Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Stebbing, Lizzie Susan (1885–1943)
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Stebbing, Lizzie Susan (1885–1943)

Stebbing, Lizzie Susan (1885–1943)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0409

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Lizzie Susan Stebbing was born in Wimbledon on 2 December 1885 and died in London on 11 September 1943. She was the youngest of six children. Her father, the barrister Alfred Charles Stebbing, died when she was two and her mother, Elizabeth, daughter of William Elstob, died when she was sixteen. Of delicate health, she was educated privately until she went to Girton College, Cambridge, where she read history (recommended as less strenuous than classics, which is what she had wanted to read). She took Pt I of the Tripos in 1906, Pt II in 1907, and then stayed on to take Pt I of the Moral Sciences Tripos in 1908. According to John Wisdom (1943), it was reading Bradley’s Appearance and Reality that converted her to philosophy, and she was tutored by W.E. Johnson . From 1911 until 1924 she taught and was subsequently Director in Moral Sciences Studies at Girton and Newnham Colleges (and research fellow at Girton during 1923–4).

In 1912 she gained an MA with distinction from the University of London with a thesis entitled ‘Pragmatism and French Voluntarism’, and from 1913 to 1915 she lectured in philosophy at King’s College London. She was also visiting lecturer in philosophy at Westfield College London from 1914 to 1920, and at Homerton Training College from 1914 to 1921. In 1915, with her sister and two friends, she took over the running of the Kingsley Lodge school for girls in Hampstead, where she taught history for a while and was Principal until her death. From 1915 she also taught philosophy as a part-time lecturer at Bedford College London. She became a full-time lecturer there in 1920, reader in 1927 and professor in 1933. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1916, and was awarded a DLit from the University of London in 1931. She was visiting professor at Columbia University, New York, in 1931–2, President of the Aristotelian Society in 1933–4, and President of the Mind Association in 1934–5. She never married.

Stebbing’s central philosophical interests lay in logic and logical analysis. But developing out of this, she also wrote on the foundations of science and more popular works on the importance of clear thinking and definite ideals in private and public life. From her first academic post she was highly active in the Aristotelian Society, regularly attending its meetings and contributing papers – seventeen in all over the course of her career. With Austin Duncan-Jones , C.A. Mace and Gilbert Ryle , she was one of the founders of the journal Analysis, which first appeared in 1933 and soon established itself as one of the main journals of analytic philosophy. She also contributed regularly to Mind, writing critical notices and engaging in discussions, most notably with H.W.B. Joseph . From the 1920s until her death in 1943 she was at the forefront of British analytic philosophy, and her books remained influential well into the 1950s.

Her first main work was A Modern Introduction to Logic, a substantial textbook (of some 500 pages) on logic and methodology, and the book that established her reputation as a major exponent of modern logic (in its broadest sense) and a central figure in the development of analytic philosophy in Britain. First published in 1930, it was revised and supplemented for the second edition of 1933. A third edition came out in the year before she died, and four subsequent editions after her death, the seventh in 1950. The book was still being reprinted in the 1960s, and it remains a classic statement of analytic philosophy as it consolidated itself in the 1930s. Indeed, it is the first textbook to have appeared anywhere that sought to introduce modern logic in the broader context of philosophical concerns with the nature of logic and methodology generally. The book falls into three parts. The first part deals with logic, covering both traditional (Aristotelian) and modern (Russellian) logic, the second deals with scientific method, and the third with definition and the nature and historical development of logic. The combination of traditional and modern logic in the book deserves comment. Stebbing notes in her Preface that all the textbooks on logic being used at that time still expounded traditional logic. A textbook on the new – ‘symbolic’ or ‘mathematical’ – logic was thus needed, but a book that focused solely on the new logic would be of no use to students preparing for university examinations that still involved questions on traditional logic. So to escape the vicious circle, both had to be covered. However, to her credit, Stebbing realized in any case that there was much greater continuity between traditional and modern logic than the early proponents of the new logic such as Russell had recognized. The conception of logic as essentially formal Stebbing found in Aristotle’s thought, and Aristotle’s theory of the syllogism remained the best place to start. What was to be rejected was just the ‘elaborate trivialities’ of later developments of syllogistic theory (A Modern Introduction to Logic, 1933, p. xii).

Stebbing’s key idea is formulated in the Preface to the second edition: ‘Advance in logic has come about through recognizing that the whole of Aristotelian logic falls within a more general symbolic logic’ (ibid., p. vii). This governs her approach in the book. After initial chapters on ‘reflective thinking’ in ordinary life, language, and the distinction between naming and describing, her exposition of syllogistic theory is embedded in an account of propositions and their relations. Only then does she introduce the symbolism of Principia mathematica and Russell’s theory of descriptions. She ends part 1 with an account of inference and implication. Part 2 is largely independent of part 1. It contains nine chapters on the nature of scientific method, induction and causality. Part 3 returns to logic, or more specifically, deals with topics in the history and philosophy of logic. There are three chapters on definition, abstraction and the characteristics of logical thinking, respectively, and the book ends with a brief sketch of the historical development of logic.

Four appendices are added in the second edition, on ‘Meaning, Reference, and Description’, ‘Logical Constructions’, ‘Postulational Systems and Principia mathematica’ and ‘Thing and Cause’. Of these, the second and third are the most significant. From 1931 to 1933 John Wisdom’s series of papers on logical constructions was published in Mind, and the project of showing how tables and chairs, as well as persons, colleges and nations, were ‘logical constructions’ was all the rage. Stebbing was one of those concerned to defend the project. The early 1930s also saw the emergence of logical positivism, which brought out differences between the conception of logic and logicism embodied in Principia mathematica and the new forms of thinking introduced by Hilbert and Carnap. Drawing on the distinction between mathematics and meta-mathematics, for example, Stebbing was able to articulate more clearly her objections to Russell and Whitehead’s project. Appendices B and C are testament to the rapid developments that were taking place in the early 1930s, one of the most significant phases in the development of analytic philosophy.

Just before she died, in 1943, Stebbing published a much shorter textbook, A Modern Elementary Logic, just over 200 pages, intended specifically for first-year students. She talks in the Preface of the progress that teachers and examiners have made in ‘carting away some dead wood’, allowing students ‘to consider the wider implications of logic as a formal discipline instead of a depository of antiquities’ (Modern Elementary Logic, p. v). She notes, however, that ‘there is no simple, introductory textbook on formal logic, written from a modern point of view, that is both unencumbered with much dead traditional doctrine and yet meeting the needs of students preparing for an examination’ (ibid.). The book is modelled on the first part of her earlier book, and still discusses syllogistic theory, but again in the broader context of an account of propositions and their relations, classes and classification, variables, propositional functions and implication. The book was widely used in the decade after her death, being revised by C.W.K. Mundle for the fifth edition of 1952. But by the middle of the 1950s, there were a number of logic textbooks on the market, and Stebbing’s book faded from the scene. (Quine’s Methods of Logic appeared in 1950, for example, and Strawson’s Introduction to Logical Theory in 1952.)

Stebbing’s two logic textbooks are important milestones in the development of analytic philosophy, and in particular in the consolidation and broadening of what became known as the Cambridge School of Analysis. In the Preface to the first edition of A Modern Introduction to Logic, Stebbing singles out the influence of Whitehead, Russell, Moore and Broad on her book. The influence of Whitehead and Russell – of Principia mathematica and the theory of descriptions – is quite clear in part 1, and Broad’s work is cited in her accounts of causality and induction. Moore’s influence is more subtle and pervasive. At the end of her Preface to the second edition, she writes that ‘My chief debt is to Professor Moore to whom I owe more than I can say’. She acknowledges the detailed criticisms he had made of chapter 9 of the first edition, which were instrumental in her revision of the chapter for the second edition. It is entitled ‘General Propositions, Descriptions, and Existence’ and the influence of Moore is explicit throughout the second and third sections, on the analysis of descriptions and on Russell’s theory of incomplete symbols. In an essay written towards the end of her life, entitled ‘Moore’s Influence’ (1942), she talks of his ‘steady pursuit of methodical questioning’ as his characteristic merit (p. 520). More specifically, it was his method of analysis, understood as effecting clarification rather than justification, that she identified as the source of his influence.

Stebbing did not make Moore’s acquaintance until 1917, at the meeting of the Aristotelian Society at which she gave a paper on ‘Relations and Coherence’. As she writes in ‘Moore’s Influence’, she had left Cambridge just before Moore returned to it as a lecturer, and so was never taught by him as a student. But Moore was present at that meeting, and tore into the paper in the discussion, prompting her to describe the paper later as ‘perhaps one of the most muddled papers that have ever been presented to that assembly’. She goes on: ‘I am inclined to think that this meeting of the Aristotelian Society was somewhat peculiar in the annals of the Society, for the reader of a paper was, before the end of the discussion, convinced that her main contentions were entirely wrong.’ Her conversion, she writes, was mainly due to ‘the vehement and vigorous clarity of Moore and his patience in pursuing the question to its end’, though she also mentions the ‘politely ironical criticisms’ of Russell, who was present at the meeting too (‘Moore’s Influence’, p. 530.)

This meeting was clearly a turning point in her intellectual development. Her early work had been on Bergson. From 1917 she was a converted analytic philosopher in the Moorean mould. Moore sent her detailed criticisms of a paper she wrote the following year, and they exchanged letters on a number of occasions, Moore seeking to clarify what Stebbing meant when she touched on topics about which Moore had written. But it would be wrong to characterize Stebbing as just a disciple of Moore. She soon developed a strong voice of her own. As her logic textbooks show, she was able to do what Moore was unable to do – write systematic expositions of fundamental ideas and arguments; and it was just this that was needed to widen the appeal of Cambridge philosophy. In this respect her style is much closer to Russell’s. Although Moorean affectations creep in, her writing is generally lucid and straightforward, without the tortuous clarifications of minor details that makes Moore’s work so difficult to read at times. But she was more than just a lucid exponent of Cambridge philosophy. She also probed at its methodological foundations to an extent unmatched at the time. This comes out most clearly in her writings on analysis in the early 1930s.

In ‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’, which she read to the Aristotelian Society in December 1932, Stebbing attempts to articulate just what assumptions underlie the method of analysis practised by Moore and other Cambridge philosophers. She identifies three main assumptions, one logical and two metaphysical:

(1) If p is to be analysed, then p must be understood. It follows that there is at least one expression which unambiguously expresses p.

(2) If p is to be analysed, then it is not always the case that p is known to be false, and it is sometimes the case that p is known to be true.

(3) Directional analysis is possible.

 --(‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’, p. 85)

The first two assumptions are derived from Moore. The starting-point is that we know or understand certain things; the aim is to clarify what it is we know or understand – to give the correct analysis. Neither assumption is unproblematic, but Stebbing endorses them both. She is less sanguine about the third assumption. What she means by ‘directional analysis’ is analysis that ultimately yields basic facts – simple or atomic facts upon which all the facts which are the supposed references of true propositions are based. This is the key assumption of logical atomism, as articulated in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and in the writings of Russell around 1920. But although this is an assumption of the method of analysis that Stebbing favours, she admits that she can find no good reason to accept it. The paper ends on this inconclusive note.

Stebbing returns to the issue in the lecture on ‘Logical Positivism and Analysis’ which she gave to the British Academy in March 1933. Although she does not provide the missing justification of directional analysis, she does offer further discussion of various types of analysis. Her main concern is to clarify the difference between the directional analysis of the Cambridge School and the different form of analysis that she saw as characteristic of the work of Carnap and the logical positivists – which she calls ‘postulational’ analysis. By this she means ‘the kind of analysis used in the construction of a deductive system’ (‘Logical Positivism and Analysis’, p. 80), the aim being to elucidate the structure of a given domain of thought or experience by constructing or ‘postulating’ a system that models it. However, insofar as light can only be thrown on the form and not the content of the relevant domain, Stebbing argues, it should be rejected as inadequate. (For details of Stebbing’s arguments in these two papers, see Beaney.)

Although Stebbing is concerned in this paper to defend directional analysis from postulational analysis, what is significant about this paper is her engagement with logical positivism. Stebbing played a major role, in fact, in introducing logical positivism to Britain. In 1934 she invited Carnap to give a series of three lectures at Bedford College, which were subsequently published as Philosophy and Logical Syntax. ( Ayer attended all three lectures, the occasion being the first time he met Carnap, having missed him during his first visit to Vienna in 1932–3.) She wrote a critical notice of four of Carnap’s books, including this one, for Mind in 1935. In the summer of 1935 she met Popper at the International Congress of Scientific Philosophy in Paris, and invited him to come to Britain too. (Ayer was present at this congress as well, and reports: ‘One of my most pleasant memories of this congress is that of watching Otto Neurath being gallant to Miss Stebbing, speaking to her in English and saying, “I have always been for the womans”. It was the only occasion on which I saw her at a loss’, 1977, p. 164.) Although she was critical of logical positivism, then, she was by no means dismissive of it, and did more than anyone else at the time to encourage dialogue between what we now recognize as the two main branches of analytic philosophy in the 1930s.

Like the logical positivists, but in this respect unlike Moore, Stebbing had a deep interest in the philosophy of science as well in questions of logic and epistemology. Her knowledge of science, and physics in particular, was that of the well-read amateur, but she turned this to her advantage in her book, Philosophy and the Physicists, which was published in 1937. She here takes Eddington and Jeans to task for the philosophical pretensions of their scientific works, and especially of their popular books on science. The science at issue may now be outdated, but the tendency of scientists to draw unjustified philosophical conclusions from their work has hardly weakened over the years, so that the underlying moral of Stebbing’s book remains as valid as it was then.

Throughout her career, Stebbing was active in adult education, and in 1936 she gave a talk entitled ‘Thinking’ to the annual autumn conference of the British Institute of Adult Education. She was subsequently asked by the BBC to give a series of twelve talks based on the topic. The talks were not themselves given, but a book, Thinking to Some Purpose, appeared in 1939, a book on what would now be described as critical thinking. Stebbing writes in the Preface:

I am convinced of the urgent need for a democratic people to think clearly without the distortions due to unconscious bias and unrecognized ignorance. Our failures in thinking are in part due to faults which we could to some extent overcome were we to see clearly how these faults arise. It is the aim of this book to make a small effort in this direction.

 --(Thinking to Some Purpose, p. ix)

The first chapter is provocatively entitled ‘Are the English illogical?’, and although she answers in the affirmative, she finds no other nation (and in particular, not the French) faring any better. Writing as she was in 1938, her pessimism was no doubt warranted. A significant feature of the book are the examples of poor thinking she takes from speeches by politicians and other public figures, although it might be objected that choosing politicians is hardly likely to falsify a claim that the people of a given nation are illogical.

Ideals and Illusions (1941) is a book that is similarly aimed at a general audience, again motivated by the sense that many intellectuals had, on the outbreak of World War II, that there had been a massive collective failure in national life (cf. p. vii). The book was not as well received as her logic books, although, according to Laird (p. 20), this did not make her regret having written it. What is interesting about it is its application of Moorean philosophy, with its emphasis on clarity and the careful specification of the questions to be answered. She writes (Ideals and Illusions, p. x): ‘My advice to myself as well as to others is: Be definite. To formulate one’s ideals is not to set out a string of maxims; it is to answer questions of the form: What is worth having in such and such specifiable circumstances?’ In a remark that has since found its way into anthologies of quotations, she writes that ‘to have ideals is not the same as to have impracticable ideals, however often it may be the case that our ideals are impracticable’ (ibid., p. 5).

Stebbing was a committed but demanding teacher, and a high-minded but generous person. Wisdom reports:

Her lectures were full of life. In discussion with her one could not expect to sit about in warm air – a stiffish breeze was usually blowing. But those who were given her vigorous teaching must, I think, have felt very great kindness and patience behind the sharp raps they were expected to stand up to in their training.

 --(Wisdom, 1943)

Margaret Macdonald also comments:

Perhaps her greatest gift was for teaching philosophy. Clear in exposition, fair and acute in criticism, she could analyse without destroying and illuminate without dogmatizing. Her passion for the subject was communicated to her listeners. She provoked discussion and stimulated her hearers to independent thought.

 --(Macdonald, 1959)

Her no-nonsense character is perhaps best summed up by Ayer in his autobiography, in describing her on the occasion of the Carnap Lectures:

The lectures were sponsored by Susan Stebbing, whom I had grown to like very much. By then in her early fifties, she was still a handsome woman, though careless of her appearance. When she decided that she needed a new hat, she always bought the first one that fitted. She lived with two women friends, who were earning less money than she, but she pooled her salary with theirs, believing that friends should have as much as possible in common … Philosophically she was very much a disciple of Moore and shared his impatience with sloppy or pretentious thinking. She was quite often brusque but she was never mean. She was one of those persons who make you proud if they think well of you.

 --(Ayer, pp. 157–8)

Stebbing’s works may be less frequently read today than are the works of her more famous contemporaries, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Ryle and Ayer, but she played a central role in the establishment of analytic philosophy in the 1930s. Despite the illnesses from which she suffered throughout her life, and which ultimately led to her early death, she had the strength of character and lucidity of mind to have had a significant influence, in her administrative activities, teaching and writings, on the generation of analytic philosophers that followed her.


A Modern Introduction to Logic (1930; 2nd rev. and enl. edn, 1933).

‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 32 (1931–2), pp. 65–94.

‘Logical Positivism and Analysis’, Proceedings of the British Academy (1933), pp. 53–87.

Logic in Practice (1934).

Philosophy and the Physicists (1937).

Thinking to some Purpose (1939).

Ideals and Illusions (1941).

Contribution to Science and Ethics (1942).

A Modern Elementary Logic (1943).

Other Relevant Works

‘The Notion of Truth in Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 13 (1912–13), pp. 224–56.

‘Pragmatism and French Voluntarism. With Special Reference to the Notion of Truth in the Development of French Philosophy from Maine de Biran to Bergson’, Girton College Studies, no. 6 (Cambridge, 1914).

‘Relations and Coherence’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 17 (1916–17), pp. 459–80.

‘The Philosophical Importance of the Verb “To Be”’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 18 (1917–18), pp. 582–9.

‘Is the Existence of the Platonic EIΔOΣ Presupposed in the Analysis of Reality?’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 20 (1919–20), pp. 281–7.

‘A Note on the Philosophy of Hardy’s “Dynasts”’, Shama’a (1923).

‘Mind and Nature in Prof. Whitehead’s Philosophy’, Mind, vol. 33 (1924), pp. 289–303.

‘Universals and Prof. Whitehead’s Theory of Objects’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 25 (1924–5), pp. 305–30.

‘The Nature of Sensible Appearance’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 6 (1926).

‘Is the “Fallacy of Simple Location” a Fallacy?’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 7 (1927), pp. 207–23.

‘Materialism in the Light of Modern Scientific Thought’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 8 (1928), pp. 113–29.

‘Realism and Modern Physics’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 9 (1929), pp. 146–61.

‘Concerning Substance’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 30 (1929–30), pp. 285–308.

‘Substances, Events and Facts’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 29 (1932), pp. 309–22.

‘The A Priori ’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 12 (1933), pp. 178–97.

‘Mr. Joseph’s Defence of Free Thinking in Logistics’, Mind, vol. 42 (1933), pp. 338–51.

‘Constructions’ [presidential address], Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 34 (1933–4), pp. 1–30.

‘Concerning Solipsism: Reply to R. B. Braithwaite’, Analysis, vol. 1 (1934, pp. 26–7.

‘Directional Analysis and Basic Facts’, Analysis, vol. 2 (1934), pp. 33–6.

‘Communication and Verification’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 13 (1934), pp. 159–73.

‘A Second Reply to Mr. Joseph’, Mind, vol. 43 (1934), pp. 156–69.

Critical notice of Carnap, Logische Syntax der Sprache, Die Aufgabe der Wissenschaftslogik, Philosophy and Logical Syntax, The Unity of Science , Mind, vol. 44 (1935), pp. 499–511.

‘Sounds, Shapes and Words’ [inaugural address], Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 14 (1935), pp. 1–21.

Critical notice of A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic , Mind, vol. 45 (1936), pp. 355–64.

‘Some Ambiguities in Discussion Concerning Time’, in R. Klibansky and H.J. Paton (eds), Philosophy and History, Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer (Oxford, 1936).

‘Thinking’, in C. Day-Lewis and L. Susan Stebbing, Imagination and Thinking, British Institute of Adult Education, Life and Leisure Pamphlets , no. 4 (1936).

‘Nebulous Philosophy’, American Scholar, vol. 6 (1937).

‘Ethics and Materialism’, Ethics, vol. 50 (1939).

‘Some Puzzles about Analysis’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 39 (1938–9), pp. 69–84.

‘Relations between Science and Ethics’, Nature, vol. 148 (1941).

Critical notice of R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics , Mind, vol. 50 (1941), pp. 184–90.

‘Moore’s Influence’, in P.A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Evanston, 1942), pp. 515–32 .

‘The New Physics and Metaphysical Imperatives’, ‘Symposium’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 43 (1942–3), pp. 167–84.

‘Men and Moral Principles’ [13th L.T. Hobhouse Memorial Lecture](1943).

Philosophical Studies: Essays in Memory of L. Susan Stebbing (1948).

Further Reading

Ayer, A.J., Part of my Life (Oxford, 1977).

Beaney, Michael, ‘Susan Stebbing on Cambridge and Vienna Analysis’, in Friedrich Stadler (ed.), The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism, Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 10 (Dordrecht, 2003), pp. 339–50 .

Laird, J., ‘Reflections Occasioned by Ideals and Illusions ’, in Philosophical Studies (1948), pp. 20–30.

Macdonald, Margaret, ‘Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan 1885–1943’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 1995); entry first published 1959.

Willow, M.G., ‘L. Susan Stebbing (1885–1943)’, in Mary Ellen Waithe (ed.), A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 4, Contemporary Women Philosophers, 1900-Today (Dordrecht, 1994), pp. 125–55 .

Wisdom, J., ‘L. Susan Stebbing, 1885–1943: An Appreciation’, Mind, vol. 52 (1943); repr. in Philosophical Studies (1948), pp. 1–4.