Anscombe on Belief: “Grounds for Belief”

Elizabeth Anscombe (G. E. M. Anscombe). Image from Cambridge Women Philosophers.

G.E.M. Anscombe (1919-2001) was a British analytic philosopher often credited with initiating the return to the study of the virtues in her famous essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy” and with revitalizing interest in the philosophy of action with her enormously influential monograph, Intention.  In this series of posts, we will explore some of her later writings about beliefs and how our epistemic agency might be part of our overall character formation. Note: This is part two of a three part series. 


The St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs, a series run under the auspices of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews and overseen by John Haldane, has now published the fourth and final volume of Elizabeth Anscombe’s hitherto uncollected and unpublished papers, Logic, Truth and Meaning: Writings by G.E.M. Anscombe, Edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. For those who have been waiting to see what remains of her Nachlass that has been deemed worthy of publication, this is a significant event. Of special interest in this volume are three essays on beliefs, all of which are undated typescripts. These are “Motives for Beliefs of All Sorts,” “Grounds for Belief,” and “Belief and Thought.” Yesterday I discussed “Motives for Beliefs of All Sorts.” Today I will cover “Grounds for Belief.”



Grounds for belief, by contrast with motives, can serve as premises for arguments that purport to show that the belief is true. Anscombe’s main thesis in “Grounds for Belief” is that what typically serves as a ground for our beliefs belongs to the category of what she calls “common knowledge.” Take, for instance, our beliefs about the life of Julius Caesar – including his conquests, his rule in Rome, and his death by assassination. What grounds do we give for these beliefs in response to the doxastic sense of the question “Why?” All we can say, she argues, is that this is what we’ve been taught to believe.


Anscombe does not think we should worry about this, even though it’s true that ‘what everyone knows’ may be wrong. She reasons that “belief on grounds which can be considered as premises for arguments presupposes belief without grounds, or at any rate without grounds that can be so considered” (183). While many empiricist philosophers put forward sense impressions as candidates for these groundless beliefs, Anscombe suggests that what we know by transmission from past generations is a better suited to this necessary category. Such knowledge may be traced back to witnesses or not (she contrasts the case of Julius Caesar with the biblical story of Adam).


If pressed to give further grounds for one’s beliefs about Julius Caesar, Anscombe thinks we have to admit that we can’t. It’s no good to suggest that one read the ancient sources, because if I doubt whether Julius Caesar existed and did the things my common knowledge says he did, then how can I rely on the fact that Seutonius is a credible ancient source? Seutonius will face the same challenge as Caesar. The best one can do is read the history books, but that is simply to further rely upon and expand one’s common knowledge – of what we’ve been taught to believe or what we have received from tradition.


But can’t we justify the historical record itself by reference to something outside of it? It is strange that Anscombe does not consider the physical evidence that exists in support of the claims we find in our history books, such as the archeological records we have collected. This information has not simply been received – in fact, much of it has been discovered and collected only recently by comparison with the written sources. Archaeological data is not the stuff of common knowledge but surely stands in support of it. She remarks that the existence of Julius Caesar is not a theory, but that is compatible with the fact our belief in his existence need not be groundless: it can be supported by compelling physical evidence that fits what we have received by common knowledge. Perhaps she would insist that the physical evidence relies on common knowledge for interpretation. That is, we can take it as evidence but not as evidence that stands outside of the sphere of common knowledge; it provides no Archimedean point.


Anscombe argues that it is wrong to treat common knowledge as knowledge by testimony, since its relation to testimony is rather remote and only indirect. Nor is it knowledge I get from experience. This knowledge is taught to me, it is handed down or passed on, and what justifies it is my participation in the practice – the form of life – in which the common knowledge centrally figures. Nothing outside the practice justifies this sort of common knowledge. She writes:


I have been taught to join in doing something … but because everyone is taught to do such things, an object of belief is generated. The belief is so certainly correct (for it follows the practice) that it is knowledge; for here knowledge is no other than certainly correct belief in pursuit of a practice. (189)


We can read this essay as an attempt to expand on the idea that much of what we know is justified by our participation in a practice, a theme one finds throughout her work under various guises. It is a further attempt to push back against the empiricist claim that the foundations of our knowledge are the sensible deliverances of private objects of experience. To be initiated into a practice is to be justified in believing certain things with certainty.


What should we make of this suggestion? It is difficult to assess given how loosely defined the concept of common knowledge is. At one point Anscombe characterizes it as what “I have been given as part of my understanding of things.” This is very broad – surely too broad for us to accept. Given that the practice of being British (that is to say growing up in and participating in British forms of life) is what justifies this common knowledge, it is unclear how we can explain the rationality of questioning what we have been taught as members of “British civilization.” Perhaps we can say that common knowledge can only be called into question in a very piecemeal fashion, a bit like the metaphor of Neurath’s boat, in which we can only replace one plank at a time while the rest of the ship remains fixed in place as we travel on the sea.


Tomorrow, Part III: “Belief and Thought.”


This series originally appeared as “The Capacious and Consistent Mind of Elizabeth Anscombe” in International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol 24, 2016, Issue 2.

Jennifer A. Frey is a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.