Professor David Armstrong

16 May 2014 5:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The philosophical community will be saddened to learn that David Malet Armstrong died on the 13th of May after a long illness: two months shy of his 88 thbirthday. DMA or Armo, as he was affectionately known, is the most important philosopher that Australia has produced. Such has been his impact that he not only made major contributions to the philosophy of mind, epistemology and metaphysics, he also played a significant role in laying out the terrain and setting the agenda in those fields. As one reviewer put it when summing up Armstrong’s book What is a Law of Nature?, ‘all future work ... starts here’.

The Australasian Association of Philosophy expresses its sadness at David Armstrong’s death, and offers its condolences to his wife Jenny and her children and his sister Suzanne.

The University of Sydney will host a Memorial for David Armstrong in the Great Hall at 2.00pm on Wednesday 16 July.


The AAP hopes that this page can be used to collate and share thoughts about Professor DM Armstrong. If you leave a post, make sure you add your name at the end, and your email, if you wish.


  • 17 May 2014 10:22 AM | James Franklin
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  • 17 May 2014 12:15 PM | Kim Sterelny
    As well as being one of the two great figures most responsible for Australian philosophy being a serious player in world philosophy (with Jack Smart), and a superbly clear and energetic teacher (I had my first epistemology course from him), he was a great-hearted man. He was treated vilely in the Sydney troubles — deliberately abused and shunned (I saw myself many occassions in which he came into a room for lunch, and everyone else would simply leave and walk out), he rebuilt good relations with most of his persecutors, with almost no I-told-you-sos.
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  • 17 May 2014 3:41 PM | William Grey
    An Armstrong (and Jack Smart) story that should be recorded is an irreverent remark made by Bernard Williams when discussing central-state materialism, that Australia was not only the place where the theory that the mind is identical to the brain was invented, but also the only place where it is true.
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    • 19 May 2014 1:19 PM | Suzanne Uniacke
      Here's another story: I heard some years ago that back in the day the first copies of David's book 'Bodily Sensations' (1962) were held up while Australian Customs inspected them for salacious content.
      I kind of hope this is true!
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  • 17 May 2014 7:42 PM | Edward Howlett Spence
    I consider myself fortunate to have being a student of David Armstrong's during the halcyon years of philosophy in the Traditional and Modern Philosophy Department, University of Sydney, (known affectionately as T&M) during the period 1985-1996. I took his classes in the Philosophy of Mind and later his classes on Universals and Possibility. David Lewis, an honorary Aussie and a good friend of Armstrong's used to drop in occasionally and partake in the seminars on Possibility. Armstrong was an excellent teacher, patient, clear and supportive. I recall on one occasion during a class on the Philosophy of Mind, stopping in mid-sentence and by way of an aside remarking " but of course we cannot be certain of anything". The profundity of that statement has remained with me and stops me in my tracks when I catch myself being unreasonably dogmatic. I can imagine him repeating that sentence on being pronounced dead "well one can never be certain". His legacy as one of the great philosophers of our time will live on. Thank you David.
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  • 18 May 2014 1:38 AM | Steffi Lewis
    David Lewis and David Armstrong were great friends who agreed about practically nothing. Universals, properties and Aussue rules football were all points of difference between the two. They conversed amiably and profitably about all of them (well, maybe not so profitably about the footy) for thirty five years.
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  • 18 May 2014 4:46 AM | Rebecca Roache
    I was very sad to read this news. I devoured Prof. Armstrong's work as a student, and he is one of only a handful of people responsible for instilling in me the love of philosophy (and, particularly, of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind) that I retain to this day. I saw him once at a conference when I was a student, where I was too star-struck to say hello. A great loss to philosophy. My condolences to his family.
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  • 18 May 2014 6:40 PM | Graeme A Forbes
    One of the first books I read as an undergraduate that wasn't a textbook was his Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. I met him at an APA once and told him this, and how much I had enjoyed it, and he replied 'I've never been able to write any other kind'.
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  • 18 May 2014 11:51 PM | Bill Lycan
    David was the most intellectually honest philosopher I have ever known. He never argued for victory; he never claimed more for an argument than it showed; when a position of his had weakness at the heart, he was quick to acknowledge that; he listened to all objections from anyone and addressed them fairly; and he made his own objections to his own work and revised in light of them, as you will know if you heard his paper at AAP 2007, when he was 81 years old.
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  • 19 May 2014 9:28 AM | John Forge
    I accepted and adopted David's theory of universals in about 1988, after a prolonged struggle with my class nominalist tendencies. It made a huge difference in my work on quantities and law - otherwise I would have been stuck good and proper. A great philosopher, and I always found him friendly.
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  • 19 May 2014 10:18 AM | N.J.J. Smith
    I was incredibly fortunate to be in first year Philosophy at Sydney in the final year that David Armstrong taught first year epistemology. What an introduction to epistemology and to Philosophy. He was an inspiring teacher and generous mentor and will be greatly missed.
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  • 19 May 2014 3:13 PM | Jane Maze
    David Armstrong was my uncle, and a warm, playful, kind one. As a quite young child I asked my father, also an academic, what David's job was. He replied that he gave lectures to people about questions like this: 'If God is all-powerful, as he supposedly is, can he make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?' Having visited Speakers' Corner at the Domain in Sydney, and not (yet) the philosophy lecture room in the Quadrangle of the University of Sydney, I was left with the impression that David travelled from town to town with a soapbox, rousing the crowds against religion. I hadn't got it quite right, but it seemed an honourable trade anyway. As, most certainly, was his real work in the world. I will miss his razor-sharp and honest thinking.
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  • 19 May 2014 6:36 PM | uriah
    I hope it would not be indiscreet to share a touching email exchange with Armstrong from early 2011. It shows an incredibly gracious man, and not just from the lips outwards, still obsessing about philosophical matters while getting ready for the end.


    j&d armstrong <>


    Dear Uriah,

    I have read your review, forthcoming in the AJP, of my short book [Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics]. As you may imagine, it gave me great pleasure. We have probably met at some time, but my memory for names is not the best now. It is probably my last book - I don't think I have very much more to say. I will read the review again more carefully, at leisure, and see if I can come to terms with any of the critical points that you raise.

    Yours, David


    Uriah Kriegel <>


    Dear David,

    Thank you for your note: it is rewarding to think that my little
    review gave you pleasure, after all the pleasure I derived from your
    books over the years. We did meet once very briefly: Peter Menzies
    introduced me to you in Sydney Uni one afternoon in 2006, but I'm
    afraid I was too intimidated to say anything, let alone leave a

    All my best,



    j&d armstrong <>



    I have been thinking about contingency, following on your review.

    [Here was attached a one page "note to self" that started as follows:

    "What account should I give of contingency, e.g. what is a contingent being?
    Begin by introducing the notion of a contingent proposition"...

    A short philosophical exchange ensued. The last email in that exchange is this:]


    j&d armstrong <>



    I like (c) . It seems to me that this is what we need if the derivativeness thesis is correct.

    If this is correct the terms 'contingent', 'possibility', 'impossibility', 'contradiction', necessity, seem to be all terms of logic, which ought to be directly linked to propositions and so only indirectly to the world. What their ontology is, is therefore unclear to me. (As you pointed out in your review.) I'd be very interested if you have any ideas. No hurry, though!

    Best, David


    This whole exchange reminded me of an old proverb I heard somewhere: "The wise man teaches few but is taught by many." I doubt the first half is true of Armstrong, but the second one certainly is.
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  • 20 May 2014 10:13 AM | Brant Pridmore
    I did an introductory philosophy course with DMA in 1982. He was an extremely clear and polished lecturer. I couldn't imagine anyone going to those talks and not wanting to know more. A very good teacher indeed.
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  • 20 May 2014 8:10 PM | Jean-Maurice Monnoyer
    A word on Armstrong’s personality. Armstrong steps out of a plane wearing a sports shirt and his indigenous hat after a twenty-plus hour flight: he has only an old handbag with him - no books. He refuses to take elevators or taxis, converses with the first student he meets, hates long talks, convoluted arguments, incessant quibbling about terms, semanticists and declining attitudes. He was not immediately viewed as a ‘nice’ character: his immense height frightened people and his conservative remarks were met by a highly critical audience. Despite this conservatism of character, he confessed to having greatly erred twice: having not recognized that the Australians should have been the first alerted by environmental concerns and having not predicted that the Soviet System’s inversion would introduce the Mafia into positions of power. Thus, his conservatism is not the conservatism one would assume. Concerning the question of what must ultimately be remembered of France, he said to me: “Pasteur - his name will be the only famous one to endure for centuries to come.” Indeed, as if the arbitration of science were to remain the only criterion that enables one to judge what is metaphysically conceivable. The reading of Armstrong is a lesson in life by the peremptory strictness of the stream of his thoughts, and by the absolute concentration it requires. His thinking limited itself precisely to the least that one can say when dealing with attempts to understand what this world is made of – the world we perceive and on which we exert our investigation.

    Un mot sur la personnalité d’Armstrong. Armstrong descend d’avion en polo et avec son chapeau indigène, après plus de vingt heures de vol : il n’a qu’un vieux sac à main et pas de livres. Il refuse de prendre les ascenseurs ou les taxis, discute avec le premier étudiant venu, déteste les exposés longs, les arguments alambiqués, les positions où l’on chinoise sur le terme, les postures sémanticistes et décadentes. Il ne dégage pas de sympathie ; sa haute taille fait peur et ses propos conservateurs lui ont valu de vives répliques. Il m’a dit pourtant s’être lourdement trompé deux fois : de n’avoir pas vu que la question environnementale aurait dû alerter d’abord les Australiens ; de n’avoir pas prévu que le renversement du système soviétique introniserait la Mafia dans les fonctions du pouvoir. Son conservatisme n’est donc pas celui qu’on croit. A la question de savoir ce qu’il y a à retenir de la France : « Pasteur » me dit-il, « il restera le seul nom de renommée pluriséculaire ». Comme si, en effet, l’arbitrage de la science devait rester le seul critère permettant de juger ce qui est métaphysiquement envisageable. La lecture d’Armstrong est une leçon de vie par la rigueur péremptoire du train de ses pensées et la pénétration sérieuse qu’elle exige : elle se limite justement au moins qu’on puisse dire quand on s’occupe de savoir de quoi est fait ce monde, celui que nous percevons et sur lequel s’exerce notre investigation.
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  • 22 May 2014 7:42 AM | Stephen Hetherington
    This is indeed sad news. I am just one of the many philosophers, especially Australian philosophers, for whom David was both an early and a continuing inspiration. My very first experience of philosophy was as a 17 year old youth in a small evening class meeting, listening to David as he sat there, in effortless command of the moment. Like others before and since, I was enthralled as his calm and rigorous mind went to work. He was so impressive.
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  • 22 May 2014 2:45 PM | James Franklin
    Peter Coleman's eulogy at yesterday's funeral can be read at
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  • 26 May 2014 11:23 AM | Ray Younis
    This is very sad news. I recall a meeting with David Armstrong in the mid-1980s. I asked him to look at a couple of chapters from my thesis (on a topic that does not excite many philosophers!). He was very busy at the time, no doubt, but immediately agreed and asked me to bring them to him. He read them carefully; his comments were considered, entirely fair and valuable; his response was encouraging. Though that was almost 30 years ago, I have never forgotten (as a student and as a teacher) his thoughtfulness, his kindness and his generosity.
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  • 26 May 2014 12:13 PM | Cathy Legg
    I remember David giving a talk to the Russellian Society when I was at University of Sydney around 1997. He defended a currently very unpopular account of singular causation with an anti-Humean epistemology. With this position he got very little traction from a modestly-sized audience but he persisted with his arguments and I remember thinking how evident it was that he really, sincerely loved philosophical inquiry for its own sake.
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  • 28 May 2014 2:47 PM | James Franklin
    A story from the man himself, about his time as a grad student at Oxford in the 50s. He recalled attending a seminar by the leading linguistic philosophers Strawson and Grice:

    "Grice, I think it was, read very fast a long paper which was completely unintelligible to me. Perhaps others were having difficulty also because when the paper finished there was a long, almost religious, hush in the room. Then O.P. Wood raised what seemed to be a very minute point even by Oxford standards. A quick dismissive remark by Grice and the room settled down to its devotions again. At this point a Canadian sitting next to me turned and said, ‘Say, what is going on here?’ I said, ‘I’m new round here, and I don’t know the rules of this game. But I think Strawson and Grice are winning.’"

    (From Bogdan, D.M. Armstrong, p. 11; in Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia, p. 281)
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    • 30 May 2014 9:01 AM | James Franklin
      In his Spectator column today, Peter Coleman reports: "When told of the death of the philosopher David Armstrong, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had this to say: ‘David was a fine man, a deep thinker and a fighter for the things he believed in.’"
      (During the Sydney philosophy disturbances of the 1970s, the young student leader Tony Abbott knocked on Armstrong's door to offer any support he needed; there wasn't anything he could do but Armstrong always appreciated the offer.)
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  • 01 Jun 2014 7:32 PM | James Franklin
    ABC Radio National Philosopher's Zone today 1 June did 10 minutes on David Armstrong:
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  • 06 Jun 2014 10:42 AM | Martin Davies
    Very sad news indeed. I met the man once at a seminar in Adelaide. He clearly had a formidable intellect.

    There is a lengthy and illuminating interview with Armstrong on the NLA archives. It was conducted by Stein Helgeby and recorded on 29/9/2009 and 20/102009. Helgeby also interviewed Jack Smart around the same time.
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    • 07 Jun 2014 8:15 PM | James Franklin
      From the transcript of session 1 of that interview:

      Stein Helgeby: If Wittgenstein made such a, a big mistake, have you given some, any thought to why he might have made that mistake? Since you do hold his earlier views in quite high regard.
      David Armstrong: Yes. Well, I think it was a character defect. I think he was a nark.
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  • 10 Jun 2014 12:20 PM | James Franklin
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    • 11 Jun 2014 1:01 AM | Avril Styrman
      Armstrong is the most important scientific realist of the post 1960's period. The Challis chair should now be renamed as D.M. Armstrong chair.
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  • 02 Jul 2014 10:44 PM | Dennis H
    I was fortunate indeed to have had Professor Armstrong as my Philosophy I lecturer in I think 1969 or 1970. In addition to the crystal clarity of his thought, he was a very impressive man. He had the courage to take publicly a pro-Saigon view of the Vietnam war, when that view was not fashionable at Sydney University. As a lecturer, he was very much committed to elucidation and teaching. If he ever stood on a pedestal, it was to see the questioning student at the back of the room. Professor Armstrong was very tolerant of opposing views from his students - I never saw him even remotely disparage a questioning student. My thanks to a decent man.
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  • 10 Jul 2014 5:49 PM | James Franklin
    The London Telegraph obituary
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  • 17 Aug 2014 9:18 PM | James Franklin
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