Philosophy and Ideas

A Tribute to David Armstrong

David Stove wrote this tribute in November 1991 to mark David Armstrong’s retirement from the Challis Chair in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. It has not previously been published.

Most of us have moments when we are oppressed by the conviction that our character is worthless and our abilities insignificant. At these times, the gloom can in some cases be lightened a little, by recalling that there are people, of better character and greater abilities than we have, who are our friends. We reason that, since So-and-so thinks there is something in us, perhaps there is, after all.

I at any rate have reasoned in that way often enough, about various of my friends. But ever since David and I became friends when we were undergraduates here in 1947 or 1948, I have done so especially often about him. I still do reason in that way. That he is one of my friends, is one of the most creditable things I know about myself.

But it would be out of place here, to enlarge upon my personal debt to him. It is more appropriate, and much more important, to say something about the debts owed to him by philosophy, and by this university.

The last three holders of the Challis chair—Anderson, Mackie, Armstrong—form a distin­guished trio. But if we ask ourselves which of them has made the biggest contribution to philosophy, made the most difference to the course it has taken, the answer is obviously David. Indeed, there is hardly any comparison.

Anderson’s influence on the main stream of philosophy has been virtually non-existent. Someone who was once a fanatical Andersonian (as I was) occasionally gets in the course of his reading a faint whiff of what was once, philosophically speaking, his mother’s milk. But these are only faint and occasional whiffs, and even when they do occur, it is never in reading a book or article that has made any difference, or is going to make any difference, to the main stream.

John Mackie’s book on ethics has made a difference to the main stream; but nothing else that he wrote has. Whereas David has made a difference in the philosophy of mind, of universals, of natural laws, and of modality. And in at least the first three of those four areas, the difference he has made is unquestionably greater than the difference that Mackie made in the philosophy of morals.

Of course if we consider, not influence on philosophy, but influence on general culture inside Australia, the comparison comes out quite the opposite way. In that respect Anderson had a great deal of influence, Mackie none, and David only slight influence. Neither David nor Mackie ever aspired to that kind of influence, nor could they have achieved it even if they had aspired to it. Both of them were by nature pure philosophers, whereas Anderson was a very impure one. If he could have had his way, philosophy would still be “the queen of the sciences”, and not only of the sciences, but of human life altogether; on the understanding, of course, that here the word philosophy means his philosophy. In the characterology of philosophers, Anderson belonged to the Plato-Comte strain or variety.

But, while David has never aspired to put the world right by philosophy, the world for its part has not been equally willing to let him and philosophy alone in return. Quite the reverse. His tenure of the Chair turned out to coincide with an enormous attack on philosophy, and on humanistic learning in general: an attack which has proved to be almost as successful as it was unprecedented.

This attack was begun, as everyone knows, by Marxists, in support of North Vietnam’s attempt to extend the blessings of communism to the south. The resulting Marxisation of the Faculty of Arts was by no means as complete as the resulting Marxisation of South Vietnam. But the wound inflicted on humanistic learning was a very severe one all the same. You could properly compare it to a person’s suffering third-degree burns to 35 per cent of his body.

After the defeat of America in Vietnam, the attack was renewed, amplified, and intensified, by feminists. Their attack has proved far more devastating than that of the Marxists. Lenin once said, “If we go, we shall slam the door on an empty house”; and how well this pleasant promise has been kept by the Russian Marxists, all the world now knows. It is in exactly the same spirit of insane malignancy that feminists have waged their war on humanistic learning; and their degree of success has fallen not much short of Lenin’s. Of the many hundreds of courses offered to Arts undergraduates in this university, what proportion, I wonder, are now not made culturally-destructive, as well as intellectually null, by feminist malignancy and madness? One-third? I would love to believe that the figure is so high. But I cannot believe it.

David did all that he could have done, given the limits set by his position and his personality, to repel this attack. Of course he failed; but then, no one could have succeeded. What he did achieve was a certain amount of damage-limitation. Even this was confined to the philosophy-section of the front. On the Faculty of Arts as a whole, David has had no influence at all—to put it mildly. In fact, when he spoke at a meeting of the Faculty, even on subjects unrelated to the attack, you could always have cut the atmosphere with a knife. It is a curious matter, this: the various ways inferior people have, of indirectly acknowledging the superiority of others, even where no such acknowledgment is at all intended by the inferior, or expected by the superior.

By the end of 1972, the situation in the philosophy department had become so bad that the splitting of the department into two was the only way in which philosophy at this university could be kept alive at all. In this development, David was the leading spirit, as his position and personality made it natural he should be. Of course he did not do it on his own. Pat Trifonoff’s intelligence and character made her an important agent in it. Keith Campbell’s adhesion to our side, after some hesitation, was a critical moment. But while I and certain others were only casting about for some avenue of escape, David never gave up. He battled on, and battled on again, and always exacted the best terms, however bad, that could be got from the enemies of philosophy.

The result of the split was far more happy than could have been rationally predicted at the time. In fact it was a fitting reward for David’s courage and tenacity. For the first twenty years of the new Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy have been fertile in good philosophy, to a degree unparalleled in any similar period in this or any other Australian university. The department has also enjoyed a rare freedom from internal disharmony. As I have often said, it is the best club in the world, and to be or have been a member of it is a pleasure as well as a privilege.

There will certainly be no adequate official acknowledgment, from anyone inside the university, of what is owed to David. What could someone like the present Vice-Chancellor possibly care about the survival of humanistic learning, or even know about philosophy, or history, or literature? Anyone who did would never have got a Vice-Chancellor’s job in the first place. If there is any acknowledgment forthcoming from the Faculty of Arts, David will be able to estimate the sincerity of it well enough. It will be a case of people, who smiled as they watched him nearly drowning in the boiling surf of 1967–72, telling him how glad they were when, against all probability, he managed to make it to the beach.

But anyone who does know and care about philosophy, or does care about the survival of humanistic learning, will feel towards him something like the degree of gratitude which they ought to feel.

David Stove (1927–94) taught Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1960 to 1987. There is a  website dedicated to his work, managed by his literary executor, James Franklin, at


One thought on “A Tribute to David Armstrong

  • flashman50 says:

    David Armstrong was the best teacher I had at Sydney University in my years there as an undergraduate from 1970 to 1973. His ideas were always expressed with both clarity and humility. He was very approachable and above all patient with his students who would ask , like myself, questions which certainly betrayed an appalling understanding of what he was presenting. I thought this at the time even though some of the positions he took were diametrically opposed to my own.
    I was privileged to have been his student and regret that I didn’t get to know him better.

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