There is something fascinating about Anscombe’s writing. It is certainly not its clarity nor its eloquence. Anscombe surely does not stand out as a clear or eloquent writer. Her texts require a painstaking attention to detail even though they do not have baroque flourishes. The thing that is fascinating about them has to do with what one reads between the lines – that is, when one understands it. And these arguments between the lines are not lax despite being written in ordinary language. When reading a text by Anscombe, one would like to ask: why is this so opaque when she is writing about day-to-day things utilizing a rather commonplace vocabulary? But is there an alternative – that is, to make the text so simple it gives the reader the illusion that they perfectly understand everything at stake? Or is the alternative to talk about ethereal things, by way of the termini technici characteristic of the philosophical tradition, so as to introduce neologisms and maintain ambiguity?

One might say that we are talking about a style, but this does not help to answer our question: what is the thing we read between the lines of Anscombe’s prose? If we maintain that we read her style between the lines, then we create an almost analytical proposition. It is obvious that we are considering a sui generis style, but what is enigmatic here is that what seems to constitute the style is not immediately evident. We are equally far from reaching a satisfactory answer if we assert that the style merely corresponds to the features of the author’s writing. Style embraces much more than this in order to be truly called a style – that is, to be unique. Let us consider Plato, for example. One can defend the claim that Platonic style is dialogical, and no one can refute this. The dialogic aspect in Plato’s works, however, merely represents one of the many facets of Plato’s style. It is for this reason that it is also difficult to read between the lines of Plato’s texts. In truth, there are several obvious connections between Plato and Anscombe. Both authors are extraordinarily difficult and talk about ordinary things through the exercise of an unassuming narrative. It is revealing that, when editing Anscombe’s various uncollected and unedited papers, Mary Geach and Luke Gormally titled the third volume of papers From Plato to Wittgenstein (2011). As Geach and Gormally explain in the preliminary text to the volume, they tried to imitate the title of the first collection of essays Anscombe published, From Parmenides to Wittgeinstein (1981). There is a great deal of Plato in Anscombe; there is probably much more Plato in Anscombe’s works than there is Parmenides. Wittgenstein’s name, nevertheless, is present in both of the titles – Wittgenstein being the author who, without a doubt, inspired Anscombe the most.

Anscombe attended Wittgenstein’s classes at Cambridge in the 1940’s, at a time when Wittgenstein’s thought grew into full maturity. After abandoning his position at Cambridge in 1947, Wittgenstein remained friends with Anscombe until his death in 1951. Wittgenstein held great intellectual respect for Anscombe, and also great respect for her sensibility, which led him to nominate her – along with Georg Henrik von Wright and Rush Rhees – as one of the literary executors of his estate. Much of what we know of Wittgenstein’s philosophy bears Anscombe’s editorial intervention. She co-edited Philosophical Investigations [Philosophische Untersuchungen] (1953), Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics [Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik] (1956), Notebooks 1914-1916 [Tagebücher 1914-1916] (1960), Zettel (1967), On Certainty [Über Gewissheit] (1969), the first volume of Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology [Bemerkungen über die Philosophie der Psychologie] (1980), and Remarks on Colour [Bemerkungen über die Farben] (1977). With the exception of Remarks on Colour, Anscombe also translated all of the works into English; Anscombe translated On Certainty along with Denis Paul. She worked intensively on Wittgenstein’s complex papers over the course of three decades – a privileged laboratory where she learned how to think and philosophize.

Although she was an attentive reader of the Tractatus, and even published a book on it that remains a point of reference (An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus [1959]), Anscombe is clearly someone who follows the “second” and not the “first” Wittgenstein. Anscombe wrote a short text in 1969, “On the Form of Wittgenstein’s Writing,” where she draws a line between the two Wittgensteins. Anscombe shows that the difference between the two is more than just a question of content; it is the form of two philosophies. The text begins with the following statement:

Wittgenstein once said to me in the course of a conversation that he had asked himself the question whether he was a second-rate artist (1999: 177).

Later, after noting with respect to the Investigations that “Wittgenstein would have liked to write a book that was as great a work of art as his Tractatus” (1999: 178), Anscombe returns to her first statement and refutes the idea that the Investigations is mediocre:

Someone learning the story with which I opened, and remembering [the] comments from the preface to Philosophical Investigations, might suppose that Wittgenstein had already answered his own question: it wasn’t “a good book” and so he was a “second-rate artist.” But this would be stupidity. The artist who failed to produce the work as he dreamt it should be is not therefore, and need not therefore in the least think he is, second-rate. The doubt, I should judge, did not concern the accomplishment of the ideal, but whether the method and technique and manner were so good, and capable of producing so great a work, as it seemed to him they were. (1999: 179)

There will always be doubts regarding the correct interpretation of Wittgenstein’s words. But there is no question that the success of the Investigations, as a work of art, is not found in the Tractatus’s aims of accuracy and closure. Wittgenstein’s greatest ambition in the Investigations was to write an imprecise and candid book. It is easy to see why the “second” Wittgenstein was not as popular among the more orthodox analytical philosophers as the Tractatus was among the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle. An imprecise and candid work is not armed with a scientific shield. But what can we do except labor in this impreciseness and candidness when we investigate the ordinary language of our quotidian practices? When Wittgenstein realized that the pure, crystalline ideal he searched for in his first work was an illusion – where the linguistic subject fails to meet the language that constitutes it as a subject – he put aside all ideals that looked toward a perfect notation. Wittgenstein understood that the numerous language games, which mold our daily life, is what should be investigated. It is not necessary to reveal the “general form of the proposition.” Everyday expressions like “I trust you,” “I am in pain,” “Be careful,” or “A coffee, please” already contain the logic that fulfills an investigation with broader contours than the Tractarian logical constants, truth-value, quantifiers, and identity.

Anscombe understood this in an exemplary fashion, probably more so than von Wright or Rhees ever did. And, in a singular way among the three literary executors, she put these teachings into practice in Intention (1957). This is not to say that Anscombe imitates the Wittgenstein of the Investigations in her work. It is not only 52 paragraphs that resemble the Investigations’ colossal 693 paragraphs. It is more accurate to claim that Anscombe exploits a method inspired by the “second” Wittgenstein, or that she tackles Wittgensteinian problems that he never worked on. In a review published two years after Intention was released, K. W. Rankin wrote:

The authoritative and original way in which [this book] resumes certain enquiries left tantalizingly short by Wittgenstein adds to its interest (1959:261). 

The Wittgensteinian method principally consists of letting thought do what is essential to it, and to not impose a specific direction that will hinder it. A person who stresses one particular thing or another in their philosophical thought, and already knows where they want to get to, dispenses with a method like this ab initio. What is in question is not a method that forges ahead with thoughts about the world, like most philosophers do, but allows a sui generis thought to move forward on its own with respect to itself. This notion jumps out between the lines of Anscombe’s work, as it does in Wittgenstein’s – that is, thought that comes into its own without being held down by any other form of previously determined thought. It is very difficult to do this; it is very difficult to think. To do this, one must penetrate into the movement that creates thoughts (those thoughts being the ones that philosophers habitually work very hard to devise).  Wittgenstein and Anscombe pertain to a different sphere of philosophers. They do not follow the mainstream and they throw off tradition; their philosophies become tradition. The most difficult thing is to follow, as though by chance, the direction of their respective thought, within which diverse unarticulated thoughts are expressed by someone who is only interested in expressing thought is capable of undertaking. A. Phillips Griffiths, in another review of Intention, emphasized this:

The reader’s task would have been lightened if more and more explicit direction had been given within the text as to the turns the argument is taking. (1959: 247)

It is also worth noting Griffiths’s later observations:

On the other hand, it would be a pity if anyone were deterred from giving serious consideration to this monograph because of its difficulty. At a time when one might be wearied by too much talk about what philosophers ought or ought not to be doing, the competent pursuit of a highly important part of the subject is welcome. But more comment on the nature and course of the argument, though perhaps risky, might have helped. (Ibid.)

It is interesting that Griffiths acknowledges that additional comment on the aim of the work, although useful, might be risky. And we may be tempted to say the contrary: to present arguments in an obscure manner is risky. But Griffiths illustrates something that is fundamental to writing like Anscombe’s: one should not theorize about the process. We find in Wittgenstein various metaphilosophical considerations that are lacking in Anscombe. Note that she did not feel the necessity to educate new generations of philosophers from the ground up, as was Wittgenstein’s case. The risk here is that thought may lose its direction in its own action.

It is obvious that Anscombe did not always write like she did in Intention. But what she was able to do there was show that it is possible to maintain Wittgenstein’s legacy alive and to do philosophy that makes no concessions – to philosophize in a way that coincides with thought, which is remarkably rare. We only need to think about how many books there are that remind us of Intention, despite the enormous quantity of scholarly contributions on this work.  In the world of philosophy today, which is greatly trivialized, one is discouraged from writing like Anscombe.


 *Translated by Sara Eckerson from the original paper presented in Portuguese.


Anscombe, G. E. M. 1957. Intention. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. 1959. An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. London: Hutchinson.

___________. 1999 (1969). “On the Form of Wittgenstein’s Writing”. In F. A. Flowers III (ed.), Portraits of Wittgenstein, vol. 4. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 177-181.

___________. 1981. From Parmenides to Wittgenstein: Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. 1. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. 2011. From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Griffiths, A. Phillips. 1959. “Intention. By G. E. M. Anscombe”. Philosophy 34 (130): 245-247.

Rankin, K. W. 1959. “Intention. By G. E. M. Anscombe”. Mind 68 (270): 261-264.

Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, Rush Rhees and G. H. von Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. Tagebücher 1914-1916, ed. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M.

Anscombe. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

___________. 1967. Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. 1969. Über Gewißheit / On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and

G. H. von Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. 1977. Bemerkungen über die Farben / Remarks on Colour, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

___________. Bemerkungen über die Philosophie der Psychologie / Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, vol. 1. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


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