In her 1958 paper, “On Brute Facts,” for instance, she argued that there are certain circumstances where a person’s actions (her example is someone delivering potatoes) can produce the “brute fact” that someone owes them (and so must pay for the delivery). Therefore, a claim like “I ought to do this for you” can, in certain circumstances, be logically derived as an ethical proposition.

More broadly, Anscombe’s challenge to Wittgenstein also demonstrates the limits of his own attempt to define the contours of speech and thought. The closing proposition of the Tractatus tries to establish that there are certain things that philosophy should be about, and certain things that it should not be about. By challenging this dictate (by insisting, for example, that there are ethical considerations to logical propositions), Anscombe encourages us to question exactly who decides what philosophy is or should be: who gets to speak, and who must stay silent?

In this regard, it seems telling that a 2019 book by A. C. Grayling, self-styled as “the first authoritative and accessible single-volume” History of Philosophy since Bertrand Russell’s own, should include, in six hundred pages, just five sentences discussing Anscombe’s ideas and no mention of her work as Wittgenstein’s translator (she is listed simply as the editor of On Certainty). Of course, this isn’t surprising for a work whose contents page features seventy-three individual chapters about male philosophers and not a single one about a woman (Wittgenstein, incidentally, gets two). Though “old man” enough for Wittgenstein, in other words, Anscombe clearly wasn’t “old man” enough to make the headlines of this history, despite Grayling admitting that she is a “major name.” The same seems to have been true for all her fellow female philosophers, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir.

Of course, what this shows is not that these women were not consummate thinkers, but that the efforts to define the limits of philosophy, to define whereof one can and cannot speak, has often depended on consigning women’s thoughts to silence. Recovering their ideas and work goes a small way towards bringing that silence to an end.