01 April 2011

The Anscombe Legend

C.S. Lewis never lost a single debate while at Oxford--until he came against Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. The subject was: "No thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes."
Anscombe argued that he failed to distinguish two senses of the word "because," which can be used to denote not only a cause-effect relation, but also a ground-consequent relation. An argument could be valid, because (Ground-Consequent) its propositions entail each other, even if the propositions are generated (Cause-Effect) by irrational factors.
I should also add that Karl Popper does a masterful job in his 1945 essay "The Defence of Rationalism" of demonstrating that theses such as Lewis's fall apart under closer scrutiny. Wittgenstein, of course, needs also be mentioned for his role in showing the "irrational" foundations of language, and, of course, the later and brilliant W.V.O. Quine for his part in dismantling the rationalist edifice.

It seems, based on Lewis's private letters, that he felt he had been "obliterated as an apologist" in the debate, and thenceforward dropped formal apologetics in favor of writing children's fantasies--and we are none the poorer for it, for the turn produced the charming Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy.

Anscombe herself was a fascinating figure. A Catholic convert, she married fellow convert and philosopher Peter Geach, and went on to raise seven children. The academic circles in which she ran were taken aback by her essays against contraception, and twice she'd been arrested for protesting outside an abortion clinic. She was also an outspoken critic of President Truman, calling him a mass murderer and protesting Oxford's awarding him an honorary degree.

Wittgenstein, whose philosophy had helped untangle some philosophical difficulties in which she'd been enmeshed, was a close friend:
For years, I would spend time, in caf├ęs, for example, staring at objects saying to myself: "I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?" ...I always hated phenomenalism and felt trapped by it. I couldn't see my way out of it but I didn't believe it. It was no good pointing to difficulties about it, things which Russell found wrong with it, for example. The strength, the central nerve of it remained alive and raged achingly. It was only in Wittgenstein's classes in 1944 that I saw the nerve being extracted, the central thought I have got this, and I define "yellow" (say) as this being effectively attacked.
She was named one of Wittgenstein's literary executors on his death, and went on to edit, translate, and publish a number of his works.

Many more interesting things can be said about her, but this one stuck out: She is the one who coined the term "brute facts"--I had always thought that was attributable to Hume, but it seems I was wrong.

And here's a lovely little essay on, inter alia, teaching little children to understand transubstantiation.

From her obituary:
[S]tudents could drop into her house at any time to discuss philosophy among the dirty nappies....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. Bluff, courageous, determined, loyal, she argued that the word "I" does not refer to anything, but she certainly believed in the soul.