Language, Truth and Logos

The analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was able to reconcile her field with her faith, without "compartmentalising", or compromising either

Lay Catholics often presume that analytical philosophy is a child of logical positivism, and so uncomprehending of many things, including religion. It surprises them to learn that many Oxford philosophers since the war have been or have become practising Catholics. These include Sir Michael Dummett, Brian McGuinness, John Finnis, John Foster, Peter Geach, and the subject of this piece, his late wife Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), for many years a Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford, later Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. In the introduction to a new collection of her essays, Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (Imprint Academic), her daughter Mary Geach quotes an American philosopher as saying, “They’re good philosophers, aren’t they? But they’re Catholics. They must compartmentalise.” That may happen to be true of those who cultivate areas of the subject where invocation of Christianity would be out of place. It is certainly false of Geach and Anscombe, who have combined a strenuous commitment to the core of analytical philosophy – philosophical logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind – with an active engagement with ethics and religion.

Geach already published a committed collection of essays, God and the Soul, in 1969. A Balliol tutor in philosophy, the late Arthur Prior, commended it to me at the time as “a splendid piece of Roman Catholic tub-thumping”. Geach refuses to divorce the Logos that is logic from the Logos that is the Son of God: “I suppose that I ought to say something in conclusion about the idea that it is somehow improper or irreverent to employ the rigour of logic in speaking of the Divine Majesty. To me it appears blasphemous to say God is ‘above’ logic; logic is named from the Logos, which was in the beginning with God and was God. In a Muslim story, a fallen champion saw a Crusader wielding against him a magic invincible sword bearing the name of God: ‘Sword’ he cried, ‘can you strike a true believer? Do you not know the name on your blade?’ ‘I know nothing but to strike straight’, the sword replied. ‘Strike then, in the name of God!’ Logic is not partisan, and knows nothing but to strike straight; but the sword is invincible, bearing the Maker’s name.”

Sir Anthony Kenny, who was once a priest, and, while himself now agnostic, is a champion for the faithful against the attacks of Richard Dawkins, described Geach and Anscombe to me as formidable allies in philosophical debate, he more logical, she more intuitive. That went with their complementary specialisations, his in the philosophy of logic, hers in the philosophy of mind and action. In neither case do we meet any attempt to reduce the arcana of religion to something different but more articulable; rather, an ability to illuminate what has to remain mysterious by setting it in the context of what we can and must be clear-headed about. Otherwise, religion becomes a mental sludge within which spirituality is not to be distinguished from muddle-headedness.

A good example is Anscombe’s essay On Transubstantiation, first published as a pamphlet by the Catholic Truth Society. She offers no contemporary mantra to put us at ease with a mystery that is rather identified than dissolved by the traditional language. Mary Geach tells us that her mother was converted to Catholicism when still at school, and then instructed and received at Oxford. Her parents sent her to an Anglican ecclesiastic who assured her that he believed the sacrament to be the body of Christ. “Is it bread?” she asked toughly, and there they had to disagree. In her pamphlet, Anscombe embraces mystery, though not absurdity or contradiction. Yet, without questioning orthodoxy, she locates the greater mystery elsewhere: whether the faithful eat the flesh of the risen Christ really or only symbolically, it is a symbol of something else, and neither a natural nor an easy one. In either case, we are somehow sharing in his resurrection; and this is what we need to be confident of.

A wise shift of focus also marks her essay The Early Embryo: Theoretical Doubts and Practical Certainties. Is the zygote that comes into being when a human egg is fertilised already a human being, and a member of the human species? Anscombe no more believes that than that an acorn is already an oak. To say that, if a group of cells contains the XY pair of chromosomes, it is already male appears to her to read back into the early stage what applies to a human being with human organs. Moreover, there is the phenomenon of twinning, which occurs, when it does occur, about 14 days after fertilisation. Surely it couldn’t be that we already have a human being before it is determinate whether we have one or two. And we don’t want to ground a practical certainty upon a theoretical uncertainty that may be a mistake. Anscombe denies that the uncertainty matters in practice: once we have a human zygote, we have an individual living thing whose life is a stage in the development of one or more human lives, “the coming human life (or lives) of that very same living thing as you are proposing to kill”. Such killing, she says, “has evidently the same sort of malice” as what later would unquestionably be murder. Those who dogmatically insist that a person comes into being at the moment of conception, or even incoherently suppose (like the supporters of Amendment 48 to the Colorado constitution) that this is at once a metaphysical truth and a possible content of legislation, make controversial what should be common sense.

At the heart of Anscombe’s central philosophical concerns was the nature of intentional action, a topic of her book Intention. Following Wittgenstein (whom she befriended and translated), she did not invoke some undetectable prior act of will that, supposing it to occur, would be nothing to us. It is rather the mark of an intentional action that it invites a question “Why?” that asks not for a cause, but a reason. But here it is crucial to grasp that one action is the performing of many acts, so that it will be intentional under some descriptions and not under others. Thus, as I intentionally write this, I also unintentionally displace various molecules of air. It is especially, though not only, as intentional that an action comes up for ethical assessment. (I say “not only” because unintentional negligence can be culpable.) It may be permissible to do what it is not permissible to do intentionally. This thesis can look fishy if it is only invoked to resolve a controversy, but is again common sense. Kenny has given an easy example: a host may have compelling reason to place two guests together whom she predicts won’t get on (any alternative might be worse), but is malicious if she intends them not to get on.

Anscombe used this distinction to draw a line between natural and artificial methods of contraception. A married couple that chooses to make love at a time when they can predict that there will be no pregnancy may still be performing an act of a reproductive kind. (Most acts of that kind will produce no children, just as most acorns don’t produce oaks.) It doesn’t alter what they are doing then that they may plan to abstain at other times. But if they take steps to make infertile an act that would otherwise be fertile, they alter the nature of the act, which ceases to be in place in, and only in, marriage. In either case, they may have a further intention that is innocent or even commendable: say, not to have more children than they can support. Yet it makes an ethical difference how they achieve that.

In the years after Humanae Vitae (1968), Anscombe was often invited to speak against contraception. Mary Geach notes that she was not just defending the party line but taking a position in which she never wavered even when, for a time, it appeared that the Church might change its mind. Yet it is regrettable that its prominence may distract attention, or attract disbelief, in relation to other issues where there is better reason to suppose that such a distinction defines not just a value but a requirement. (Intercourse that is open to reproduction may in that respect be best without alone being licit.) Those who find Anscombe’s heroic obduracy misplaced here should turn their attention to an area of debate where it found an appropriate home. In 1956, the University of Oxford proposed that Harry Truman, the victor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, be given an honorary degree. When Anscombe made a formal protest at a meeting of Congregation, she found herself in a minority of four – Oxford dons en masse being as foolish as any other mass of men. (However, her concluding words, which expressed a fear that the ensuing encænia might see the end of God’s patience, could not have weighed with most of her audience.)

Her disapproval of Truman connects again with her concern about intentionality. In a early piece titled The Justice of the Present War Examined, published in 1939 to justify conscientious objection to our involvement in the Second World War, she permitted the accidental killing of civilians through military action, even if it is predictable (so long as the total effects are good). What she could not condone was making a group of persons, including civilians, a target in order, by attacking them all, to attack some members of the group whom it is legitimate to target. A later example was this: “The British wanted to destroy some German soldiers on a Dutch island in the Second World War, and chose to accomplish this by bombing the dykes and drowning everybody. (The Dutch were their allies.)” Such an agent murders some men himself in the hope, no doubt, of preventing other deaths. But the Ten Commandments tell each of us what to do or omit oneself. It is not one’s task to play God, and hazard guesses about alternative narratives in which the Commandments are broken more or less often. One’s duty is to keep God’s word, not to act so as to minimise infringements by oneself or others – a causal notion that is deeply problematic.

One corrosive source of indifference about such distinctions is an old dogma, perhaps falsely ascribed to David Hume: that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. Which can suggest the following: if anyone offers an inference to a moral conclusion from agreed facts, either the conclusion doesn’t follow, or, if it does follow, the premises must state not just facts but also ethical presumptions as contentious as the conclusion. Anscombe undermined this assumption in an early essay, On Brute Facts, which was as simple as succinct. She imagined the following sequence of descriptions: “The grocer had the potatoes brought to my house and left there”; “He supplied me with potatoes”; “I owe him such-and-such a sum of money” – to which John Searle was explicitly to add, “I ought to pay him such-and-such a sum of money.” Anscombe notes that none of these descriptions entails its successor: at any point, for all that is stated, something untoward might exclude the ordinary inference. And yet in normal circumstances (which couldn’t be spelled out exhaustively) the inference goes through.

Anscombe’s ethical positions – over abortion, contraception and war – may not be equally cogent, but all merit attention. Right-wing and left-wing politicians of a Catholic persuasion tend to be selective within their Christian inheritance. The right wing may focus on abortion, the left wing on war, poverty, and capital punishment. There may be reason to discriminate: the reach of the Church’s infallibility is restricted. But Christians who rightly bring their religion into politics must be careful that their politics is serving their religion, and not their religion their politics. Here Elizabeth Anscombe, and Peter Geach, are exemplary: for them, religion comes first – which does not mean (remember Geach on the Logos) that philosophy comes second.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search