Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Anscombe, (Gertrude) Elizabeth Margaretfree

  • Jenny Teichman

(Gertrude) Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919–2001)

by Steve Pyke, 1990 [with Peter Thomas Geach]

© Steve Pyke; National Portrait Gallery, London

Anscombe, (Gertrude) Elizabeth Margaret (1919–2001), philosopher, was born on 18 March 1919 at Glanmire, North Strand, Limerick, the youngest child and only daughter of Allen Wells Anscombe (1885–1939), a schoolmaster at Dulwich College, then serving as a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and his wife, Gertrude Elizabeth, née Thomas, headmistress of a school in Wales. On demobilization her father returned to schoolmastering and became head of physics and engineering at Dulwich College. Her two older brothers were twins; one was killed in the Second World War, the other became a clergyman. She attended Sydenham School, and then, in 1937, was awarded a Clara Evelyn Mordan scholarship at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She read literae humaniores, obtaining a second class in honour moderations in 1939 and a first in Greats in 1941.

Elizabeth Anscombe was received into the Catholic Church in Oxford in spring 1938. Shortly afterwards she took part in a Corpus Christi procession where she met another young philosopher, Peter Thomas Geach (1916–2013). He was the son of George Hender Geach, principal of a training college in India. They were married in the Brompton Oratory on 26 December 1941. They had four daughters and three sons: Barbara, John, Mary, Charles, Jennifer, More, and Tamsin. Anscombe and Geach decided that she would keep her maiden name after their marriage. The main reason was aesthetic: G. E. M. Anscombe sounds much better than G. E. M. Geach. It is possible, too, though, that even in their early twenties each was confident of carrying out important philosophical work in the future, occasionally as a team but more often as individuals. Hence a need to distinguish each from the other.

During 1941–2 Anscombe held the university women's scholarship in Oxford, in 1942–4 the Sarah Smithson research studentship at Newnham College, Cambridge, and from 1946 to 1952 the Mary Somerville research fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford. For six years (1952–8) she received a research grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and during the same period was college lecturer at Somerville. She subsequently became senior college research fellow, then (in 1964) official fellow, and from 1970 an honorary fellow; thus her connection with Somerville lasted for over fifty years. Between 1958 and 1969 she held an Oxford University lecturership in philosophy. She was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1967 and was appointed to the chair of philosophy at Cambridge in 1970 with a professorial fellowship at New Hall. She travelled quite widely, giving lecture courses or talks in the USA, Austria, Germany, Spain, Poland, Peru, Norway, and Australia.

Soon after Anscombe arrived in Cambridge in 1942 she became a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It has been reported by many that Wittgenstein, for various reasons, preferred the company of men to that of women; nevertheless it seems that Anscombe was one of his favourite pupils. He was a friend as well as a mentor and lodged with Anscombe and her family in Oxford from April 1950 to February 1951. He named her in his will as one of his executors and entrusted her with translating his manuscripts. Her work on part 1 of Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) was carried out under his 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), Zettel (1967), On Certainty (1969, with Denis Paul), and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, I (1980).

Anscombe spent eight years studying with Wittgenstein. A different kind of pupil might have written nothing except commentaries on the ideas of the master, but with her that was not so. Moreover there are notable differences between her writings and his. For example, his general remarks on moral questions are brief and cryptic; nothing could be less like them than her essays about war and murder and sexual morality. As to ethical theory, Wittgenstein stated in the Tractatus 'there can be no ethical propositions': philosophy, including moral philosophy, is enlightening nonsense. This thesis now looks rather vulnerable, partly because of Anscombe's paper 'On brute facts', which suggests that 'N ought', like 'N owes', can be a proposition because it can state a fact.

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). Forty-eight of her papers written for journals between 1947 and 1979 were reprinted in a three-volume collection in 1981. Another thirty-six were published, either in journals, or in collections of works by various authors, between 1957 and 1993. She left a Nachlass of papers written after 1993. Collected Philosophical Papers, 1: From Parmenides to Wittgenstein contained essays on Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Hume, Brentano, Frank Ramsey, Wittgenstein, and two highly interesting papers on Parmenides. The second volume, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, began with an introduction wherein Anscombe described how at the age of twelve she first became interested in philosophy. Her influential Cambridge inaugural lecture, 'Causality and determination' (1971), was reprinted in this volume; so too was her earliest philosophical publication, 'A reply to Mr [C. S.] Lewis' (1947). The topics of the third volume, Ethics, Religion and Politics included the morality or otherwise of contraception, the source of the authority of the state, the character of modern moral philosophy, the nature of faith, the meaning of transubstantiation, and the differences between just and unjust wars.

Anscombe had little respect for ordinary public opinion. When in 1956 Oxford University thought to give Harry S. Truman an honorary degree, she informed the authorities that she would oppose the award in congregation. She held that Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese centres of civilian population had been a violation both of international law and of Christian teachings about justice in warfare. When the proposal for the honorary degree was put to the meeting of congregation Anscombe said 'Non placet', the formula for voting no. Many dons had turned up for the vote and a large majority were in favour of giving the president his degree; Anscombe and three others voted against. The incident gained much publicity. In 1957 she published Mr Truman's Degree, a pamphlet explaining her reasons. It was reprinted in volume 3 of her Collected Philosophical Papers.

Anscombe was occasionally attacked in print, sometimes libellously. On the other hand she had very many admirers: colleagues, and pupils, and others who knew her only from her writings. Two Festschriften were dedicated to her: Intention and Intentionality (1979), and Logic, Cause and Action (2000). A third, Moral Truth and Moral Tradition (1994), honoured both Geach and Anscombe. In 2004 the Royal Institute of Philosophy published a volume of essays entitled Modern Moral Philosophy, a collection of lectures given under its auspices and mostly devoted to Anscombe's work in ethics. Anscombe's honours included honorary fellowships at Somerville College and St Hugh's College, Oxford, and New Hall, Cambridge, and honorary doctorates from Notre Dame University, USA, Navarra University, Spain, and the University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. In 1978 she received Austria's Ehrenkreuz pro litteris et artibus and in 1979 the prize for research from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In 1999 she and Geach were presented with the papal medal pro ecclesia et pontifice.

Elizabeth Anscombe was not interested in wines, but delighted in good food, a taste she was able to indulge both at home and when visiting Europe and the USA. All her children were taught how to prepare meals and three became truly excellent cooks. She was not particularly musical, but had an interest in the visual arts. She and Peter Geach commissioned three family portraits from the painter John O'Connor and received a fourth, a spoof or parody of ‘modern art’, as a sort of bonus. Part of her original entry in Who's Who (1969–72) read 'Recreation: sitting around'; those three words were removed in 1973. Her real recreation was philosophy. Sitting around at home was almost always an occasion for discussing philosophical topics with Peter Geach. Over the years they had thousands of philosophical conversations with each other.

In 1997 a car driven by More Geach collided head on with a vehicle travelling on the wrong side of the road. More's sternum was broken on the steering wheel and Anscombe's skull was fractured on the windscreen. She had an operation to remove clots of blood from her brain but never fully recovered. She died of kidney failure in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, on 5 January 2001. She was survived by her husband and their seven children. Her funeral mass took place on 20 January in the Dominican chapel in Buckingham Road, Cambridge, after which she was interred in St Giles's graveyard, Huntingdon Road. There was a memorial service on 24 February in the Church of the English Martyrs, Cambridge, at which the homily was given by the cardinal–archbishop of Armagh. In February 2008 a three-day conference was held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome on ‘Anscombe's Intention and the renewal of moral psychology’; those who presented papers included Anscombe's daughter M. C. Geach and her former student Roger Teichmann, the author of The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe (2008).


  • L. Wittgenstein, Über Gewissheit / On certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. D. Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (1969), vii
  • C. Diamond and J. Teichman, eds., Intention and intentionality: essays in honour of G. E. M. Anscombe (1979), xi–xvi
  • L. Gormally, ed., Moral truth and moral tradition: essays in honour of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe (1994), vii–ix
  • R. Teichmann, ed., Logic, cause and action: essays in honour of Elizabeth Anscombe (2000), vi
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘The Wittgenstein papers’, Wittgenstein (1982), 35–62, esp. 37, 57
  • The Times (8 Jan 2001)
  • The Independent (10 Jan 2001)
  • The Guardian (11 Jan 2001)
  • J. Teichman, ‘Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 1919–2001’, PBA, 115 (2002), 31–50
  • WW (1969–73); (2000)

  • archives, Somerville College, Oxford
  • archives, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • personal knowledge (2005)
  • private information (2005)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • S. Pyke, bromide print, 1990 (with Peter Thomas Geach), NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, repro. in Teichman, ‘Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe’, facing p. 31

Wealth at Death

£250,357: probate, 20 July 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy