Stebbing, Lizzie Susan (1885–1943)

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Lizzie Susan Stebbing, the English logician and philosopher, was born in London. A very delicate child, she received a discontinuous education until she went to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1906. While at Cambridge she happened to read F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality, which led to her interest in philosophy. She became a pupil of the logician W. E. Johnson. From 1913 to 1915 she lectured in philosophy at King's College, London; and she became a lecturer at Bedford College, London, in 1915 and a professor in 1933.

In London Stebbing's philosophical development was stimulated by the meetings of the Aristotelian Society, which were often attended by Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, and G. E. Moore; and she always acknowledged the philosophical influence of Moore as particularly strong. In 1931 she published A Modern Introduction to Logic and in 1937 Philosophy and the Physicists, which were by a considerable degree the most substantial of her books. She wrote numerous papers, the best of which are to be found in Mind and the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.

In philosophy Stebbing's main interests lay in the metaphysical questions posed by logic and in the foundations of science. Much of her work in these topics is contained in A Modern Introduction to Logic. The book's merit does not lie in any originality in formal logic, or even in its method of presenting formal structures, but rather in its clear exposition of the logical theories of the early twentieth century, together with a stimulating, lucid, perceptive account of the metaphysical problems the new logical techniques either dispersed or clarified, and of the metaphysics that lay behind these logical theories. It was the first book on modern logic that introduced together and comprehensively both the formalism and its related philosophical problems. It is probably still the best introduction for a reader prepared to give serious thought to such problems.

In the professional journals Stebbing published papers on a range of topics closely related to those of A Modern Introduction to Logic, but her interests were not confined to such purely academic, though deeply absorbing, matters. She wrote several books on what one might call logic in practice. (Her book Thinking to Some Purpose is a good example both in its title and in its content.) She was strongly convinced of the importance of rationality and clarity in the conduct of human affairs and of the immense importance of knowledge. She attempted, therefore to expose the artifices by which hard facts are obscured in soft language, either so that the unscrupulous may deceive us or so that we may hide from ourselves what we do not wish to see. Her books in this field are especially valuable for their actual examples of irrationality and emotional persuasion in high places and on vital matters.

This commitment to rational clarity was combined with her more purely professional interests and skills in Philosophy and the Physicists. In the course of writing books with the ostensible aim of popularizing contemporary science, Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington had argued that modern physics shows the world to be quite other than the sort of place it seems to be, not merely physically but also metaphysically. Both argued for idealist views of physics and, consequently, for a comfortable if imperfectly clear form of theism. In much of her book Stebbing exposed the fallacies, needless obscurities and mystifications with which the pages of Jeans and Eddington abound. Philosophy and the Physicists is an excellent piece of rational cool criticism, but a significant characteristic of the book is its implicit faith that we need not seek protection behind intellectual smoke screens and, indeed, that this sort of evasion prevents any really dignified adjustment to the human situation based on knowledge and reason. Stebbing deeply believed that such an adjustment is possible.

See also Bradley, Francis Herbert; Eddington, Arthur Stanley; Jeans, James Hopwood; Logic, History of: Modern Logic; Moore, George Edward; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Whitehead, Alfred North; Women in the History of Philosophy.


Books by Susan Stebbing are A Modern Introduction to Logic (London: Methuen, 1931; 2nd ed., revised, London, 1933); Philosophy and the Physicists (London: Methuen, 1937); Thinking to Some Purpose (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1939); and Ideals and Illusions (London: Watts, 1941).

The Aristotelian Society collected the material for Philosophical Studies: Essays in Memory of L. Susan Stebbing (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948), a volume of essays that contains an appreciation by John Wisdom and a full bibliography of Stebbing's writings.

G. C. Nerlich (1967)