MacIntyre on Anscombe

Alasdair MacIntyre has written a review of a recent collection of papers by G. E. M. Anscombe for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. The collection is G.E.M. Anscombe, Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, Imprint Academic, 2008, 273pp., $34.90 (pbk), ISBN 9781845401214. I mention this not only to draw your attention to the Anscombe volume, but also as an excuse to quote some of what MacIntyre has to say in his review about the immortality of the soul and, indirectly, about current trends in the philosophy of mind:

Philosophy plays a very different part in Anscombe’s discussion of the immortality of the soul. In what does the spirituality of the human soul consist? Any conception of an immortal substance “is a delusive one” (71) and the kind of immateriality that thought possesses provides no basis for ascribing spirituality to the soul, let alone immortality: “there is no reason whatever for believing in a temporal immortality of the soul, apart from the resurrection,” that is, the resurrection of Christ and the promise of the resurrection of the body. Anscombe adds that “there is no ‘natural immortality of the soul’ that can be demonstrated by philosophy” and she takes “the Christian doctrine of immortality to be the doctrine of an unending human life, happy or unhappy, after the resurrection and not the doctrine of an immortal sort of substance.” (77)

Yet this raises a problem: “it is also Christian doctrine that the soul is judged at death and then suffers or is in glory till the resurrection. Must one not have a theory of how it can exist?” Anscombe’s reply is to suggest that what philosophy might achieve is a cure for the impulse to search for such a theory. Catholic teaching provides no justification for any claim that “the soul has it in it to exist apart from the body” (78), and any picture that we construct would be “an idle picture,” one that did no philosophical or theological work for us.

My dissatisfaction with this line of thought may be no more than a sign that I have not yet subjected myself to the philosophical treatment that would cure my impulse to think otherwise. But I remain uncured. Anscombe’s initial arguments follow Wittgenstein’s closely. “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking” (1953). Indeed, but, as Anscombe remarks, although the concept of ‘thought’ is one that we all possess, it is difficult to give a satisfactory account of it and no one as yet has, although not for lack of trying. So perhaps we need to start out all over again, first rereading Plotinus and then taking encouragement from the recent plague of wrongheaded accounts of thought advanced by philosophers so anxious to make connections between thoughts and brain states in the light of recent biochemical and neurophysiological discoveries that they lose sight of thought itself.


20 Responses

  1. Ah, I need to get that volume!!

    Joseph Ratzinger, in his book Eschatology, tells us that immortality of the soul is very essential. I don’t see how philosophy should not somehow propose a theory or at least a defense of it, that is, a demonstration that there is a compatibility with a soul apart from the body and the resurrection of the body.

    At the same time, the importance of the body has been emphasized a lot, thanks to analytic philosophy as well as recent biblical scholars such as Tom Wright who wants to come back to the emphasis on the resurrection of the body.

    The Catholic problem, it seems to me, is to reconcile Benedictus Deus and the resurrection of the body. By that, I mean that the consitution seem to stress so much on heaven that it makes it seem that the resurrection of the body is just an after thought. The question is, is there really anything in the resurrection that is not experienced in heaven? Benedictus Deus tells us that beatific vision does away with faith and hope. But could we not speak of hope in heaven in some way? Maybe not hope the way we speak of, but maybe hope in the sense of the soul wanting to be persons again, that is, to subsist in the body.

  2. I think Lateran V has something to say about this. From Session 8 of the Fifth Lateran Council (

    “And since truth cannot contradict truth, we define that every statement contrary to the enlightened truth of the faith is totally false and we strictly forbid teaching otherwise to be permitted. We decree that all those who cling to erroneous statements of this kind, thus sowing heresies which are wholly condemned, should be avoided in every way and punished as detestable and odious heretics and infidels who are undermining the catholic faith. Moreover we strictly enjoin on each and every philosopher who teaches publicly in the universities or elsewhere, that when they explain or address to their audience the principles or conclusions of philosophers, where these are known to deviate from the true faith—as in the assertion of the soul’s mortality or of there being only one soul or of the eternity of the world and other topics of this kind—they are obliged to devote their every effort to clarify for their listeners the truth of the Christian religion, to teach it by convincing arguments, so far as this is possible, and to apply themselves to the full extent of their energies to refuting and disposing of the philosophers’ opposing arguments, since all the solutions are available.”

    Descartes refers to this in his letter of dedication in the Meditations (

    “3. And as regards the Soul, although many have judged that its nature could not be easily discovered, and some have even ventured to say that human reason led to the conclusion that it perished with the body, and that the contrary opinion could be held through faith alone; nevertheless, since the Lateran Council, held under Leo X. (in session viii.), condemns these, and expressly enjoins Christian philosophers to refute their arguments, and establish the truth according to their ability, I have ventured to attempt it in this work.”

    So it looks like MacIntyre has Lateran V on his side. Isn’t Geach also of the same opinion as his late wife? I think he talks about this in one of his articles reprinted in God and the Soul, which I can’t find at the moment. My memory may be playing tricks on me, however.

  3. We decree that all those who cling to erroneous statements of this kind, thus sowing heresies which are wholly condemned, should be avoided in every way and punished as detestable and odious heretics and infidels who are undermining the catholic faith.

    Man, those were the good old days, weren’t they?

    Apolonio, I’m a little worried about your speculation on hope. Isn’t the BV supposed to be complete fulfillment? It would seem odd if there was even some attenuated sense in which the blessed were yearning for something yet more, namely, to be embodied again. At least, it seems to me that on your sort of account hope itself as we experience it is a longing for the BV hence, its genus is “state of longing for something not yet attained”. So, if you’re right, we need some sort of account of how the BV itself is not a complete fulfillment of hope, and that BV + Resurrection is. But wouldn’t that sort of account make one of our own properties, the property of being resurrected, a necessary condition on happiness beyond God himself? Somehow that doesn’t seem right to me.

  4. Florovsky adduces a good bit of historical/patristic evidence in his article THE “IMMORTALITY” OF THE SOUL, for the view espoused by Anscombe, at least as I understand it.

    “Christians, as Christians, are not committed to any philosophical doctrine of immortality. But they are committed to the belief in the General Resurrection. Man is a creature. His very existence is the grant of God. His very existence is contingent. He exists by the grace of God. But God created Man for existence, i.e., for an eternal destiny. This destiny can be achieved and consummated only in communion with God. A broken communion frustrates human existence, and yet Man does not cease to exist. Man’s death and mortality is the sign of the broken communion, the sign of Man’s isolation, of his estrangement from the source and the goal of his existence. And yet the creative fiat continues to operate. In the Incarnation communion is restored. Life is manifested afresh in the shadow of death. The Incarnate is the Life and the Resurrection. The Incarnate is the Conqueror of death and Hades. And He is the First-fruit of the New Creation, the First-fruit of all those who slept. The physical death of men is not just an irrelevant “natural phenomenon,” but rather an ominous sign of the original tragedy. An “immortality” of disembodied “souls” would not solve the human problem. And “immortality” in a Godless world, an “immortality” without God or “outside God,” would be an eternal doom. Christians, as Christians, aspire to something greater than a “natural” immortality. They aspire to an everlasting communion with God, or, to use the startling phrase of the early Fathers, to a theosis.”

    He also quotes Gilson: “Christianity without an Immortality of the soul is not altogether inconceivable, the proof is that it has been so conceived. What is, on the contrary, absolutely inconceivable, is Christianity without a Resurrection of Man.”

    Here’s the whole article:

  5. “It would seem odd if there was even some attenuated sense in which the blessed were yearning for something yet more, namely, to be embodied again.”

    Are we talking about the same blessed who were once members of the Church Militant?

    If so, would not these now members of the Church Triumphant have been resurrected in the Flesh?

  6. Scott,

    Well, BV is not experienced by persons but by souls. So what I am saying is that there must be some kind of “hope,” in an analogical sense, that would complete the longing. We must keep in mind that even in heaven there is a restlessness, epektasis (G. Nyssa), that souls have. There is the dynamic and dramatic play between rest and restlessness, because God is both the fulfillment and free.

  7. You should always re-read Plotinus.

    Try to physically graph a child marveling at a sunset, and then get back to me.

    Such wonder always beckons to a beyond, and that I think is the foundation of the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

  8. One shudders to imagine Ms. Anscombe at the foot of the Cross. After Christ tells the good thief “today you will be with me in Paradise” she would be in good company with the Pharaisees when she mocked him for speaking in “idle pictures” that “did no theological work”. Maybe she could further instruct Christ about how Christian doctrine only speaks to a happy existence after the Ressurection.

    After she was done insulting Christ, she could go an and condescend to the Apostles and the Fathers at Nicea- why does Christ need to “descend into hell” after all? What could possibly be there to see, and how could there be any human part of him to go there?

    And what am I praying to when I pray to the communion of saints, or to any saint in that communion? All these prayers are directed at “idle pictures” in her opinion- and wouldn’t she insist that we have to wait for the ressurection in order to have anyone to speak to?

    Ms. Anscombe, to be frank, has a shallow understanding of what is at stake here. If we have no reason to think the soul is incorruptible, then we have no reason to think it is different from merely sensitive knowing (which also has a “kind of immateriality”). The consequence is both false and degrading, for it places human life by definition on the same level as the beasts.

  9. a thomist,

    I find what you say simply rhetorical and lacking any substance. Anscombe is not denying that there is a soul. What she is saying is that we shouldn’t have a theory of how a soul exists apart from the body, not that the soul cannot exist apart from the body. Read Gormally’s volume Human Life, Action, and Ethics.

  10. a thomist,

    In effort to be fair to Anscombe and to (what I think) she is saying here, isn’t it necessary to hold a hard distinction between a philosophical doctrine of soul immortality (which Christians, apparently, haven’t always felt committed to) and the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection (which Christians must be committed to)? Or are Florovsky and Gilson just as off track as Anscombe, in your view, and have they read the Fathers incorrectly (or have I read them all incorrectly)? For it seems to me that what Arturo is getting at about Plotinus and Plato is that they sensed a problem in the human longing for the infinite, and could but interpret this in a philosophical way–a conflict that for Anscombe (and perhaps many Christian Fathers) is, by itself (in pure philosophy), irresolvable. The Christian doctrine is needed to solve the (quite real) problem. I admit that I am as uncomfortable with this idea as MacIntyre is, since I tend to think that any Christian doctrine must be at least allowable under the auspices of a coherent philosophy–I’m not a fideist. But nevertheless I wonder if, on this point, there might be something to Anscombe’s critique. I haven’t read her book, but it doesn’t seem to me that she’s saying we have no reason to think the soul incorruptible, but only that there is no philosophical demonstration available to support that intuition (which all, clearly, do not share). OK, she does say “there is no reason whatever…” but I’m willing to be charitable and make an allowance that she overstates there, and to emphasize rather her second quoted comment, which I think gets better to the point:

    “the Christian doctrine of immortality [is] the doctrine of an unending human life, happy or unhappy, after the resurrection and not the doctrine of an immortal sort of substance.”

    In other words, the Platonic doctrine that the soul is immortal substance leads directly to belief in pre-existence of souls, which Christians cannot hold. Once you disallow that corollary, you disallow the whole Platonic argument for the soul as immortal substance, do you not? The only way to get to a soul at this point, it seems, is to invoke a God who creates, in time, each soul specially. As such, souls are contingent and upheld in being by God, not inherently immortal things of themselves.

  11. Y’all do know that Ms. Anscombe’s daughter (err, at least, one of them) happened to have been the wife of the host of this blog, no?

    Let’s practice some restraint on the ad hominems shall we?

    Y’all are too distinguished in thought, dignity and, above all, Christian virtue to engage in all that needless mud-slinging nonsense.

    Apart from that, please carry on this interesting dialogue of sorts and apologies in advance for my intrusions which, admittedly, do not contribute to the communicative economy of this nascent Catholic philosophical community…

  12. “In other words, the Platonic doctrine that the soul is immortal substance leads directly to belief in pre-existence of souls, which Christians cannot hold.”

    I never really understood this position. It’s akin to saying that you are opposed to pre-marital sex because it might lead to dancing: a bit of a non sequitur. You don’t have to draw that conclusion, and it does not necessarily follow. More importantly, it belittles the real dignity of man as made in the image and likeness of God, and ignores the idea (quite Patristic) that man has a spark of the Divine within.

    Also, I have read Gilson and Florovsky on this question, and I have never understood why some could suspect the idea of the immortality of the soul of being a pagan, Neoplatonic intrusion into the Catholic philosophical mind. Why is the question posed by some as “either/or”? And why is it that Catholicism after the Counter-Reformation has to constantly go on witch hunts against all of those concepts that may be “pagan contaminations”. This has never really made sense to me.

    All I know is that for the Neoplatonic divines of the Renaissance, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was used a stepping stone to contemplate the divine potential in man as fulfilled in Christ. Now, we can barely come to a consensus as to whether man is any different from the beasts of the field. So much good has philosophy done us since then!

  13. Arturo,

    I’m not so much arguing for that position as trying to understand it. I don’t know if the objection is to any philosophical doctrine of immortality, or just to Plato’s doctrine. As to why one needs to make Plato’s conclusion (pre-existence) in order to affirm philosophical immortality–I don’t know. It never occurred to me to question it until I read Florovsky, but then then I paused. I appreciate your input, and I’m in no hurry to jettison (like MacIntyre) my philosophical inclination to affirm immortality.

  14. Apolonio,

    Nonsense. Anscombe is making a claim about what Christianity promises for an afterlife- namely that it restricts itself to promising the bodily ressurection. She further is explained as saying that the idea of immortality does no philosophical or theological work. If she had restricted herself to the opinion you lay down, I would have written a much different comment, one that more spoke to the proof of immortality than one which was aimed at showing why I think her opinion- as actually stated- is an outrage.

    Of course I used rhetoric. How do you express things that you are conviced are complete outrages?

  15. P.S.

    The last question is rhetorical.

    Seriously though, this opinion that Anscombe is putting forth is one that I’ve had to deal with for a long time now, and I think it is extremely corrosive to the message of Christ, philosophy, and human dignity.

  16. Thomist

    Have you actually read Anscombe’s essay?

    I think that she’s simply denying that we need a philosophical theory of the soul in order to believe what the Church teaches. Anscombe no doubt believes that people somehow exist between death and the general resurrection, since that belief follows from the practice of praying through the intercession of saints. She is not denying any theological teaching whatsoever. What she is denying is that we need a philosophical theory in order to believe it — your objection, by contrast, would have us all be unable to believe in Christ at the foot of the cross if we weren’t entirely convinced that we had some philosophical account of the immortality of the soul. I doubt that Mary had any such theory, and I doubt that you would have done better than she did at the foot of the cross.

  17. bob, I think you are correct that Anscombe is not denying the existence of the soul or that “people somehow exist between death and the general resurrection.” That would really put her beyond the pale. I do have a small disagreement, though, on the following comment:

    “I think that she’s simply denying that we need a philosophical theory of the soul in order to believe what the Church teaches.”

    I word interpret this a little more strongly. I think she’s saying that no such theory is possible. This is not that obvious from the quotes because she is speaking in “Wittgensteinese.”

    In my opinion, when she says any theory of the soul would be “an idle picture” (this phrase is straight from P.I.), what she’s claiming is that it would actually do no explanatory work at all. So it would fail even to be a theory. Thus there can be no theory of the soul. (Another metaphor Wittgenstein uses is that of a gear that turns but isn’t connected to anything.)

    I found Geach’s book God and the Soul, and as it turns out, his essay on this topic is titled “Immortality.” I haven’t finished rereading it, but he also employs the typical Wittgensteinian form of argument when arguing against the coherence of the notion of a soul; e.g., to give an unacceptably sloppy paraphrase: since words about feeling, sensation, etc., like seeing, are typically associated with the body, we don’t know what they would be like for a soul. Thus they are meaningless. He does carefully avoid the term “criterion,” but other than that it’s very Wittgensteinian.

    I am troubled by Wittgenstein’s influence in Christian philosophy. I took a grad course on him this spring and was truly impressed when I wasn’t bewildered or annoyed. He was a brilliant philosopher, and of course Anscombe and Geach are his heirs of a sort in Catholic thought, and no one accuses them of being heretics (except for Thomist?). Still, as Dummett has said, it is hard to believe that you can really do Catholic philosophy without doing metaphysics, and Wittgenstein’s philosophy seems pretty inimical to any traditional form of philosophy, including metaphysics. I have also come to see this as a problem for Bas van Fraassen, whereas before I thought it was possible to be a borderline Catholic fideist. (Note that I am not Catholic.)

    That is why I quoted that part of Lateran V before. Obviously it is largely ignored nowadays, which is why Anscombe could write what she did. But I tend to agree that Lateran V is the better way to go.

  18. That should be: “I would interpret this…”

  19. Anthony,

    You’re right that Anscombe’s position is stronger than I initially suggested; I recognized this after I wrote it, and am perhaps guilty of being too charitable to her position. I share your misgivings about anti-metaphysical philosophy, but I’m not so sure that taking a large dose of Wittgenstein compels us to be anti-metaphysical, nor am I entirely sure that being anti-metaphysical must be theologically disastrous.

    On the first point, Geach, Kenny, and David Braine, perhaps more than Anscombe herself, have given good examples of how a Wittgensteinian need not be anti-metaphysical. Of course, they do metaphysics only by departing from Wittgenstein at points, and I find some of their more meta-philosophical digressions hard to accept (especially Kenny’s tendency to draw a strong contrast between knowledge and understanding), but from their work it’s hard to deny that Wittgenstein has had a positive influence in philosophy. I think Braine’s explicit comments about Wittgenstein’s influence do the most to make this clear — unlike Kenny and (sometimes) Geach, there is no way to interpret Braine as abstaining from metaphysics.

    Anti-metaphysical views, though, don’t seem necessarily detrimental to theology. It sure seems like they should be, but that’s because they have no commitment to realism. Yet Dummett and others like him are explicitly opposed to realism, and while I think a realist view just makes more sense, I think I can agree with them that being anti-realists doesn’t make their theology incoherent. What more Wittgensteinian and Kantian (like van Fraassen’s) anti-realist positions are good at, I think, is showing us that theology (at least in its literal sense; the language that we use to talk about God) is not out to give us literal descriptions of the way the world is in itself in the way that people imagine that the natural sciences or (when they acknowledge it) metaphysics are. This is, I think, especially helpful in dogmatic theology; Wittgenstein-inspired theologians like Herbert McCabe and Nicholas Lash are right, I think, to hold that dogmatic formulations should not be thought of on the model of literal descriptive discourse, but as ways of enabling us to see and participate in the mystery of God and the sacramental life. On that sort of a view, dogmatic language does express the truth, but it does not express it perfectly — which is one reason why there are always multiple ways to express the same doctrine. Of course, one can run into problems with this sort of view if one is too strictly Wittgensteinian, as I suspect that Lash is. If all we can say is that we have a language game that enables us to make sense of our lives and to live better than we could without it, it will be very hard to resist the skeptical charges of subjectivism and relativism that cannot be the end of the story for anybody who actually takes the language of the language game seriously.

    That said, what Wittgenstein-inspired theology at its best seems to do is, more or less, to extend Aquinas’ treatment of language about God to include Wittgensteinian insights about how language functions in life and community. So long as one agrees with Aquinas about the implications of divine transcendence — that only negative predications can be applied to God univocally, with everything else being analogical, relational, or metaphorical, then I think one can appropriate the Wittgensteinian insights into a more traditional metaphysical view (and I think that Herbert McCabe tried to do something very much like this, however successful or not he was).

  20. Bob,

    Some insightful metaphilosophical comments. I want to agree that Wittgenstein has been a positive force in philosophy overall, but I still need to read more. I still haven’t even gotten around to reading Kenny’s book.

    To make my concern more explicit: it seems to me that verificationism (which tends to ground contemporary anti-metaphysical views) undergirds even his late philosophy. Great swaths of Philosophical Investigations depend on the “criterion” as an argumentative hinge. Of course he was by no means a typical verificationist at any period — in general, his thought defies categorization and systemization. (And for all that “meaning is use” stuff, he still explicitly says that one things words frequently do is refer in the traditional sense.) Perhaps that is what makes it possible to mine his work for insights that can be used in the service of traditional realist metaphysics. But it is from the perspective of what I see as W’s (perhaps inconsistent) verificationism that makes me somewhat uncomfortable with the possibility of “Christianizing” his thought.

    Still, I won’t deny outright that anti-realism in its various guises might be compatible with Christian thought. In particular, your point about anti-realism being a way to emphasize that “dogmatic formulations should not be thought of on the model of literal descriptive discourse, but as ways of enabling us to see and participate in the mystery of God and the sacramental life” is well-taken, although, as you note, it is very easy to go from that fine assertion to what one could call “religion as mere poetry.” Generally speaking, I have tended to agree with those who say that outright metaphysical anti-realism (as opposed to scientific anti-realism) is very difficult to square with traditional Christian ideas. Perhaps you are just more of an optimist than I. 🙂

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