Susan Stebbing was an important philosopher, and it is a pity that historians of analytic philosophy don’t give her more airtime.
This acknowledged, the piece that Eric points to in his thought-provoking post on Stebbing is a good example of how not to get airtime. In this piece, published in 1932, she makes an important distinction between
- analysis for the purpose of showing how (and that) we know something, and
- analysis for the purpose of showing what is metaphysically basic and simple.
This extremely important distinction was not well-known at the time, perhaps not known at all. (She seems to attribute the metaphysical kind of analysis to G. E. Moore: I find this extremely implausible, but perhaps Moore experts can chip in.)
Unfortunately, Stebbins didn’t have the tools to make the point clearly and adequately, and even more unfortunately, she misunderstands some of the tools that were already available at the time.
- In speaking of analysis into simples, she says that when one says all economists are fallible, one “indirectly refers” to John Maynard Keynes (who was, of course, an economist). I think that perhaps she says this is in the service of the suggestion that propositions about individuals are metaphysically (but not epistemically) more basic than quantified statements. This is true, but enough was already known in 1932 about quantified statements for her not to have taken universally quantified statements to be, in any way, conjunctions of singular statements—and this, as far as I can tell, is how she stumbles.
- Secondly, she says: “I can refer to an individual that I cannot name, e.g. the present President of the United States.” Again, this is in the service of showing how the method of analysis arrives at simpler entities. But it should have been obvious that Russell’s theory of definite descriptions (described by her hero, G. E. Moore, as a paradigm of analysis) contradicts exactly what she says—that is, it is the precise point of Russell’s theory that the expression “the present President of the United States” does not refer to Barack Obama. (Such a slip is surprising, coming from a logician, but perhaps her logic was of a more traditional variety.)
- Finally, one of her fundamental principles seems completely unmotivated: “If p is to be analysed, then p must be understood. It follows that there is at least one expression which unambiguously expresses p.” I don’t understand this at all, but she thinks it’s obvious. Well it was eighty years ago, and maybe it was then.
My point here is simple. Stebbins anticipated an extremely important development, the distinction between metaphysical and epistemological considerations, which took only root forty or so years later. But she introduced the distinction in terms that must have seemed outré to the mainstream, and not very convincing to those in the know about technical matters in analytic philosophy.
Stebbins is in considerably better form in her review of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, published in Mind in 1936. A large part of the review is devoted to spanking Freddy loudly and painfully on account of his dividing propositions exhaustively into the analytic and the empirical. But even in this review, she demonstrates a complete failure to grasp Russell’s theory of definite descriptions.
In a footnote, she writes:
In the translation which Mr. Ayer gives of "The Author of Waverley was Scotch", he makes a very common mistake. He says that the expression is equivalent to "One person, and one person only, wrote Waverley, and that person was Scotch". But if "that" is used referentially, then "that person was Scotch" is equivalent to the whole of the original; if "that" is used demonstratively, then Mr.Ayer's expression is not a translation of the original.
Dear, oh dear! “That” marks a bound variable, subordinate to ‘one and one only.’ Ayer means that the one and only person who wrote Waverley was Scotch. The term isn’t used independently at all: the sentence "That person is Scotch" is not meant to be detachable from the context.
Sadly, we then find a reference to her hero, Moore:
In the first edition of my Modern Introduction to Logic, I made a similar mistake, which was pointed out to me by Prof. G.E. Moore. I find that several other people have made this mistake, so that it is important to guard against it.
Stebbins had extraordinary philosophical insight. It must have shone through to her contemporaries because she was a much respected figure. Sadly, her lack of technical expertise in the key tropes of analytic philosophy (Russell's theory of descriptions, no less) meant that it was not very useful for later generations to read her work.