Dr Roger Woolhouse

Dr Roger Woolhouse, scholar, philosopher and author

THE meticulous and wide-ranging scholarship of Dr Roger Stuart Woolhouse, Professor of Philosophy at York University until he took early retirement in 2001 due to ill health, earned him an international reputation.

Following his retirement, Dr Woolhouse, who has died aged 71, wrote a seminal biography of the 17th century philosopher John Locke.

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Publications already under his name had put him into the top bracket of scholars, and John Locke: a Biography (ITALS) confirmed his pre-eminence.

In addition to his academic work, Dr Woolhouse was a skilful sailor, earning his Master’s Certificate; he was a musician with a love of jazz who played the trumpet as a young man and the saxophone in his mature years. He was an enthusiastic cyclist and a knowledgeable amateur geologist.

The middle child of three boys, he was born in Wath-upon-Dearne, their father Thomas a research chemist.

The family moved to Saltburn when he was quite young, and he went to Saltburn Primary School. Exceptionally bright, he passed his 11-plus when he was nine. He next went to Sir William Turner’s Grammar School in Redcar.

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On leaving school, Dr Woolhouse went to London University to read Philosophy, and then to Selwyn College Cambridge to do his Doctorate. It was at Cambridge that a friend introduced him to sailing.

His first job was at Cardiff University, and there he married Jennifer Waine, becoming a step-father to her daughter Clair.

In the late 1960s he moved to York to work in the Philosophy Department of York University, focusing on the two great schools of philosophy which emerged in the 17th and 16th centuries: Empiricism and Rationalism.

In 1999 he married, secondly, Shirley who had been a Philosophy student at York 15 years earlier.

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Dr Woolhouse became internationally known as a leading authority both of the founder of British Empiricism, John Locke, and the great rationalist metaphysician, Gottfried Leibniz. This width as well as depth of scholarship is unusual, and required extraordinary capacities of hard work as well as philosophical understanding.

He wrote two of the most approachable introductory philosophy books on the period. In 1988 he published The Empiricists, continuously in print since that time. And towards the end of his life he wrote Starting with Leibniz.

Following his early retirement from York, he accepted an invitation from Cambridge University Press to write the biography of John Locke.

It was to be the first major biography of Locke, a major political figure and intellectual giant, for over 50 years.

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Locke: a Biography went into paperback faster than any other in the Cambridge University Press series.

In 1987 Dr Woolhouse exchanged jobs with a lecturer at the University of Santa Barbara, and much enjoyed his year in California. In 1996 he had a spell at the University of Ruttgers, New Jersey.

At York, Dr Woolhouse had moved on from Senior Lecturer to Reader and then Professor, and was researching and writing his books. He also took time out for sailing on the North Sea and around the Bay of Biscay.

He continued to sail, in recent years mainly on the Norfolk Broads. He also enjoyed his Tuesday Morning Music group at the Ebor Sheltered Housing Centre.

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Observant, interested in people, and a good listener, this was a highly intelligent man.

He was reserved and given to understatement. Possessing a logical, investigative mind, he was also particular about how things were done, but patient and unprejudiced.

At school he was quiet, modest and self-assured, those traits continuing into adult life, with the addition now of a strong moral compass and an understated, clever sense of humour, Once asked if he was better at remembering than imagining, he gave a typical “Roger” reply: “Well, I imagine I am good at remembering, but I remember I am good at imagining”.

Dr Woolhouse is survived by his wife Shirley and step-children Clair, Jullia and Laura, and three grandchildren.

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