Introduction to Charles L. Stevenson

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Reply Tue 29 Sep, 2009 01:10 am
Charles L. Stevenson
The Emote Philosopher
(1908 - 1979)

C.L. Stevenson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA in 1908. He studied at such prestigious universities as Yale, Cambridge, and Harvard. Stevenson fell under the influence of analytic philosophy while at Cambridge, studying under thinkers like G.E. Moore and C.D. Broad. After getting his Ph.D. in Harvard in 1935, he began teaching, first at Harvard, then Yale, then finally at the University of Michigan. After publishing several essays, his book, Ethics and Language was published in 1944 espousing a type of emotivist ethical theory, which earned him the Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 1946. Stevenson continued writing and teaching until his death in Bennington, Vermont, USA in 1979.

Stevenson's meta-ethical emotivist theory is highly tempered with the analytic writing style at the time, influenced especially by Moore at his time at Cambridge. As such, he attempts to analyze the types of ethical statements being made, and he suggests that such statements are also imbued with emotion: attitude and belief. Disagreements with ethics are also disagreements with emotion: "disagreement has two broad senses: disagreement in belief, when Mr. A believes p, when Mr. B believes not-p... disagreement in attitude, when Mr. A has a favourable attitude to p and when Mr. B has an unfavourable attitude to p." For Stevenson, "disagreement in attitude is what we usually take as the distinguishing feature of ethical arguments".

Stevenson argues that attitudes determine what beliefs are involved, for example, an ethical conundrum has two possible solutions to it: each solution invokes different types of beliefs in order to support it. He uses the example of the union wagers striking for more money: the strikers may agree that the company needs financial help and to save money, but the strikers' attitude to those beliefs are indifferent compared to their own beliefs that they ought to have a good standard of living, and thus the cause of disagreement.

As ethical statements are based on attitudes and emotion, normative ethics is discounted as something analyzable, and outside the realm of science and analytic philosophy proper. However, ethics is still an essential human enterprise, and science may be able to serve as tools in the ethical debate. "Scientific methods are conclusive in ending arguments about values only to the extent that their success in obtaining agreement in belief will in turn lead to agreement in attitude. ... Normative ethics draws from the sciences, in order to change attitudes via changing people's beliefs; but a moralist's particular aim - that of redirecting attitudes - is a type of activity, rather than knowledge, and falls within no science. Science may study that activity, and may help indirectly to forward it; but it is not identifiable with that activity."

On this point, Stevenson might agree with Kierkegaard, when the latter says, to treat the human spirit as science is blasphemy...
 
 

 
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