Susan Stebbing

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L. Susan Stebbing
Philosopher Lizzie Susan Stebbing (1885 – 1943).jpg
Susan Stebbing, by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1939, © National Portrait Gallery, London, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0
Born(1885-12-02)2 December 1885
Died11 September 1943(1943-09-11) (aged 57)
Northwood, Middlesex
Alma materGirton College, Cambridge
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
Logical positivism
Main interests
Notable ideas
Ordinary language as adequately describing everyday experience[1]

Lizzie Susan Stebbing (2 December 1885 – 11 September 1943) was a British philosopher. She belonged to the 1930s generation of analytic philosophy, and was a founder in 1933 of the journal Analysis.


Born in North Finchley, Middlesex, she was the youngest of six children born to Alfred Charles Stebbing and Elizabeth (née Elstob), and was orphaned at an early age.[2] She was educated privately until she went, in 1904, to Girton College, Cambridge, to study history (though Cambridge did not award degrees or full University membership to women at the time).[3][4] Having coming across F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality[5] she became interested in philosophy and stayed on to take part I of the Moral Sciences tripos in 1908.[6] This was followed by a London MA in philosophy in 1912.

From 1911 to 1924 she held a number of teaching appointments. She was lecturer in philosophy at King's College, London, from 1913 to 1915, when she became part-time lecturer in philosophy at Bedford College, London; this was made a full-time position in 1920. She also held visiting lectureships at Westfield College, London (1912–20), Girton College, Cambridge (1911–14), and Homerton Training College, Cambridge (1911–14). From 1915 until her death she was principal of the Kingsley Lodge School for Girls, Hampstead.[7]

In 1927 the London University title of reader in philosophy was conferred upon her and held in conjunction with her position at Bedford College. From 1920 she taught at Bedford College, University of London, where she became a reader in 1924. She gained a DLitt in 1931. Stebbing was promoted to professor in 1933, thus becoming the first woman to hold a philosophy chair in the United Kingdom, an event that was "headline news".[8] She was also a visiting professor at Columbia University from 1931 to 1932. She was president of the Mind Association from 1931 to 1932 and the Aristotelian Society from 1933 to 1934.

Stebbing was a pupil of William Ernest Johnson; according to John Wisdom she was most influenced by G. E. Moore, and was a point of contact with the Vienna Circle, first inviting Rudolf Carnap to talk in the UK.[9]

Stebbing's best-known student was Max Black.[1]

Following her death, a group of fellow philosophers set up the L. S. Stebbing Memorial Fund to endow a scholarship for graduate study in philosophy. This was set up by C. D. Broad, G. Jebb, C. A. Mace, John Macmurray, G. E. Moore, H. H. Price and Helen Wodehouse, with Dorothy Tarrant as Secretary-Treasurer.[10][11] The Susan Stebbing Studentship now offers a stipend each year to a female graduate student in Philosophy at King's College London, with which Bedford College merged in 1984.[12]

Thinking to some purpose[edit]

Stebbing's most popular work is Thinking to some purpose (1939) which was described on the cover of the first Pelican Books edition as being:

"A manual of first-aid to clear thinking, showing how to detect illogicalities in other people's mental processes and how to avoid them in our own".

The work arose out of a synopsis she wrote for a series of radio broadcasts intended for the BBC. Published on the eve of the Second World War, Stebbing wrote:

"There is an urgent need to-day for the citizens of a democracy to think well. It is not enough to have freedom of the Press and parliamentary institutions. Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires."

Some of our ineffective thinking arises from a proper desire to have a confident opinion about complicated issues. Unfortunately, "few true statements about a complicated state of affairs can be expressed in a single sentence. … We easily fall into the habit of accepting compressed statements which save us from the trouble of thinking. Thus arises what I shall call Potted Thinking:

"This metaphor seems to me to be appropriate, because potted thinking is easily accepted, is concentrated in form, and has lost the vitamins essential to mental nourishment. You will notice that I have continued the metaphor by using the word ‘vitamins.’ Do not accept the metaphor too hastily: it must be expanded. Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention. A potted belief should be the outcome of a belief that is not potted. It should not be held on to when circumstances have changed and new factors have come to light. We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose."[13]


  • Pragmatism and French Voluntarism (1914)
  • A Modern Introduction to Logic (1930)
  • Logical Positivism and Analysis (1933)
  • Logic in Practice (1934)
  • Imagination and Thinking (1936) with C. Day-Lewis
  • Philosophy and the Physicists (1937)
  • Thinking to Some Purpose (1939)
  • Ideals and Illusions (1941)
  • A Modern Elementary Logic (1943)


  1. ^ a b c "Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Retrieved 28 April 2016.
  2. ^ Beaney, Michael (2005). "Stebbing, Lizzie Susan". In Brown,Stuart (ed.). Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers. Thoemmes. p. 995.
  3. ^ Beaney, Michael; Chapman, Siobhan (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Susan Stebbing", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 5 May 2019
  4. ^ "At last, a degree of honour for 900 Cambridge women". The Independent. 31 May 1998. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  5. ^ Bradley, F.H. (1893). Appearance and Reality.
  6. ^ Warnock, Mary (2004). "Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan (1885–1943)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Butler, K.T. (1948). Girton College register, 1869–1946.
  8. ^ Chapman, Siobhan (2013). Susan Stebbing and the language of common sense. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire. p. 79. ISBN 9780230302907. OCLC 820434193. The appointment of the 'First Woman Professor of Philosophy' in Britain was reported in papers including the Morning Post, the Manchester Guardian, the Western Morning News and the Belfast Telegraph, and in periodicals including Nature and the Times Education Supplement. In its historical and cultural context, Stebbing's appointment as full Professor of Philosophy really was headline news. Women were by now an established presence, although certainly a minority one, in academia, but their place there was hard-won and still controversial.
  9. ^ Wisdom, John (1944). "L. Susan Stebbing". Mind. 53 (211): 283–285. doi:10.1093/mind/LIII.211.283. JSTOR 2250468.
  10. ^ Wodehouse, Helen M.; Price, H. H.; Moore, George E.; Macmurray, John; Mace, C. A.; Jebb, G.; Broad, C. D. (July 1944). "L. S. Stebbing Memorial Fund". Philosophy. 19 (73): 191–191. doi:10.1017/S0031819100004897. ISSN 1469-817X.
  11. ^ Mind: A Quarterly Review of Philosophy (OUP), Vol. 53, No. 211 (July 1944), p287
  12. ^ "King's College London - Susan Stebbing studentship". Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  13. ^ L. Susan Stebbing; Thinking to some purpose; Penguin books (Pelican series), Harmondsworth, 1939

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]