Jenny and David Armstrong
Photo: Courtesy David Chalmers
An Interview with
David Armstrong, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, is one of the foremost living philosophers. And if you were to ask me to name a Materialist, without hesitation, I would name him. I think he received this reputation in 1968 when he published A Materialist Theory of the Mind. He has published many books and articles dealing with metaphysical and epistemological problems, including probably the most comprehensive study of the problem of universals. His full bibliography is available at: ditext.com/armstrong/armstrong.html.
In April 2002, I attended the APA convention in Chicago, and during a break in the symposium devoted to the memory of David Lewis, in which Prof. Armstrong was a participant, I approached him and we got into a conversation about Wilfrid Sellars. I found his reminiscences so interesting that I suggested that we meet the next day for an interview. The next day when I arrived and telephoned his hotel room, he told me that he was not feeling very well, but invited me to come to his room anyway. After opening the door, he got back into bed, I put my tape recorder next to him on the bed, sat next to his bed, and we talked. At some point Mrs. Armstrong came into the room and was momentarily alarmed. She thought Prof. Armstrong must be feeling so ill that he had called for a medical doctor! After he assured her that I was not there for that reason, she left us to continue our conversation.
Andrew Chrucky: When did you first meet Wilfrid Sellars?
David Armstrong: I met him when I came to the U. S. for first time in 1962. I was teaching for a semester as an Assistant Professor at Yale.
Chrucky: Did you have any interaction with him then?
Armstrong: Yes, I saw quite a bit of him. With his permission I audited his seminar. I have forgotten what it was about -- perhaps on the mind -- but that's a guess. One interesting thing about the seminar was how clear he was. He made a very good impression on me. Sellars is a difficult author to read as everybody knows, but he was beautifully clear in his seminar. I vividly remember one thing. To the student who was giving a paper he said: "What's your slogan? You have to have a slogan that will catch people's attention." I don't think I'm giving you the exact words, but that was the line of thought -- that you needed headlines.
Chrucky: I understand that he believed that every philosopher has a picture in the back of his mind, and that you can literally find the picture and put it diagrammatically on the side, in the margins, as you read.
Armstrong: Ah, that's interesting. I hadn't heard that.
Chrucky: A lot of people have said that he used diagrams in class on the blackboard.
Armstrong: I don't remember. He may have done so. But that didn't stick in my mind; what did stick in my mind was how easy it was to understand him in his seminars.
Chrucky: So, by the time you took the seminar, was he already well known?
Armstrong: Oh, yes! I knew of his reputation before I came there, and he was very pleasant. My wife and I went out to his house on at least one occasion and met him and his wife. He gave me quite a lot of time, and I talked to him about various things. I was just beginning to try to develop a reliability theory of knowledge, and I suggested to him: if you just continue to get things right on a certain matter, that would be enough for knowledge. And I remember him saying to me, "You wouldn't really call that knowledge, you'd only call that smowledge" -- small knowledge.
Chrucky: That's very good.
Armstrong: I thought it was a clever remark. But I thought, well that is what I want to do, make it small. I wanted to make knowledge a somewhat down to earth affair.
Chrucky: When was your next encounter with Sellars?
Armstrong: I don't think I encountered him in the flesh again till 1980. But let me back up a bit. After 1962, I was working on the philosophy of mind, working on my book The Materialist Theory of the Mind, and one of the things that I was reading and thinking about was his three essays on the philosophy of mind, "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind." And I found that material very useful and very stimulating in writing my book.
Chrucky: So, I see, there was some direct influence?
Armstrong: Yes, there was some direct influence . . . but I'm afraid I can't tell you what the details were. But those three essays impressed me at the time and certainly went into my thinking.
Chrucky: You also mentioned yesterday the Manifest/Scientific Image distinction. Was that also influential?
Armstrong: No, I think that was a bit later. I am not sure just when I first read his paper "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" . . . That essay is also extremely clear, unlike so many of his writings which are very difficult. That distinction between the Manifest Image of the world as it appears to our senses, and the Scientific Image that is gradually being articulated, stuck in my mind, and has been in my mind ever since, and I have worked with it. I thought: yes, and the problem in epistemology is: how do we get from the Manifest Image to the Scientific Image? Especially since, as it were, we have to work inside the Manifest Image to get the sensory evidence that leads us to revise that image itself. There is a bit of conflict and difficulty there: how is it done? Anyway, I've always dwelt with these two Images ever since I read that article.
Chrucky: What I know of your philosophy, you agree with Sellars that the measure of reality is science.
Armstrong: Yes. Certainly. I think knowledge has three pillars. The first pillar is what I call the Moorean truths -- the basic truths of common sense - things like: we are awake now, we are in a hotel, in Chicago; and all the innumerable things that we know of that sort. And I think that Moore's argument that we are much more certain of these sorts of things than we are certain of any skeptical argument to the contrary is a very good point. But, then, with that in hand, we go on to science -- the a priori sciences of mathematics and logic with their special ways of working, but above all to the empirical sciences -- they are the foundations for all our further knowledge.
Chrucky: I think that you are very compatible with Sellars.
Chrucky: You both respect science.
Armstrong: I follow him in his Scientific Realism.
Chrucky: Where do you think you diverge from him?
Armstrong: Well, one very big divergence we have is about the problem of universals. Sellars was a Nominalist, and a fairly thoroughgoing Nominalist. All the problems about sorts, kinds, properties, relations, and so on, get kicked up into the linguistic apparatus by Sellars -- he uses those elaborate mechanisms involving the dot-quotes, and so on. And I have no sympathy with that at all. I think that there really are objective properties and relations in the world, that things have properties, stand in relations . . . and that's my view of the thing. But it is not a Sellarsian view.
Chrucky: I have been trying to understand what the problem of universals is, and how to formulate the problem. The way I have come to formulate it -- and I think this is the Sellarsian problem, which I think he takes from C. D. Broad -- it is basically a question of ontological commitment. And the criterion of ontological commitment would be determined by the subject of your sentence. So, if you have a sentence like "The apple is red," all you're committed to here is apples. But if you say "Redness has a certain property," then you are committing yourself to redness. The way I understand Sellars' approach to the problem of universals -- it's simply the question: Can you translate sentences that contain references to abstract terms like "redness" into sentences that do not? As to the existence of properties and relations in the world, I do not see in Sellars a denial of this. It is simply restricted to that question of translating sentences.
Armstrong: But given these translations he thought you were not ontologically committed to properties and relations.
Chrucky: Right. That's his criterion.
Armstrong: I regard myself as committed to them.
Chrucky: You would accept sentences like: "Redness is . . . " and not bother translating?
Armstrong: Yes. Well, I don't really do it in terms of translation. I describe myself as a Scientific Realist about universals. I think it's up to science to tell us a posteriori, on the basis of our best science, what are the true properties of things and the true relations in which things stand. This is a big difference. My theory is not a Platonic theory, its more an Aristotelian theory, if that's what Aristotle held: universals in re, in the things. These things are to be discovered a posteriori under the guidance of science, and it's not our language that tells us what universals there are. So that's my big difference with Wilfrid.
Chrucky: Let me ask you about something that I found a problem with in Sellars, and I thought your book, Belief, Truth and Knowledge, took a correct stand on this. It has to do with cognitions. It seems to me that Sellars focused on human cognition, and everything he says seems to be relevant only to human cognitions. But, after all, we are also animals, and what he has to say about animal cognitions, although it is also plausible, I find that he doesn't connect the two, that he doesn't connect human cognitions with animal cognitions. And there is a kind of separation where you get a tendency to read Sellars as a linguistic idealist, which is exactly what I think Rorty does.
Armstrong: Yes, well I am not expert enough in Sellars' philosophy to say that, but I am very much on the side of seeing the human mind as on a continuum with the animal mind. Down through the chimpanzees, down to the most elementary creatures that perhaps just have perceptions and are driven by certain routines.
Chrucky: This is exactly what I found compatible with my way of thinking what you were doing -- seeing this continuum. But in Sellars, although in separate places what he says is correct, there is a lack of merging of these things.
Armstrong: We are evolved animals, we are evolved from animals with simpler mental structures, and so on down and down and down, until you reach creatures that have no mental structures at all.
Chrucky: Would you say that humans operate on this animal level as well as on . . .
Armstrong: Sure, sure. We're animals. I didn't know that was in dispute between Wilfrid and me! I thought he would just grant that.
Chrucky: In my dissertation, that was the main problem that I found.
Armstrong: Well, you know his work in a way that I don't.
Chrucky: Well, just because we are talking about interpretations of Sellars, I am thinking of Rorty because I think he set analytic philosophy into a post-modern trend, and it has to do with his interpretation of Sellars. I'm wondering: What's your take on Rorty?
Armstrong: Not a very favorable one . . . not a very favorable one. I really have no time for linguistic idealism and the playing down of truth.
Chrucky: You would call it linguistic idealism?
Armstrong: Assuming that that phrase is right . . . I was just going along with it. What I certainly don't like about Rorty is the denial of truth, the notion of truth, and objectivity. I believe that science and mathematics gets us to objective truth.
Chrucky: And so did Sellars. You mentioned to me an encounter which you had with Sellars later on, and you mentioned Moby Dick.
Armstrong: Oh, yes, that was in 1980. I was lecturing for a semester at the University of Texas at Austin, and various people were coming in for a week and I think it was organized by Herb Hochberg, and one of the philosophers who came was Sellars, who was a friend of Hochberg's. And we had some nice conversations there. I was rereading Moby Dick - it seemed a good thing to do while in America. And I mentioned to Wilfrid that I'd been doing that, and he said, "Oh, yes, I reread it every four or five years."
Chrucky: Interesting. You are going to have me thinking about this for a while. Is there some other encounter?
Armstrong: No, I met him once or twice in conferences. I remember half an hour with him at a bar, but I don't remember anything particular. I think you pretty much got my relations with Sellars. They were not extensive, but they were very pleasant and I value what there was.
Chrucky: I myself had a long conversation with Sellars only once. This was at Haverforth. Sellars, Chisholm, and [Ernest] Nagel came together for an NEH summer conference. I just crashed on it, because I was then studying Sellars and wanted to hear him. There was a criticism made of his Manifest Image by Alan Donagan. The criticism was that different cultures have different Manifest Images, and these Manifest Images include a religious world view, so the criticism was: how can he talk about a common Manifest Image when there are many Manifest Images? So I asked: How do you respond to that? He said something to the effect: "Well, I am not interested in the religious component. I am abstracting from the common sense view certain features of it which are not common, such as religious world views -- I leave these out of the picture."
Armstrong: Well, that sounds like a good reply. Such an abstraction makes sense.
Chrucky: Right. I thought it was.
Armstrong: He was talking about the ordinary world as one moves around in it.
Chrucky: One of the things that troubled me was Sellars' roots -- what was his intellectual background?
Armstrong: His father, of course.
Chrucky: Yes, certainly. By the way, was his father influential on you?
Armstrong: No, but he did write me one letter at one point when he was a very old man, I think after I had met Wilfrid. I have one letter from him which I still have filed away with my papers -- but I don't remember very much of it. But I do remember Wilfrid saying, "I am very much my father's son, philosophically." And, of course, Roy Wood Sellars was a Nominalist. And I think that influenced Wilfrid. I always thought, from my stance, that was a rather unfortunate influence! I thought: I am sorry he is a Nominalist because I don't agree with that.
Chrucky: What I have come to believe is that he was influenced not only by his father . . . and he recognizes explicit influence by others: Carnap, Wittgenstein, Ryle . . . But I think the hidden one, which he mentions once in a while -- but when he does mention him, he forms a big chunk of his world view: this is C. D. Broad.
Armstrong: Ah, that's interesting.
Chrucky: Now I have a greater appreciation of Broad because of this -- because of trying to understand the influences on Sellars -- to the extent that I have created a web site for C. D. Broad. What I did in my introductory essay is to call him the default philosopher of the century.
Armstrong: Hmm, that's an interesting remark. I don't know Broad as well as I should, but I am sure that from what I know that he was an excellent philosopher.
Chrucky: What I do like about him is that he has the clarity of G. E. Moore, but not . . . You see, Moore has a tendency to be too picky, and it becomes tedious. You want to ask him to speed up his exposition.
Armstrong: I greatly like Moore's "Defense of Common Sense."
Armstrong: That seemed to me to be very good. But, yes, Broad seems to advance the topics which he takes up.
Chrucky: There is a similarity between you and Broad in the following respect. The reason I called him the default philosopher of the century is because I think he has a grand dialectical approach -- in fact I call the site "Philosophical Alternatives from C.D. Broad". For example, for the mind-body problem, in the book Mind and Its Place in Nature, he gives seventeen alternative views on the mind-body problem. I don't know of any one else who did such a thing. And reading your work, you also have this dialectical approach where you examine alternatives and give credit to alternative views.
Armstrong: I did not do anything in such a comprehensive way for the mind-body problem, but I think I have done it in a reasonably comprehensive way for the problem of universals.
Armstrong: I tried to set out the various varieties of Nominalism and varieties of Realisms.
Chrucky: Its very wonderful to read it . . . your taking care of various alternatives. . . . Let me move on to something else. What I would want to know from a philosopher if I were an ordinary person. Probably the first things I would want to know is: Are you religious in any way?
Armstrong: No. I'm not.
Chrucky: What is your take on religion?
Armstrong: I have the greatest respect for it. I think it may be the thing that many people need, and it enshrines many truths about life. But I do not think it is actually true.
Chrucky: So, it expresses truth in some metaphorical way?
Armstrong: In some metaphorical and symbolic way, I think it grasps at truth. And I think it gives hope and comfort to many.
Chrucky: I am not much into religion as a subject, but perhaps someone like Bultmann who was demythologizing religion is someone you would find favor with?
Armstrong: I am quite happy with religion going on the way it is. I don't want to alter the religions. That's not my interest. But I suppose that if you are considering what is the truth behind religion then it would have to be demythologized.
Chrucky: How do you view the state of the world? Right now there seems to be a rise in fundamentalism all over.
Chrucky: You know Iran became a theocracy, and there seems to be a Christian-Islamic confrontation going on. How does one resolve this? Is there a philosophical way of looking at it?
Armstrong: No. I don't think so.
Chrucky: Is there a need for dialogue? . . . so that religions confront one another, or is this hopeless?
Armstrong: I don't really know. I really don't have any views on this point. I think of myself as in the Christian and Jewish tradition, and in the tradition of Greece. Matthew Arnold thought of Hebraism and Hellenism as the twin poles of Western culture. I see myself as a person in the stream within that culture, and I think it may perhaps be the best tradition of thought and life that has so far been evolved. Certainly I don't think we should be apologetic about it.
Chrucky: When I think of your work, there is one thing that I don't think about in connection with your work . . . and that is ethics.
Armstrong: Yes, well I've done no work at all in moral or political philosophy. I've had my opinions . . .
Chrucky: Why is that?
Armstrong: My mind doesn't seem to naturally work on it. It seems to work on problems of philosophical psychology, and mind, on perception, and on epistemology, and on metaphysics. I never found a pressing need to be a philosopher about other matters. I have quite strong opinions and I have occasionally written on particular matters. But I don't feel any particular urge to work philosophically on these other areas -- perhaps that's a fault -- I sometimes think it might be.
Chrucky: I felt like you do. But several years ago I started being very perplexed with ethical problems, with social and political problems.
Armstrong: Well, I think a lot about social and political problems, but I don't think of them as a philosopher. I've got an intellectual biography that talks a bit about these matters. It is about fifty pages. It ends in 1984 when the book was published. But it probably covers the most interesting part of my life. The younger part of people's lives is usually the most interesting part. It was published in D. M. Armstrong, (Profiles, Vol. 4). Ed. Radu J. Bogdan, Reidel 1984. [It contains a 'Self-Profile'; 'Replies' and 'Bibliography of D. M. Armstong' with abstracts of books and major articles up to 1983.] It was not a successful book -- the series was not very successful, but I enjoyed writing my autobiography. I think that may give you better clues to my intellectual formation
Chrucky: I don't have it, but I will look for it.
Armstrong: I will send you my vita if you like, by email
Chrucky: Talking about e-mail and the internet, I personally feel overwhelmed by computers -- I mean in a good way. I mean I am amazed. I am stupified by this phenomenon of the internet.
Armstrong: Yes, it's amazing. It's truly changing the whole nature of intellectual life.
Chrucky: How has it impacted on you?
Armstrong: Well, I wrote my last two books on a computer, and now I couldn't go back -- and I can hardly type, I peck away.
Chrucky: But it doesn't matter, because if you make a mistake, so what? You can always correct it.
Armstrong: I wish I could actually type. David Lewis told me: fairly early that he just decided he had to learn to type properly. I wish I had done that myself. But I went straight from ballpoint to computer. I had been producing written manuscripts that unfortunate secretaries had to type out. I was just an old-fashioned academic. For a very bad month I was struggling to come to some terms with computers.
Chrucky: I can sympathize with that. . . . You know Sellars used the computer in many instances as a model for his philosophy of mind. He used chess and computers: those were the two things he used as models.
Armstrong: Although I am a materialist, I am a bit careful about comparing the mind to a computer. But I do think the model of a computer is useful in understanding mental states that don't involve any current mental activity. Consider beliefs and know-hows, and long-term purposes, and so on. They are there in the mind even when you are soundly asleep. That is easier to understand if you think of the situation inside a fully programmed but currently shut down computer.
Chrucky: Well, this is why when we talked about animals, this is relevant. . . . You know you are reminding me of [Hector-Neri] Castaneda. He had this notion of some kind of mind . . . I was impressed by some of the thought-experiments he had. . . . There was something he called Privatus. . . . Well, he defended a private language thesis when it was unpopular to defend.
Armstrong: I never saw anything wrong with a private language. It was one of the great bores of philosophy. You know that terrible bores sweep over the philosophical world, in particular the world of analytic philosophy. We don't talk nonsense like Derrida and others do, but we do get into very boring ruts. And one of them was the private language argument, which I characterize as the bore of the fifties. And then there was the indeterminacy of translation, which was more or less the bore of the sixties or the seventies. There are these ruts that people get stuck in, cuds which people just chew over and over. But they don't seem ever to get anywhere.
Chrucky: Popularity seems to have a role . . . like with Derrida . . . it sweeps people up. . . . But Castaneda was one of the few who resisted this. . . . You concentrated on metaphysics and epistemology?
Armstrong: Yes, and philosophy of mind and perception. You know I started off in perception, but I spent a bit of time in epistemology. And since about 1970 or so, metaphysics has been my interest. You will see from my autobiography, my teacher at the university was John Anderson. He was a very big influence, as he was on a number of others: John Mackie, for instance.
Chrucky: Do you think Anderson needs to receive more focus?
Armstrong: Yes, although it has to be admitted Anderson is very hard to read for people who were not educated by him. He has, however received quite a lot of attention in Sydney, where he was the main intellectual influence for many years.
Chrucky: What was his background?
Armstrong: He was a Scotsman.
Chrucky: I mean philosophically.
Armstrong: Right! He came from Absolute Idealism, and he tried to be more absolute than the Absolute Idealists and found himself a Realist. And then he heard Samuel Alexander lecture on Space, Time, and Deity. He hadn't the slightest interest in deity, but space, time and the categories were fine; and, following Alexander, he sometimes presented his Realistic metaphysics as a transformation on Kant. Kant thought that space, time and the categories, such as causality, were forms imposed on reality by our minds. But Alexander's idea was that they were real, out there, and were the forms of reality. Anderson took that up. He had a very domineering personality, and had views on everything. He introduced me to the notion of social pluralism.
Chrucky: What is social pluralism?
Armstrong: It's the idea that in society there are lots of different social movements, struggling with each other, in an uneasy tension with each other, and you can't expect to get a unified view. He was very critical of the notion of the common good. In my Profile I give a thumbnail sketch of the sort of atmosphere that Anderson created around himself in Sydney.
Chrucky: Turning to materialism. C. D. Broad distinguished a variety of materialisms on the basis of three categories: Delusive Theories, Reductive, and Emergentist. He opted for some version of materialism, and he opposed Reductive Materialism and opted for Emergent Materialism, and you know this is Sellars' position, and this is why I say that Sellars was influenced by Broad. Sellars too called himself an Emergent Materialist . . . but he also had other labels . . . Non-Reductive Materialist.
Armstrong: I am a Physicalist, you see. I think the world is operating according to the laws of physics. That's my guess.
Chrucky: Sellars and his colleague Meehl wrote a paper "The Concept of Emergence" in which they made a distinction which [Herbert] Feigl, by the way, picked up and used -- that was the physical-1 and physical-2 distinction, where they characterized physical-2 as what you would call Physicalism, those things which are in space and time and operate by causal laws. But they said this was not enough to characterize everything in the universe. There were emergent traits.
Armstrong: I am not an Emergentist. Emergentism is a perfectly good hypothesis, and it might be true. But the lottery ticket I am taking is that it is not true.
Chrucky: Let me then ask you this question which is found in C. D. Broad ["Mechanism and Its Alternatives," Chapter 2 of Mind and Its Place in Nature]. He says that from the properties of Hydrogen and Oxygen, taken singly or in combination in other compounds, you cannot deduce the properties of water.
Armstrong: That's a technical matter, which one has to go to modern physics to answer, I suppose. I think it was probably true when Broad wrote . . . but is it still true today? There are very good physicists, such as Steven Weinberg, and many others who think that the reductive view is the way to go. The laws of physics, they think, come down to the operation of quite a small number of fundamental forces - it was four for a while, although now there is talk of a fifth. The general idea is that physics is running the whole show. That is an anti-Emergentism view. My sympathies go that way.
Chrucky: Let me ask you this in a hypothetical manner. You are saying that its possible that physics as it is today could predict the properties of water from . . .
Armstrong: I don't know.
Chrucky: I don't either.
Armstrong: I don't know whether that can really be done. But I think that many physicists think that this sort of deduction can be done in principle, whether in fact anyone can ever do it.
Chrucky: Then the issue becomes: if it can be done in principle, then there is no need of emergence; it is a needless hypothesis.
Chrucky: But if in principle, this cannot be done, then emergence is needed. That would be your position?
Armstrong: Yes. But I am no authority. Physicists have to tell us what is the actual situation.
Chrucky: So the decision between a Reductive and an Emergent Materialism, for you, is an empirical matter?
Armstrong: Yes, to be made by science. But my own guess . . . I lean towards the Reductive view, which may be hopelessly wrong, of course; and Emergence may be the way. Philosophers are always guilty of laying down the law about how reality is for a priori reasons. We know that we're not supposed reason from a priori principles to the nature of the world, but we cannot help doing it. Empirical philosophy, as I see it, should be a criticism of a priori theorizing about the nature of the world.
Chrucky: Is there room anywhere in your view of things for the synthetic a priori?
Armstrong: Perhaps. There may be some a posteriori necessities, as [Saul] Kripke says -- though that's arguable. But the synthetic a priori . . . no, I am dubious about that.
Chrucky: I will move to a grander question. I am very impressed by Curt Ducasse's book Philosophy As Science. I put it on the Internet because I was so impressed by it. I want the whole world to read it. I guess I was under the Oxford, Wittgenstein, verificationist view that philosophy's business is conceptual analysis. But when I read Ducasse, he said, no, there is a subject matter of philosophy: it's not just analysis. There is a subject matter, and its values. Yes, and then it seemed so obvious. For example, in logic we want values -- we want validity. That's a value.
Armstrong: Oh, I see.
Chrucky: This is true of the various areas of philosophy. But he was rather radical in his view of metaphysics, because he had the same view in metaphysics that its a matter of values ["A Defense of Ontological Liberalism"]. During this convention, I heard someone talking about Carnap and the criterion of existence, and he was pushing a pragmatic view of ontological commitments. And I thought: This fits quite well with Ducasse's view. It's a matter of values. Does what exists have to be in space and time? That's your value, you see.
Armstrong: I don't like talking about value there much. I think it's better to talk about one's hypothesis. I don't think "value" is the right word here. I don't think I'd agree with Ducasse there. Is truth a value? Thinking people value getting truth, or what they think is truth. But does that make truth a value? I think that truth is correspondence to reality. It's just that there is a little problem in discovering what corresponds to reality.
Chrucky: I value truth. It's not just a value, but it is a value. I do want truth. But once you think how things are true, you get into some other business than value.
Armstrong: Well, I think maybe we should call this a day, if you don't mind.
Chrucky: Thank you very much.
* * *
I closed my tape recorder, but we continued to talk a bit more. I found that we tended to be at extreme poles when it came to U.S. foreign policy. Professor Armstrong likes what President Bush is doing; I don't.