Thursday, March 28, 2019

Three sides of Elizabeth Anscombe

I said below that I don't have much of a sense of what Anscombe was like just from reading her work. That's not quite true. I was forgetting about things like her description of how fantastic examples are used in moral philosophy, such as the following:
if you had to move forward, and stepping with your right foot meant killing twenty-five fine young men while stepping with your left foot would kill fifty drooling old ones. (Obviously the right thing to do would be to jump and polish off the lot.)
(From "Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?", quoted here.) 

She is joking when she says you should kill all these people. And I think she is sort of joking when she writes, in "Why Have Children?", that Sanjay Gandhi was "fortunately killed" in a plane crash, and that she is "happy to say that quite a few" people who were traveling around India sterilizing men "got lynched." She is at least, I think, enjoying the shock value of saying such things. But she isn't completely joking about this--she is very much against the sterilization program associated with Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. So that's two sides of Anscombe: jokey (in a particular, shocking, kind of way) and genuinely, in all seriousness, fiery.

Here's a third. In the same paper she writes that we should "think of a child as an 'occasion of love'--to be embraced." So she's not all salt and fury. There's love in there too. She's no softy, though, that's for sure.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


In "'What Matters to Us?' Wittgenstein's Weltbild, Rock and Sand, Men and Women," Anne-Marie S√łndergaard Christensen connects the certainty that "a human baby cannot look after itself" (p. 151, quoting an example from Dani√®le Moyal-Sharrock) to the fact that, "if we found an abandoned baby, we would take care of it until we were sure that it was in safe hands. Moreover, we would regard it as an ethical duty to care for it in this way" (p. 152). I'll come back to this below. First, though, a little more from this part of her paper:
I know that I should try to help others in need, but I do not really know anything I could refer to in order to justify this belief; at least not anything that would be more certain . This of course does not mean that I always help others in need, but my acknowledgement of this belief shows in the fact that in cases where I do not manage to or actively refrain from doing so, I feel guilty, try to provide excuses for my negligence etc. (pp. 152-153)
Comparing this with the idea of a Weltbild (roughly, all the things we take for granted, but more importantly, certainties that are not subject to testing and confirmation, and that need to be in place for investigation of knowledge claims to occur), Christensen goes on to suggest that, "the belief that we should help others in need is not an ethical judgement (at least not in most cases), but a prerequisite for such judgements..." (p. 153).

There is a lot here, and I want to try to unpack it and think it through. Or some of it, anyway. In particular I'm thinking of connections with Aristotle and with Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics. This, for instance:
Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, "the absolutely right road." I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about.
Christensen doesn't mention necessity, and she is talking about her own knowledge that she should try to help others, not claiming that everyone shares this knowledge, but there's a striking similarity, it seems to me, between what she's saying and what Wittgenstein is talking about in his lecture. Wittgenstein says that there is no absolute good in this sense, but that's precisely because of the necessity and universality that he includes and that Christensen excludes. There is, though, a kind of necessity in Christensen's example, because it involves a certainty that is beyond, or prior to, testing or confirmation. It might not be necessarily true, but it is treated as something like that. It goes without saying (at least in most cases). And this also gives it something like a kind of universality. What goes without saying for me is likely to go for a great many other people too. I don't mean this as a matter of logic. Indeed Christensen gives the example that she is a woman, and this obviously isn't true of everyone. I think Wittgenstein gives the example that his name is Ludwig Wittgenstein, and this is very far from being universal. But part of the reason why it's certain that I have two hands is that everyone (with exceptions, of course) has two hands. Similarly, what I know is not so much that I should try to help others but that one should try to help others (ceteris paribus). So it seems to me there's a connection between Christensen's On Certainty-inspired thoughts here and the Lecture on Ethics. Unfortunately, I'm not yet sure what, if anything, to make of this connection.

The other connection that occurs to me is with Aristotle. Let's go back to the abandoned baby example. Christensen is right, I think, about what we would do if we found an abandoned baby. But not everyone would respond the same way. Some would take sadistic pleasure in neglecting it. Some would neglect it out of mere thoughtlessness. Some would take care of it because they wanted to do so (in a sort of "Hey, free baby!" spirit). Some would be self-conscious about their ethical duty to help the baby, perhaps resisting a temptation to ignore it. And then others would care for it because of course that's the (only) thing to do: a baby can't look after itself. We might think of this last attitude as the result of having internalized the norms of the self-consciously ethical person. Or we might think of it as part of what it means to understand, or to know, what a baby is. Each of these different possible reactions to the situation can be thought of as revealing a different state of the character of the person involved (vicious, incontinent, etc.). I'm not sure what to do with this idea, either.

Maybe this. Each person's (ethical) river-bed is, potentially, different. For some, it goes without saying that you care for an abandoned baby if you find one. For others, it doesn't. And people for whom it does go without saying might vary with regard to the extent to which it goes without saying. The hardness of the ethical 'must', so to speak, might vary. This would affect the way that temptations might affect someone's actions, for instance. Let's say that it goes without saying for me that I would care for any baby I found until I was sure it was in safe hands. Even so, if someone kept offering me more and more money to neglect the baby, then at some point I might start to be tempted to leave it, even if I didn't give in to the temptation. Or, if I'm better than that, I could be tempted by competing ethical demands: look after the baby or rescue that drowning cat, or three cats, or a child in a burning building, or six children in a burning building, and so on. Some people might just not leave the baby, no matter what. Others, presumably, would.          

'Abandoned baby', 'drowning cat', and '$1000 to just walk away now, no questions asked' mean different things to different (kinds of) people. In one case, thing to care for, thing to care for unless there's something more urgent, and disgusting attempted bribe. In another, wailing irrelevance, miaowing irrelevance, and offer too good to refuse. Depending on one's Weltbild, the world will contain different things. This might be one way to understand Wittgenstein's claim that the world of the happy is different from that of the unhappy. It also suggests a (very promising, unless someone's already done it) non-empirical way to think about character and its place in ethics.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Elizabeth Anscombe

It's 100 years to the day since Anscombe was born (h/t Constantine Sandis). I spent last week in Helsinki, where, among other things, I had a day in the National Library reading correspondence between Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright. It's weird to find yourself holding a letter that talks about Wittgenstein in the present tense. But what struck me most is how heroic Anscombe was.

Three pictures of Anscombe, I think, are dominant. The main one presents her as a scary kook. The second one portrays her as something of a hero, but a champion specifically of Catholic values. The third one, recently emerging, has Anscombe as a feminist. There's something to each of these, but I think each one misses something important, and even adding all three together might well miss something, most obviously the value of her work as a contribution not only to Catholic thinking but to philosophy in general. 

People (including me) enjoy stories about her eccentricities of dress and behavior, and perhaps try to balance the disrespectful mockery that goes with this, however subtly, by bringing up her formidable intellect and imposing manner. I don't know why she dressed as she did (and, as Mark Oppenheimer points out, it's not particularly relevant), but I've heard that her sometimes wearing things like leopard skin trousers was more to do with shopping at places like Oxfam and having daughters who might borrow her clothes (leaving her only with theirs to wear) than it was any reflection of a punk fashion sense of her own. (And if she did have such a fashion sense then that should be celebrated.) Her eccentric behavior all seems to be to do with sticking up for herself. Two examples: she once talked a man in Chicago out of mugging her by getting him to see that she was a guest in his city, and there is a famous story of her, upon being refused entry into a restaurant because she was wearing trousers, simply taking them off.

These stories are funny, but they aren't only that. They both show courage and the imagination to look for, and find, a good alternative when faced with a seemingly no-win dilemma. This is exactly what she thought was lacking in people who wanted to bomb civilians in World War II. Think about this story:
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.
Anscombe's cigar-smoking is a key part of the scary kook story, but consider of the circumstances in which she made this bargain with God. There's nothing funny about it at all.

The second, Catholic hero, picture is closer to the truth, but I think it's a partial picture at best, and one that invites misunderstanding. She certainly was a Catholic, and is greatly, and understandably, admired by others who share her faith. But she wasn't only a Catholic. She was also, for instance, a Wittgensteinian. And an individual with a mind of her own. Mary Geach (one of her daughters) reports that Anscombe said she didn't like to bring up Aquinas' name because doing so tended to make one sort of person (Catholics, presumably) uncritically accepting of whatever was attributed to him and another sort (non-Catholics) uncritically dismissive of it. No doubt this is true, but it shouldn't be taken as a license to read secret references to Aquinas into her work. Her interest in Aristotle, for instance, was surely quite sincere. Perhaps she thought of him as second best to Aquinas, but perhaps she didn't. Perhaps, like Aquinas, she simply believed that we have a lot to learn from his work. And approaching her work with anything like a presupposition that it is going to contain hidden Thomism is a recipe for both (potentially) misconstruing it and encouraging its dismissal by non-Catholics. As Mary Geach points out, "Anscombe drew upon [Aquinas'] thought to an unknowable extent" but did not write a lot about him, even in unpublished papers (see the introduction to From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe).

The third, feminist, picture is probably the closest to the view of Anscombe that I am coming to have, and want to promote. But, partly because of her Catholicism, she's an unlikely feminist. And, perhaps more to the point, I think I want both to emphasize that she was a woman in a man's world and, once this point has been taken, to forget it for as long as necessary/possible to appreciate her work just as work in philosophy. Calling her a feminist or focusing on her links with other women, such as Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch, risks obscuring the fact that she was a great philosopher. Calling her a great philosopher, on the other hand, risks obscuring the fact that she was a great woman philosopher, or that she was a woman.That fact doesn't, I suppose, need emphasizing, except that there is a human story, or a picture of Elizabeth Anscombe as a human being, that seems to get overlooked. And it's worth seeing, partly because it's true and partly because it's simultaneously horrifying and inspiring.

The best Anscombe biography I know of is this one, by Jenny Teichman. The period that most interests me is, roughly, 1942-1962. Anscombe married Peter Geach in December 1941 and first met Wittgenstein in 1942. By 1962 most of her best philosophical work had been done and, I assume, most, if not all, of her children had been born. The youngest would have been more or less grown up.

Teichman notes that:
Her work on part 1 of Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) was carried out under [Wittgenstein's] guidance and completed shortly before he died in April 1951. The translation of part 2 was ready in time for the whole book to be published in 1953; Anscombe's English was printed en face with Wittgenstein's German. She later translated his Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics (1956), Notebooks, 1914–16 (1961) [...]
and other works. Teichman continues:
Anscombe's own writings comprised two books, Intention (1957) and An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (1959), and part of a third, Three Philosophers: Aristotle, Aquinas and Frege (1961, with Peter Geach). 
She also wrote numerous papers, including the hugely influential "Modern Moral Philosophy," which was published in 1958.

This is an incredible body of work to have produced, metaphorically speaking. But it's almost literally incredible when you think that she gave birth to seven children and, as far as I can tell, was their primary caregiver. (Along with Peter Geach, of course, but my impression is that she did more parenting and cooking, etc. than he did.) She must have been exhausted. And yet she went on. And the children weren't just numerous. They did things like get seriously ill, in one case, and hit by a car, in another. And her publications weren't just numerous either. They did things like change the course of philosophy (our understanding of Wittgenstein, the philosophy of action, and ethics). It's a remarkable achievement. Worth celebrating.