David Malet Armstrong bigraphy, stories - Australian philosopher

David Malet Armstrong : biography

8 July 1926 -

David Malet Armstrong (born 8 July 1926), often D. M. Armstrong, is an Australian philosopher. He is well known for his work on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and for his defence of a factualist ontology, a functionalist theory of the mind, an externalist epistemology, and a necessitarian conception of the laws of nature. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.

Life and career

After studying at the University of Sydney, Armstrong did a B.Phil at the University of Oxford and a Ph.D at the University of Melbourne. He taught at Birkbeck College in 1954–55, then at the University of Melbourne from 1956–63. In 1964, he became Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, where he stayed until his retirement in 1992. During his career, he was a visiting lecturer at a number of institutions including Yale, Stanford, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Texas at Austin and Franklin and Marshall College.

In 1974, when the University of Sydney's Philosophy department split into two departments—the Department for General Philosophy and the Department for Traditional and Modern Philosophy—Armstrong joined the latter along with David Stove and Keith Campbell, while the former department pursued more radical politics and taught courses on Marxism and feminism. The two departments were reunified in 2000.

Armstrong married Jennifer Mary de Bohun Clark in 1982 and has step children. He previously married Madeleine Annette Haydon in 1950. He also served in the Royal Australian Navy.

In 1950, Armstrong formed an Anti-Conscription Committee with David Stove and Eric Dowling, all three former students of John Anderson. Anderson supported conscription and also believed that anti-conscription opinions ought to be suppressed.


Armstrong's philosophy is broadly naturalistic. In Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics, Armstrong states that his philosophical system rests upon "the assumption that all that exists is the space-time world, the physical world as we say". He justifies this by saying that the physical world "seems obviously to exist" while other things "seem much more hypothetical". From this fundamental assumption flows a rejection of abstract objects including Platonic forms.

Armstrong's development as a philosopher was influenced heavily by John Anderson, David Lewis, and J.J.C. Smart, as well as by U.T. Place, Herbert Feigl, Gilbert Ryle and G. E. Moore.Peter Forrest, in A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand (Oppy and Trakakis) Armstrong collaborated with C. B. Martin on a collection of critical essays on John Locke and George Berkeley.



In metaphysics, Armstrong defends the view that universals exist (although Platonic uninstantiated universals do not exist). Those universals match up with the fundamental particles that science tells us about. Armstrong declares himself to be a scientific realist.

Armstrong notes that his view of universals is that they are "sparse": not every predicate will have an accompanying property, but only those which are deemed basic by scientific investigation. The ultimate ontology of universals would only be realised with the completion of physical science. Mass would thus be a universal (subject to mass not being discarded by future physicists). Armstrong realises that we will need to refer to and use properties that are not considered universals in his sparse ontology—for instance, being able to refer to something being a game (to use the example from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations). Armstrong then suggests that a supervenience relation exists between these second-order properties and the ontologically authentic universals given to us by physics.

Armstrong's theory of universals treats relations as having no particular ontological difficulty: they can be treated in the same way non-relational properties are. How Armstrong's theory of universals deals with relations with varying adicities has been raised as an issue by Fraser MacBride. MacBride argues that there can be relations where the number of terms in the relation varies across instances. Armstrong's response is to affirm a theory he describes as the Principle for Instantial Invariance, wherein the adicity of properties are essential and invariant. According to Armstrong, complex relations which seem to challenge the principle are not ontologically real but are second-order properties that can be reduced to more basic properties that subscribe to the Principle of Instantial Invariance.

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine