Obituary: Michael Woods
Monday 12 April 1993
THE VERY first philosophy essay that Michael Woods wrote as an undergraduate of Brasenose College, Oxford - an essay on Mill's Utilitarianism - revealed his aptitude for the subject. It was clearly written and well argued, and in the discussion he was quick in grasping difficult points. He was evidently going to enjoy philosophy.
It was as a Classical Scholar that Woods had come up (in 1953), and he had worked for Classical Honour Moderations under Maurice Platnauer. Fortunately, the Greats syllabus contained a large component of Greek philosophy, and Woods could combine his classical and philosophical interests in studying Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Ethics. It was no surprise that after taking a First in Greats he should go on to read for the B Phil (under the genial supervision of Henry Price), and that after a Senior Scholarship at Merton he should go on to a research and teaching post at Christ Church. In 1961, he was elected to an official fellowship as a philosophy tutor at Brasenose, where he remained until his death.
Michael Woods taught for most of the philosophy papers taken by undergraduates, and he was an excellent tutor. Stimulating the stronger pupil with difficult challenges, he could encourage and help the weaker pupil with clear explanations. Many of his pupils went on to further work in philosophy; most of them became and remained his friends.
Woods's own work in modern philosophy was mainly in philosophical logic and metaphysics. The many papers he published are clever and sometimes intricate, lucid and often highly illuminating. Numerous other papers were written for reading to seminars, discussion groups, or conferences. For he was always glad to accept invitations to perform on such occasions. He could be relied on to provoke and sustain lively and interesting discussion. His death prevents the completion of the book on philosophical logic on which he had been working in recent years.
In ancient philosophy Woods made notable contribution in papers on Plato's Republic and Aristotle's ethics and metaphysics. He also produced (in 1982) a book that will be used and valued as long as Aristotle is studied. The Eudemian Ethics is a work whose important and interest have only lately been recognised; and there was no satisfactory English translation and no philosophical commentary at all until Woods's volume in the Clarendon Aristotle series. This was a task calling for meticulous Classical scholarship - the Greek text is in many places difficult or corrupt - and for acute philosophical analysis. Woods's volume moved the study of Eudemian Ethics on to a new level.
In 1992 a second edition was published, which took account of the new Oxford Classical text of 1991. Most of the work for this edition was done during a sabbatical year at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. Woods greatly enjoyed this year (as he had enjoyed earlier sabbaticals at the Universities of Michigan and Cornell), and he took advantage of the opportunity to travel in the US and to meet friends and colleagues. He was always a great traveller. Holidays were usually taken on the Continent, most often in France or Italy. Alone or in company, by train or by bicycle, he relished the travelling, the art and architecture, the food and wine, the people to be visited.
The college was, however, the centre of his life. For many years he had a splendid set of rooms in the Old Quad. There he taught, worked, listened to music (especially opera), and entertained. He entertained generously and thoughtfully, and made a great contribution to the social cohesion of the college. His fight for sociability had full scope during his years as Curator of the Senior Common Room. Here, as in the college, he was always a unifying influence, promoting agreement and harmony.
Though Woods was not by nature an administrator, he took on many administrative duties for the college and the faculty. He was Vice-Principal for two busy years, covering the transition from one principal to another he was for many years on the Faculty Board and the Philosophy Panel. He served on numerous committees: his experience, judgement, impartiality, and good humour made him invaluable.
Woods saw great changes in college and university life. The size of the college grew, women were admitted, organisation and administration became more complex, the style of life of the undergraduates changed. All this he took in his stride. Though mildly conservative by temperament, he was very liberal in his views and not given to nostalgia. The introduction of a computer into his study might have been expected to disconcert a classical scholar with no pretension to technical skill or scientific expertise. In fact, Woods was delighted with his computer - pleased and somewhat amused to find that the could use it to very good effect.
A few years ago he moved from his resident's rooms in college to a comfortable and convenient town-house, an easy walk or cycle ride from college (where he continued to have rooms for teaching and research).
Michael Woods was liked and trusted by everybody. He had a fine sense of humour and great joie de vivre. He did well in all his roles: as tutor, philosopher, colleague, friend. He will be remembered with deep affection.
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