Anscombe: Intention

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Julius Stratton Student Center

84 Mass Avenue · Cambridge, MA

How to find us

We meet in the 4th floor lobby of the Julius Stratton Student Center at MIT. To get there, take any of the elevators in the 1st floor lobby (located near the central staircase) to the 4th floor. The elevator will open to a group of tables and chairs

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Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, usually cited as G. E. M. Anscombe or Elizabeth Anscombe, was a British analytic philosopher. She wrote on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and became an authority on his work and edited and translated many books drawn from his writings, above all his Philosophical Investigations. Anscombe's 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy" introduced the term consequentialism into the language of analytic philosophy, and had a seminal influence on contemporary virtue ethics. Her monograph Intention (“the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.”, according to Davidson) is generally recognized as her greatest and most influential work, and the continuing philosophical interest in the concepts of intention, action, and practical reasoning can be said to have taken its main impetus from this work. The aim of Intention (1957) was to make plain the character of human action and will. Anscombe approaches the matter through the concept of intention, which, as she notes, has three modes of appearance in our language: a) Intentional action, such as “She is X’ing intentionally.” b) Further intention in action, such as “She is X’ing with the intention of doing Y.” c) Expression of intention for the future, such as “She intends to Y.” Rather than attempt to define intentions in abstraction from actions, thus taking the third heading first, Anscombe begins with the concept of an intentional action. This soon connected with the second heading. She says that what is up with a human being is an intentional action if the question "Why", taken in a certain sense (and evidently conceived as addressed to him), has application. An agent can answer the "why" question by giving a reason or purpose for her action. "To do Y" or "because I want to do Y" would be typical answers to this sort of "why?"; though they are not the only ones, they are crucial to the constitution of the phenomenon as a typical phenomenon of human life. The agent's answer helps supply the descriptions under which the action is intentional. Anscombe was the first to clearly spell out that actions are intentional under some descriptions and not others. In her famous example, a man's action (which we might observe as consisting in moving an arm up and down while holding a handle) may be intentional under the description "pumping water" but not under other descriptions such as "contracting these muscles", "tapping out this rhythm", and so on. Intention (1957) is also the classic source for the idea that there is a difference in "direction of fit" between cognitive states like beliefs and conative states like desire. According to Anscombe, this difference in direction of fit is a major difference between speculative knowledge (theoretical, empirical knowledge) and practical knowledge (knowledge of actions and morals). Whereas "speculative knowledge" is "derived from the objects known", practical knowledge is – in a phrase Anscombe lifts from Aquinas – "the cause of what it understands". Anscombe’s Intention, published by Harvard University Press, is available at Harvard Bookstore as well as other locations. The work is fairly short, 94 pages, and will be discussed in our Meetup. Included below are a number of links with additional information and context; Overview of G. E. M. Anscombe