L. Susan Stebbing
Susan Stebbing, by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1939
Born(1885-12-02)2 December 1885
Died11 September 1943(1943-09-11) (aged 57)
Northwood, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom
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. and was the first woman to hold a philosophy chair in the United Kingdom, as well as the first female President of Humanists UK.


Born in North Finchley, Middlesex, Susan Stebbing (as she preferred to be called),[2] was the youngest of six children born to Alfred Charles Stebbing and Elizabeth (née Elstob), and was orphaned at an early age.[3][4][5]

Stebbing was educated at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, until she went, in 1904, to Girton College, Cambridge, to read history (though Cambridge did not award degrees or full University membership to women at the time).[2][6] Having come across F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality she became interested in philosophy and stayed on to take part I of the Moral Sciences tripos in 1908.[5][3] This was followed by a University of London M.A. in philosophy in 1912 that was awarded with distinction.[7][4] Her thesis for the same, Pragmatism and French Voluntarism, subsequently being published in the Girton College Studies series.[8]

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 and in 1924 she was appointed as a Reader there.[3] She also held visiting lectureships at Westfield College, London (1912–20), Girton College, Cambridge (1911–14), and Homerton College, Cambridge (1911–14).[3][9] From 1915 until her death she was principal of the Kingsley Lodge School for Girls, Hampstead.[10][11]

In 1927 the London University title of reader in philosophy was conferred upon her and held in conjunction with her position at Bedford College. She gained a DLitt in 1931.[3] 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, as Siobhan Chapman notes, "headline news".[12] She was also a visiting professor at Columbia University from 1931 to 1932.[13] She was president of the Mind Association from 1931 to 1932 and the Aristotelian Society from 1933 to 1934.[13]

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.[13]

Stebbing died, following the return of a cancer, on 11 September 1943 at Mount Vernon Hospital, in Northwood, Middlesex.[3][2]


Following her early death, a group of scholars, including C. D. Broad, G. E. Moore, Helen Wodehouse and Dorothy Tarrant. set up the L. S. Stebbing Memorial Fund to endow a scholarship for graduate study in philosophy.[14][15] The Susan Stebbing Studentship now offers a stipend each year to a female graduate student in Philosophy at King's College London, which also now has a chair of philosophy named in her honour.[16][2]

A posthumous Festschrift titled Philosophical Studies. Essays in Memory of L. Susan Stebbing, was published in 1948 on behalf of the Aristotelian Society.[17][18] It included an appreciation by John Wisdom and a full bibliography of Stebbing's writings.[17] And essay contributions from, amongst others, H.B. Acton, Beatrice Edgell, A.C. Ewing, Ruth L. Saw. and (her best known student)[1] Max Black.

In a 1949 review of that work for Nature, physicist F. I. G. Rawlins noted that in "a life not free from controversy":

"Prof. Stebbing assuredly selected her targets with a refined academic glee, as, for example, in her Philosophy and the Physicists (1937). The thrusts she delivered seem somewhat on the harsh side; maybe they were not intended to endure. Her whole being brings into relief the difference between logic bent upon truth, and aesthetics bent upon beauty. In her greatness, she lived for the former, others perhaps for the latter. But one day a 'pontiff' will arise and throw a bridge across the narrows; when that happens, the sheer weight of her thought will help to anchor it well and truly on her territory."[18]

Stebbing's philosophical significance has been more recently recognised by, and explored within, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which commissioned, and in 2017 published, a publicly accessible online entry on her life and work by Michael Beaney and Siobhan Chapman.[2] The first book-length study of Stebbing's life and thought was published by Chapman in 2013.[19]

Thinking to Some Purpose

Stebbing's most popular work is Thinking to Some Purpose (1939), a book commissioned by Pelican Books and described on the cover as: "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."[20] One of the more quoted passages of the book[21] did not in fact appear in the main body of the work but on the first inside of the dust jacket of the 1939 printing and in the front matter of subsequent printings prior to 1952.[22] As it appeared in print (in both 1939 and 1941) it runs, in full, as follows:

"There is an urgent need to-day," writes Professor Stebbing, "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."

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 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." p.9 [1952][23]

Chapter IV opens thus:

"Some forms of ineffective thinking are due to our not unnatural desire to have confident beliefs about complicated matters with regard to which we must take some action or other. We are sometimes too lazy, usually too busy, and often too ignorant to think out what is involved in the statements we so readily accept. ...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." p.67–68 [1952][23]



  1. ^ a b c "Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Beaney, Michael; Chapman, Siobhan (2017), "Susan Stebbing", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 5 May 2019
  3. ^ a b c d e f Warnock, Mary (2004). "Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan (1885–1943)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36259. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b Macdonald, Margaret (2017). "Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan (1885–1943)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.36259.
  5. ^ a b Beaney, Michael (2005). "Stebbing, Lizzie Susan". In Brown,Stuart (ed.). Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers. Thoemmes. pp. 995–1002. ISBN 9781843710967.
  6. ^ "At last, a degree of honour for 900 Cambridge women". The Independent. 31 May 1998. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  7. ^ Keeling, S.V. (2 October 1943). "Prof. Susan Stebbing " (PDF). Nature. 152 (3857): 377. Bibcode:1943Natur.152..377K. doi:10.1038/152377a0. S2CID 46415258.
  8. ^ Willow, M.G. (1995) "L. Susan Stebbing (1885–1943)". In: Waithe M.E. (eds) A History of Women Philosophers, A History of Women Philosophers, vol 4. Springer, Dordrecht
  9. ^ Bridges, David (2018). "Susan Stebbing". Homerton 250. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  10. ^ Butler, K.T. (1948). Girton College register, 1869–1946.
  11. ^ Morris, Paula (1999). "Stebbing, L. Susan (1885–1943) | Encyclopedia.com". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b c Wisdom, John (1944). "L. Susan Stebbing". Mind. 53 (211): 283–285. doi:10.1093/mind/LIII.211.283. JSTOR 2250468.
  14. ^ 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. doi:10.1017/S0031819100004897. ISSN 1469-817X.
  15. ^ "L. S. STEBBING MEMORIAL FUND" Mind: (OUP), Vol. 53, No. 211 (July 1944), p287 https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/LIII.211.287
  16. ^ "King's College London - Susan Stebbing studentship". www.kcl.ac.uk. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  17. ^ a b G. C., Nerlich (1967). "Stebbing, Lizzie Susan (1885–1943) | Encyclopedia.com". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
  18. ^ a b Rawlins, F. I. G. (13 August 1949). "Philosophical Studies". Nature. 164 (4163): 253. Bibcode:1949Natur.164..253R. doi:10.1038/164253a0. ISSN 1476-4687. S2CID 28181788.
  19. ^ Fairclough, Norman (2014). "Review of Susan Stebbing and the Language of Common Sense". Discourse & Society. 25 (3): 408–411. doi:10.1177/0957926513500396c. ISSN 0957-9265. JSTOR 24441635. S2CID 147361554.
  20. ^ see "Penguin books through the ages". 21 July 2010. ISSN 0307-1235. (Retrieved 12 October 2019). which features a reproduction of the cover and notes that "Many Pelican books had an informative sub-title explaining what the book would cover." The 'manual of first-aid to clear thinking' subtitle would also feature on the cover of reprints such as those of 1952 and 1959.
  21. ^ The lines are quoted in the Preface of Vices of the Mind (2018) by Quassim Cassam, They also appear in a 2017 APA blog interview with him and in a 2018 Irish Times interview with Michael Beaney (who co-authored Stebbing's SEP entry) and in a 2018 piece about Stebbing for Homerton College by philosopher of education David Bridges. They can also be found at the page for Thinking To Some Purpose at Goodreads amongst other places.
  22. ^ An image of the passage in question, as it appeared in the 1941 printing can be found here. The 1952 printing, which did not carry these lines, can be inspected online at Internet Archive.
  23. ^ a b Stebbing, L. Susan (Lizzie Susan) (1939). Thinking to Some Purpose. Internet Archive. [Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.] Penguin Books limited. OL 24221747M.
  24. ^ Milkov, Nikolay (2003), Stadler, Friedrich (ed.), "Susan Stebbing's Criticism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus", The Vienna Circle and Logical Empiricism: Re-Evaluation and Future Perspectives, Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, Springer Netherlands, 10, pp. 351–363, doi:10.1007/0-306-48214-2_28, ISBN 9780306482144, retrieved 5 October 2019, in Susan Stebbing's paper "Logical Positivism and Analysis", which was read to the British Academy as a Henriette Hertz lecture on 22 March 1933 and published shortly afterwards as a separate book, a new enemy of Moore-Russellian realism was proclaimed. She was anxious to distinguish not merely between Cambridge Realists and British Idealists, but between the former and the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. Stebbing was adamant in her insistence that the analysis practiced by the English realists was not to be confused with the "logical analysis" of the "Viennese Circle". But that was not all. This keen woman philosopher was the first author to see considerable differences between the philosophy of Moore-Russell – but above all Moore – on the one hand, and Wittgenstein's Tractatus on the other.
  25. ^ Broad, C. D. (1938). "Review of Philosophy and the Physicists". Philosophy. 13 (50): 221–226. doi:10.1017/S003181910001370X. ISSN 0031-8191. JSTOR 3746958.
  26. ^ TURNADGE, C. J.. "IDEALS AND ILLUSIONS. By Professor Susan Stebbing. Watts & Co., 3/6. Thinker's Library 119" [Review] in: The Monthly Record, Vol. 53. No. 3: MARCH, 1948 [p. 15]
  27. ^ Macdonald, M. (1945). "Men and Moral Principles. By L. Susan Stebbing. L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lecture No. 13. (Oxford University Press. 1944. Pp. 27. Price 2s.)". Philosophy. 20 (75): 76–78. doi:10.1017/S0031819100004976. ISSN 1469-817X.

Further reading