Susan Stebbing

L. Susan Stebbing
Born (1885-12-02)December 2, 1885
North Finchley, Middlesex
Died September 11, 1943(1943-09-11) (aged 57)
Northwood, Middlesex
Alma mater Girton College, Cambridge
Era 20th century
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic philosophy
Main interests
Logical positivism

L. (Lizzie) Susan Stebbing (December 2, 1885 – September 11, 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 studied at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in 1908. She was a lecturer in philosophy at King's College London from 1913 to 1915. From 1920 she held positions at Bedford College, University of London, where she became a reader in 1924 and a Professor of philosophy in 1933, having gained a D Lit in 1931. 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.

She was a pupil of William Ernest Johnson; according to P. M. S. Hacker 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.

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

Thinking to some purpose

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."[2]


  1. "Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  2. L. Susan Stebbing; Thinking to some purpose; Penguin books (Pelican series), Harmondsworth, 1939


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