Professor David Armstrong - obituary

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Professor David Malet Armstrong, July 8, 1926 - May 13, 2014

David Armstrong, who died at the age of 87, was probably Australia’s most distinguished philosopher. His book A Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968) was a founding document in Australian materialism, a philosophy which seeks an account of the world and all that is in it without appeal to anything beyond the physical.


The book developed the view that the mind is the brain, an idea greeted in a philosophical world dominated by Wittgenstein and Ryle as laughable. It was not long, however, before materialism about the mind became near-orthodoxy. The view of many was that dealing with mind was the easy part and that extending the program to the deeper parts of metaphysics would be harder.

From the seventies on Armstrong sought to do exactly that. Two things should be said first about the context of this effort, one philosophical and one political. First, philosophy in the English speaking world was then deeply beholden to the view that we can approach the world only through language. Armstrong rejected this view and sought to confront reality directly. His work heralded the resurgence of bold metaphysical speculation that philosophy now enjoys. Armstrong did not deny the importance of language; he denied what so much twentieth century thought has assumed: that language structures our world

Armstrong had been appointed Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney in 1964. By the early seventies he was embroiled in acrimonious disputes which saw Philosophy at Sydney University split into two separate departments; their adjacent doorways faced the beautiful jacaranda tree in the quad. Arising out of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, demands for the teaching of Marxism-Leninism and Feminism, and Armstrong’s own articulate anti-communism, the fight was bitter and prolonged. The division into separate departments at least brought an end to a most taxing period of his life, during which he was subject to a good deal of vilification. Remarkably, he was soon seeking reunification and exercising his generous spirit in rebuilding friendships.

The left-leaning Department (“General Philosophy”) was troubled by its commitment to direct democracy in decision making; defections to next door’s Traditional and Modern Philosophy began, with the new arrivals good-humouredly labelled “boat people” and in one instance “the gang of three”. New appointments in both Departments softened the old divisions. Sunday bush walks in the glorious New South Wales countryside became a cross-departmental institution, while David and Jenny Armstrong’s generous attitude to domestic arrangements saw their house in Glebe often visited and sometimes occupied by old enemies. Armstrong’s warm essay on a one-time opponent “My Friend, Brian Medlin” (Quadrant, March 2005) illustrates the extent to which that Australian myth, mateship, is also a reality.

Armstrong had never ceased philosophical work, but the easing of tensions at Sydney greatly increased his output. For the rest of a scholarly life stretching well into his eighties, he worked systematically on a theory of the basic parts of reality and their relations. Prominent here were his theories of the laws of nature (summarised on one T-shirt as “Laws of nature are relations between consenting universals”), and of possibility. On this latter question his view is related to a theory of the early Wittgenstein, that possibilities are built out of what is actual or real. While home was always his beloved Sydney, a good deal of this work was done during visiting professorships at CUNY, Nottingham, Texas, Yale and other institutions.

Armstrong was educated at the Dragon School, Geelong Grammar, Sydney University, Oxford, and Melbourne University. He saw wartime service in the Royal Australian Navy; his father had captained HMAS Australia. Though deeply political in his thinking, with trenchant essays on current affairs, he wrote nothing in political or social philosophy except a paper on tradition. His first book was on Bishop Berkeley but his mature philosophy was largely ahistorical; he treated philosophical problems as challenges to be confronted by our best rational thinking informed, where appropriate, by current science.  His writing was crisp and elegant and his personal style in philosophical debate welcoming and generous to critics, though he was not easily (and perhaps not ever) moved from the central, programmatic ideas that drove his intellectual life.

His first teacher in philosophy was the Scotsman John Anderson, a colourful personality whose once devoted followers predictably broke away, forming the libertarian “Sydney Push” dedicated to the outraging of public morals; Armstrong, more conservative in outlook, was for some time on their margin. The significant influences on his philosophy were Jack Smart, from whom he acquired a belief in the identity of mind and brain, and Princeton’s David Lewis, who formulated, with extraordinary elegance and economy, the central principles of the materialist theory of mind before joining Armstrong in exploring the further reaches of metaphysics. Those present at philosophical conversations between these two undemonstrative friends will not forget them.

David Armstrong was a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford (where his grandfather R R Marett had been Rector), and a member of the Order of Australia. He is survived by his first wife Madeleine Haydon (m.1950), and by his second wife Jennifer Clark (m. 1982) and his three step-children.