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date: 07 December 2019

Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susanfree

  • Mary Warnock

(Lizzie) Susan Stebbing (1885–1943)

by Howard Coster, 1939

Stebbing, (Lizzie) Susan (1885–1943), philosopher, was born on 2 December 1885 at Haslemere, Woodside Park, North Finchley, Middlesex, the youngest of the six children of Alfred Charles Stebbing, merchant, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Elstob). She was educated at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, and went up to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1904 to read history. In 1907, just before she sat the history tripos, part one, by chance she picked up a book by the metaphysician F. H. Bradley, and immediately conceived a passion for philosophy, which never left her. She stayed on at Girton to read part one of the moral sciences tripos in 1908, and took a London MA in philosophy in 1912, in which she got a first class. She then 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 (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. She was also director of studies in moral sciences at Girton and Newnham colleges, Cambridge, from 1920 to 1924. 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 London DLitt in 1931 and was promoted to professor in 1933, the first woman to hold a philosophy chair in the United Kingdom.

Although she was first attracted to philosophy by a metaphysician, the main influence on Susan Stebbing was, as she herself acknowledged, the analytic anti-metaphysical philosophy practised in Cambridge by G. E. Moore. Her other main interest was in mathematical or symbolic logic, which she learned from Bertrand Russell's writings. Her own book A Modern Introduction to Logic (1930) was an extremely clear exposition of both Aristotelian and symbolic logic, an indispensable guide for undergraduates. She was agreed by all who knew her, in Cambridge and London, to be an outstanding teacher, able to pass on to her pupils her deep understanding and love of both analytic philosophy and logic. Her clear analytic style was evident in all her numerous articles (for example in Mind and the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society), and in her books.

G. E. Moore, whom Stebbing encountered both as an undergraduate and when she came back to Cambridge, influenced her whole cast of mind. Moore's crucial contribution to the theory of knowledge (and it was genuinely revolutionary) was 'A defence of common sense', in Contemporary British Philosophy (vol. 2, 1925). He was moved, as he recorded in 1942 (Moore, 14), not by the perplexities of the world and the sciences, but by the baffling things said by philosophers about the world and the sciences. Most philosophers, including Russell and the logical positivists, who rose to fame in the 1930s, took it for granted that commonly held beliefs about the world, and our perception of it, were inadequate, and that therefore it fell to philosophy to provide a better, more accurate, though possibly strange-sounding set of truths about what we could or could not know. Moore's contention, on the other hand, was that there is a huge body of propositions which we all understand and know to be true, which we in fact cannot deny, such as that yesterday preceded today. What we need is not a theory of time but an analysis of what exactly we mean by such expressions as 'before' and 'after'. We need to analyse, equally, what we are claiming when we claim to know for certain that we are perceiving a material object. It was in this tradition that Stebbing excelled. Moore's style was repetitive, boring, almost nagging. He was never amusing, and would have thought it disgraceful to amuse. She, on the contrary, was witty, light, accessible, and funny.

Perhaps Stebbing's most influential book (apart from the early Penguin book on logic Thinking to some Purpose, 1939), was Philosophy and the Physicists (1937) which delighted undergraduate readers in the 1950s as much as it had those for whom it was written, fifteen years before. The physicists in question were Cambridge scientists Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans who, in dramatic, hyperbolic style, propounded the doctrine that the world is not at all as we think it is. Solid objects are not solid, but made up of a mass of whirling atoms with spaces between them (Russell approved of this kind of description). Stebbing made relentless fun of the pretensions of this way of talking; and in so doing made way for a genuine, though short-lived, revolution in philosophy. She anticipated the sensible, debunking generation of philosophers who came back, especially to Oxford, after the Second World War, and amazingly reflected their mood and their no-nonsense style.

If she was not an innovator in her subject, Stebbing was above all an enabler, and for this deserves to be remembered with gratitude. In some ways she anticipated the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, in her insistence on the centrality of language as it is actually used. Above all she was an enthusiast. She was a great attender of philosophical conferences, and was successively president of the Aristotelian Society (1933) and of the Mind Association (1935). She was visiting professor in Columbia University, New York, in 1931. She had many friends, and herself befriended many of the refugees who fled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. She was a keen supporter of the League of Nations Union. She died at Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood, Middlesex, on 11 September 1943.


  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • Girton Review (1943)
  • Mind, new ser., 53 (1944)
  • Philosophical studies: essays in memory of L. Susan Stebbing, Aristolelian Society (1948) [incl. bibliography]
  • G. E. Moore, ‘Autobiography’, The philosophy of G. E. Moore, ed. P. A. Schilpp, 3rd edn (1968)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, papers
  • CUL, letters to G. E. Moore


Wealth at Death

£4378 16s. 6d.: probate, 28 Dec 1943, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Cambridge University Library
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Portrait Gallery, London