Charles Leslie Stevenson was born in 1908 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he also grew up. He took his A.B. at Yale in English literature in 1930. In a quite literal sense, he discovered philosophy that year in a bookstore on the way to the University of Cambridge (where he was planning to go on in English, changed fields, and studied philosophy under Moore, Broad, and Wittgenstein, being most influenced by Wittgenstein. In 1933 he arrived at Harvard with an emotive theory of ethics largely worked out in this mind, which he then wrote out in his dissertation, presented for the Ph.D. in 1935.
Stevenson was first an instructor at Harvard, then an assistant professor at Yale, and finally, from 1946-77, an associate and full professor at The University of Michigan, where he also served as acting chairman on occasion. He was an excellent and lively lecturer and teacher, regularly giving courses, in which he presented his own views even while discussing those of others, in introduction to philosophy, ethics (or rather "ethical analysis"), aesthetics, and theory of knowledge. In general philosophy he was an empiricist, more Humean than logical positivist; he was also an "analytical" philosopher but one who had his own style of analysis, somewhat older-fashioned that those that came to prevail under the influences of the later Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, or W. V. Quine.
Stevenson's writing was mainly meta-ethics. After his dissertation, he presented his emotive theory of ethics first in an important series of articles in Mind, 1937-38, and then in Ethics and Language, 1944. He also wrote a number of significant papers in aesthetics, and others on "if . . . then . . ." statements, Dewey's ethics, education, and the musical scansion of English poetry, as well as various restatements and refinements of his ethical theory. A volume of his papers appeared in 1963 entitled Facts and Values.
Chiefly Stevenson is and will be known for his emotive theory of ethics and for the book Ethics and Language, which is the most important book in meta-ethics to come out after Moore'sPrincipia Ethics. It changed the course of ethical theory almost at once in ways that still show, even in this post-emotivist period. There were emotive theories before Stevenson, in the 18th and in the 20th centuries, but one can fairly claim that he gave us the first theory that was both undebatably emotivist and fully worked out under rigorous analytical standards. His more specific contributions to emotivism were many: a causal theory of meaning, distinctions between emotive and descriptive meaning, between dependent and independent emotive meaning, between attitudes and beliefs, between disagreements in attitude and disagreements in belief, and between first and second pattern ethical judgments, and a theory of persuasive definition. What distinguished his form of emotivism form earlier ones was not just this completeness, apparatus, and rigor, however, it was also his insistence (a) that reasons can be given for ethical judgments, at least within limits, (b) that these reasons can be of any sort whatsoever, and (c) that ethical judgments remain at bottom expressions and communicators of attitudes for or against something, reasons begin relevant only because they bear on these attitudes.
While at Michigan, Stevenson received a Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award. In 1945-46 he held a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1957-58 a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He was President of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1961-62. He was married twice, first to Louise Destler who died in 1963 and then to Nora Carey, and had three daughters and a son.
William K. Frankena
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
Memorial minutes from the Proceedings of the American
Philosophical Association, May 1979 (Volume 52, no. 5), pp. 637-639