Elizabeth Anscombe’s Philosophy of the Human Person

By Michael Wee, March 17, 2019

Elizabeth Anscombe’s philosophical investigation of man’s spiritual nature offers a much-needed antidote to the materialism of our times. For Anscombe, to search for the spiritual is not to look somewhere obscure, but to look at the everyday facts of human life, institutions and history.

Elizabeth Anscombe, born 100 years ago today, was one of the true giants of twentieth-century philosophy. Among Catholic and neo-Aristotelian devotees of Anscombe, she is celebrated for lighting the flame of modern virtue ethics with her 1958 paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” and for her defense of Catholic teaching in her well-known essay “Contraception and Chastity.”

But this is not consistent with her reputation elsewhere. Among most analytic philosophers, she is primarily remembered for her contributions to action theory (in particular, her monograph Intention) and to the philosophy of language. For readers of this sort, Anscombe’s insistence on the existence of intrinsically evil actions like contraception can come off as being too theologically inspired.

Yet a careful reading of Anscombe’s work suggests that her philosophical legacy cannot be divided up neatly into “Catholic” and “analytic” parts. In truth, both aspects of her work are deeply intertwined. The result is an extraordinarily rich synthesis of thinkers as diverse as Aquinas and Wittgenstein. To understand this unusual achievement, it is first necessary to understand Anscombe’s attitude that analytic philosophy—with its focus on logic and language rather than propositions of a more ethereal nature—is more method than doctrine.

Anscombe shows us that it is possible to rise above the cleavage in modern thought between the logical and the transcendental. And she does so particularly through her philosophy of the human person—her study of our spiritual nature and our special dignity—which pervades the rest of her work.

For Anscombe, to search for the spiritual is not necessarily to engage in abstract metaphysical speculation about the nature of the soul. It is, rather, to look at commonplace experiences we often take for granted—such as thought, our sense of morality, and our intentional actions—in order to understand this twofold truth: that material facts do not disclose the whole truth about ourselves, yet they somehow point us to the presence of the spiritual. And that is because our material nature is an embodiment of our rationality.

Man is Spirit

“[M]an is spirit. He moves in the categories of innocence and answerability and desert—one of the many signs of a leap to another kind of existence from the life of the other animals.” So Anscombe writes in a paper on euthanasia. But how do we know that man has a spiritual nature? Is this the same thing as one’s mind?

It is tempting to answer such questions in a Cartesian fashion. Cartesians think of mind as a wholly separate substance from the body, a kind of “immaterial matter, a refined ethereal medium” in which thinking takes place, writes Anscombe in her paper “Analytical Philosophical and the Spirituality of Man.” But this, Anscombe contends, is not the right way forward.

The Cartesian view has been so influential that the notion of thought is often readily identified with conscious thought—when a distinct mental event occurs in one’s consciousness. Anscombe does not deny the existence of such private, inner thoughts, but she reminds us that they are not the only or even the most important manifestation of our spiritual nature.

Instead, thought is better conceived of as a capacity. After all, we perform all kinds of activities—speaking, writing, fixing things, making tea—that surely involve and require rational thought. Yet these activities do not always or consistently require particular thought-events in our consciousness in order to be performed.

Hence, to think of man as a rational animal is not to imagine some strange thinking substance within the outer case of the body. For one can look to the body to “see someone thinking something.” Anscombe gives the example of someone doing a jig-saw puzzle, whose behavior clearly expresses the thought, “Perhaps it’ll fit in this place, but the other way round.” What this is not is a claim about what thoughts are going on inside his head as he maneuvers that piece of the puzzle. (He may well be thinking about supper, or about Cartesian philosophy!) The point, rather, is that our material behavior embodies thought.

The Unity of Body and Soul

How, otherwise, could someone point to the shape of something, as opposed to its color, when this distinction cannot be found in one’s physical behavior alone? (This question was first posed by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, though Anscombe takes it up again.) Such an act of pointing, as we have seen, is not necessarily accompanied by a conscious thought of its intention.

Anscombe calls such a phenomenon “an act of man qua spirit,” for it gives us a sort of paradigm for the concept of spirit. Our reflection on the fact that no bodily activity as such could be the act of pointing to shape, as opposed to color, shows us that matter alone does not disclose the whole truth of human life. Such considerations thus help us to appreciate the traditional articulation of the relationship between our bodies and our spiritual nature that is found in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: that the soul is to the body as form is to matter (“form” in the Aristotelian sense of that which organizes and shapes matter internally, as its principle of operation). It is not a kind of “motor” that moves the body from one place.

Aquinas writes that the soul, as form, is present in every part of the body—even the parts of the human body that move without our control. But it is particularly when intentional acts of the body, such as pointing or completing jig-saw puzzles, disclose immaterial realities of thought that we perceive this intimate union of body and soul more clearly.

Hence, Anscombe’s exposition of the spiritual through ordinary behavior helps to demystify Aquinas’s metaphysics, which can sound quaint to modern ears. Her philosophy leads us on a path of humane self-understanding, for the notion of body-soul union is in turn significant for certain practical aspects of Anscombe’s thought, such as our knowledge of moral value, and the meaning of “intention.”

Connatural Moral Knowledge

Regarding moral knowledge, Anscombe shares with Aquinas a sense that we grasp the most basic of moral precepts or values through inclination or instinct. This is an idea particularly associated with the natural law, and Anscombe indeed uses the Thomistic term “connatural knowledge” to refer to this phenomenon. In other places, she seems to refer to the same idea with the phrase “mystical perception.” Here, “mystical” does not mean something highly esoteric, but rather indicates the presence of “supra-utilitarian” value.

Full Article at: https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2019/03/50333/


Michael Wee is the Education and Research Officer at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic academic institute in Oxford. He is also Associate Lecturer in bioethics at St Mary’s seminary in Birmingham and has written for The Catholic Herald and Church Life Journal.