G.E.M. Anscombe
Title: Intention. Name: Anscombe, G. E. M. Edition: 2nd ed. Publisher: Oxford Blackwell. Date: 1976. Physical description: x,94p 22cm pbk. Language: English. Note: This ed. originally published: 1963. Subjects: Intentionalism. Series: Library of philosophy and logic. Identifier: ISBN : 0631075100 MMSID : 9920793203804341 Source: Library main catalogue
by Graeme Hawley, National Library of Scotland


February 20, 2019 | by Graeme Hawley, National Library of Scotland


Graeme Hawley is the Head of General Collections at the National Library of Scotland (NLS). In this piece, the first of a regular series from NLS curators, he reflects on a chance encounter with a book in the collection.

The occupational hazard in my work is curiosity. You train yourself after a while to be less distracted by the 15 million or so items you are responsible for, but every so often something brings you to a pause. This was the case with a slim volume called Intention, by G. E. M. Anscombe. I came across it serendipitously whilst working through a set of other books on our 120 linear miles of shelves, and was attracted by its title.

G. E. M. Anscombe is Elizabeth Anscombe, the foremost female British philosopher of her day, lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford University, and a student of, and authority on, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Intention is a book based on the lectures she gave at Oxford in 1957, the edition in hand being the second edition published in 1963 by Basil Blackwell. It is a surprisingly bright read on a weighty topic, in large part I suspect because these are words that she wrote to be read aloud.

It is, as its title suggests, a book about intention, about what it means when we say a person intends to do something, or when we say that something happened intentionally. It is 94 pages long and addresses only this topic.

‘Very often, when a man says “I am going to do such-and-such”, we should say that this was an expression of intention’, she says on page one and within moments we are into it. And by the bottom of that first page we have arrived at this: ‘The distinction between an expression of intention and a prediction is generally appealed to as something intuitively clear. “I am going to be sick” is usually a prediction; “I am going to take a walk” usually an expression of intention.’

This is how Intention progresses. Each of its pages is densely packed with the unpacking of the topic, punctuated with everyday examples. It is these examples that give her conceptual and philosophical etudes the handle that I was able to grasp as I hurtled through the mind of a genius.

By page nine we are at this point: ‘What distinguishes actions which are intentional from those which are not? The answer that I shall suggest is that they are actions to which a certain sense of the question “Why?” is given application’. This bursts into life with the initially puzzling example of a man sawing a plank: ‘For example, if you saw a man sawing a plank and asked “Why are you sawing that plank?”, and he replied “I didn’t know I was sawing a plank”, you would have to cast about for what he might mean. …But this question as to what he might mean need not arise at all – e.g. if you ask someone why he is standing on a hose-pipe and he says “I didn’t know I was.”’ I have barely stopped thinking about this since I read it a year ago.

All aspects of intention come under her microscope, in an ordered and enthusiastically communicated fashion. Reasonable expectation, ambition, involuntary bodily mechanics, predictions, senseless responses, acts of revenge, not delivering on stated intentions, how mistakes can arise, problems with observation, deliberately misleading responses, and contradictions to statements of intention, are all considered in forensic detail.

Sections 23 to 28 should be required reading for anyone sitting on a jury panel. In these sections Anscombe works with the example of a man pumping water. ‘A man is pumping water into the cistern which supplies the drinking water of a house. Someone has found a way of systematically contaminating the source with a deadly cumulative poison whose effects are unnoticeable until they can no longer be cured. The house is regularly inhabited by a small group of party chiefs, with their immediate families, who are in control of a great state; they are engaged in exterminating the Jews and perhaps plan a world war. The man who contaminated the source … has revealed the calculation, together with the fact about the poison, to the man who is pumping.’

There follows an investigation about culpability, true facts that can be stated, motivation for action, and the consequences of actions in a chain. It amounts to an examination of the difference between murder and manslaughter, or even terrorism and freedom fighting. In this quite bleak example, Anscombe lifts the whole thing with her cheerful mid-century turn of phrase. Page 44: ‘That is to say, when asked “Why did you replenish the house supply with poisoned water?” he might either reply “I couldn’t care tuppence” or say “I was glad to polish them off”…’

She then puts the reader through a complete process of thinking about why only some events would typically be connected to the main event and not all events ever that make the existence of the man at work and the metal of the pump possible.

It’s not all about murder though. On page 35 we have a lovely example of passive aggressive responses to questions: ‘For example, someone comes into a room, sees me lying on a bed and asks “What are you doing?” The answer “lying on a bed” would be received with just irritation; an answer like “Resting” or “Doing Yoga” which would be a description of what I am doing in lying on my bed, would be an expression of intention.’ And there it is; an assessment of fifty per cent of conversations between parents and their teenage children.

The contents pages of Intention are a joy in themselves. The numbered sections of the book don’t have titles, but very short summaries instead. Section 32 is called ‘Example of man with a shopping list: the relation of this list to what he buys, and of what he buys to a list made by a detective following him. The character of a discrepancy between the list and what is bought in the two cases. Is there such a thing as “practical knowledge” in the sense of ancient and medieval philosophy?’

On the topic of the shopping list, she says, ‘if the list and the things that the man actually buys do not agree, and if this and this alone constitutes a mistake, then the mistake is not in the list but in the man’s performance (if his wife were to say: “Look, it says butter and you have bought margarine”, he would hardly reply: “What a mistake! We must put that right” and alter the word on the list to “margarine”)’. It’s a brilliantly visual example of something complex.

In this fast-moving world, it is no bad thing to read a book that with extreme care and attention to detail helps you to consider the root question, ‘What am I doing?’ Not just to reflect on the true facts of what you are doing, but to consider what you really intend to be the result of what you have done. It turns out that I read what is regarded as a masterpiece of 20th century philosophy, without really intending to do so; I just judged a book by its cover, I didn’t have a result in mind.

So what have I done here? One of the true facts about what I did in writing this piece was that I used my fingers to create ASCII characters to form recognisable words in the English language. My intention was to write a piece for the Scottish Review of Books about Elizabeth Anscombe’s book Intention. But what I hope will happen as a result is that more people will know about the Library and be inspired to use its collections. This is what I have done, and that is what I hope happens as a result.

The ‘Buy’ button at left links to the National Library of Scotland catalogue, where registered users can request to have the library’s copy of Intention brought to the General Reading Room for consultation.

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