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Timothy Potts

Timothy Potts, who died recently, taught in the Department of Philosophy from 1962 to 1992.  The following tribute has been contributed by Emeritus Professor David Holdcroft.

After leaving school at Rugby, Timothy attended St Joseph’s Seminary in Upholland, Liverpool which trained priests for the Diocese. Whether he intended to become a priest is not clear, but he was and remained a committed Catholic with a deep knowledge of Catholic philosophy and theology. In 1953 he became an exhibitioner at Balliol graduating with first class honours in PPE in 1956 and, in 1960 he was awarded a John Locke Scholarship – a notable distinction. After graduation he spent some time at St Benet’s College – a Benedictine Foundation in Oxford, perhaps preparing for his D.Phil. which was eventually awarded in 1969. He was appointed to an Assistant Lectureship in the Leeds Department in 1962 and was subsequently promoted first Lecturer, and then Senior Lecturer. He became a Senior Fellow in 1992, when he retired, though under no pressure to do so, perhaps because he believed that early retirement increased one’s chances of longevity. Nevertheless he continued to work on a book on formal semantics for several years.

Timothy was scholar with many interests: logic, medieval philosophy, aesthetics, formal semantics and the work of Wittgenstein and Frege - he learned German to better understand the latter. In 1970, together with his colleagues Chris Coope, Peter Geach and Roger White, he co-authored A Wittgenstein Workbook.  For use either as a teaching aid or as a guide to private study, it discusses eighteen topics central to Wittgenstein's thought, together with a set of primary references,  secondary readings, and a series of questions for the student.

In 1980 Cambridge University Press published his book Conscience in Medieval Philosophy, which has been frequently cited. This contains translations, many made for the first time, of key medieval texts on the topic, together with a long introduction and a syllabus for a course in medieval philosophy – presumably based on that he gave at Leeds. The key question which the authors tried to resolve was how was it possible that someone who knew what was right could nevertheless not act accordingly.  One widely accepted solution, involving the philosophy of mind, distinguished between an innate disposition to do good and its exercise on a particular occasions by a being with free will.

The aim of his final book, Structure and Categories for the Representation of Meaning (CUP 1994), was to devise a system of categories for the analysis of a sentence’s meaning which could be implemented by a computer. To do this he developed an original version of categorial grammar which differed from that of Ajduciewicz by importing ideas from Frege - from whom he nevertheless differed in important respects. He also departed from the view generally held by philosophers and linguists that the representations have a tree-like structure, arguing for the use of directed graphs instead. Over 300 pages long, his work has perhaps not had the attention it deserves.

In the Department he was a pioneer in applying computers both to examination statistics and to logic teaching. He used his Commodore PET to analyse marks for the Department’s examiners' meetings running a programme in BASIC written by himself.  He also introduced computer-assisted logic learning into the Department, arranging for us to use the ‘Bertie’ program from Dartmouth College.  Bertie was later re-coded by the central computing service to run on their networked Prime computer; students had access to terminals.

Timothy took an active interest in the governance of the University, and was frustrated by the fact that for much of his career this was largely a matter for the professoriate.  In the aftermath of the 1968 student revolt AUT officers were looking for a quick and punchy document to put around in the campaign to open up University governance to non-professorial staff.  Timothy put his hand up, but the memo about ‘quick’ and ‘punchy’ did not get through to him.  He convened a working group of a half a dozen people, and the eventual report ran to at least 50 pages.  He also thought that the overall consistency of the constitution was best vetted by the Logic Sub-Committee of the Philosophy Department!

In retirement he established The Mangoletsi Trust in memory of his mother. Its purpose is to ’advance education at universities; to support and enhance the activities of organizations for the benefit of homosexual and HIV-positive people and of the elderly; to relieve poverty, distress and suffering by enabling people to become self-reliant. It operates in the (old) counties of Cheshire, Lancashire (including Manchester & Liverpool) and Yorkshire (all Ridings).’  It has funded from 2004 an annual essay prize in theoretical philosophy, and from 2008, the annual Mangoletsi Lectures in the Department.