Sunday, March 20, 2011


Anscombe seems to have been more than just a great philosopher: if the stories about her are to be believed, she had tremendous courage and an impressively no-nonsense approach to her dealings with others. Not someone to be taken lightly at all, whatever you might think of some of her views (and almost everyone will disagree with her, probably strongly, about something). The stories themselves suggest that there ought to be a biography of her. In the meantime, here are some stories.

Jane O'Grady in The Guardian writes that:
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).

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. 
John M. Dolan says:
According to a possibly apocry­ phal tale, she once said to A. J. Ayer: “If you didn’t talk so quickly, people wouldn’t think you were so clever”; to which Ayer replied: “If you didn’t talk so slowly, people wouldn’t think you were so profound.” 
John Haldane writes:
One of Anscombe's last pieces of philosophical writing was "Russell or Anselm?". PhilosophicalQuarterly, 1993, in which she defended the thesis that Anselm's argument of Proslogion 2 could be saved "from the stupidity of an Ontological Argument" by deletion of a comma. This rests on the claim that in "Si enim in solo intellectu est, potest cogitari esse et in re, quod maius est" the second (editorial) comma ought to be omitted; in which interpretation (as "if that than which nothing greater can be thought of exists only in the mind, something which is greater can be conceived to exist also in reality"), the argument does not treat existence as a property of objects and so does not fall foul of Kant's famous objection. Writing of her defence Anscombe remarked "[I have] thought harder about Anselm's argument than I did before. But I still think that I haven't thought hard enough. I don't know whether Anselm's argument is valid or invalid - only that it is a great deal more interesting than its common interpretation makes it."
[I don't know what to make of this, but it sounds interesting.]

Here's a bibliography, with other useful links:



  1. 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.

    If this is true, it greatly diminishes my estimation of Miss Anscombe's intellect. I could give her a pass for adopting some form of theism, but belief in a lever-pulling, bargain-making god seems to me to bespeak, in her phrase, a corrupt mind. Of course, her philosophical arguments still stand or fall on their own merits. But this sort of thing puts one on one's guard.

  2. Addendum: When I wrote, "belief in a lever-pulling, bargain-making god seems to me to bespeak, in her phrase, a corrupt mind," I meant: such belief on the part of an intelligent adult with access to modern scientific knowledge.

  3. Yes, although if her son was very seriously ill then a lapse (intellectual or moral) might be forgiven. And the word 'bargained' might have been ill chosen. I can imagine a prayer along these lines being more like a cry of desperation than anything as rational or lever-pulling as real bargaining. I can still imagine afterwards thinking that I had made a kind of promise. This (the fact that the bargain is not quite real) might also be what made it seem OK to her to bend the terms and smoke cigars. (By the way, I think it was the little cigars that she smoked, not big Winston Churchill-style ones.)

  4. she sounds pretty damn gangster.

  5. Very gangster, yes. Especially the encounter with the mugger and her "forthright foulmouthedness."