On Anscombe and Wittgenstein | Dominican University College

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On Anscombe and Wittgenstein

Friday, January 08, 2016

By Louis Roy O.P.

As a doctoral student in Cambridge, I paid a visit, in 1981, to Professor Elizabeth Anscombe in order to ask her authorization to attend her course on “Existence.” She was the best disciple of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a strongly built, formidable (in the sense of “to be feared”) lady. Her esteem of me was perhaps rather low, since she had heard me, in a Sunday homily at Blackfriars’ chapel, wanting to say “successively” about the Samaritan woman, wrongly say that “she had successfully had five husbands.” During homilies, she and her husband Peter Geach, himself also a renowned philosopher, would look at the preacher with severe, apparently distrustful eyes. Given that they had got in touch with the Dominican prior provincial of England to accuse of heresy a friar at Cambridge who was on the whole more traditional than me in his ideas, it was intimidating to preach in front of these two powerful and highly critical intellects.

She nonetheless graciously consented to my presence in her course. During our conversation, I blundered again by mentioning my interest in Lonergan’s thought. She replied, making short pauses: “Lonergan … Lonergan … He is obscure … And when occasionally he writes clearly, he is wrong!” Needless to say, I never uttered Lonergan’s name again in front of her. Peter Geach confided that the three times he began to read Insight, Lonergan’s masterpiece, he fell asleep.

In class, she spoke very slowly, with an aristocratic pronunciation. She was obviously thinking aloud, with the help of a few notes on very small pieces of paper. At times, Peter Geach would express a thought and, being seated in the front row, this big man would turn towards us and look at us pointblank in a dire silence, as if to ask, “Who among you, doctoral students, would dare contradict me?” Evidently, the two of them were not keen on dialogue; they could be blunt and tough with people who disagreed with them.

Yet they cared for Dominicans and they invited me to dinner once. Their residence had no curtains – a bit like the bare house Wittgenstein had designed for his sister. Seated on the floor, they drew for me the truth tables (or logical constants) of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on a little black slate. Realizing that I was not understanding much about those tables, I was afraid they would summon me to rephrase the gist of what they had taught me – which I would have been incapable of doing. Fortunately, I did not undergo this humiliation, because it was soon time for supper. The prayers were pronounced with piety. Suddenly John, a simple-minded person who would spend his days in town, speaking with anybody – including me –, appeared and ate with us. The Geaches had invited him to occupy a room in their home, but he declined, explaining he would prefer staying next door, in the shed.

For all their staunch and militant conservatism – they played a key role in obtaining permission to maintain the rite of Pius V in several parishes of England –, they were generous and charitable. I am the one who gave them the news that the Dominican who had received them into the Catholic Church had died. This Dominican had previously left the Order. I do remember that Elizabeth was moved and I was struck by the fact that far from condemning his having renounced the exercise of his priesthood, she said, with compassion and tenderness, “Oh, Tony.”

When Wittgenstein became very sick, he asked Elizabeth to find him a priest in order to prepare for reconciliation with the Church. Wittgenstein had been for decades what the British call “a lapsed Catholic.” He added: “I want a priest who is not a philosopher.” The Dominican Conrad Pepler told me, with British humour: “Then Elizabeth chose me!” He and Wittgenstein met a few times, but he passed away before making his confession. Conrad, with whom I lived in Cambridge, was a very holy and prayerful friar, with profound insights into the Christian life. Wittgenstein could not have found a better spiritual accompaniment as he prepared for his encounter with the God of love.