Im shocked to learn that Paul Hoffman, whom by eerie coincidence Id just blogged about the other day (after never previously mentioning him in a decade of blogging), has suddenly died on the very same day as my blog post. He was only in his fifties. Theres some more info here and here, but not much.
I was very fond of Paul; he was an excellent philosopher, a wonderful teacher, and a good person. Paul was the undergraduate philosophy advisor when I was at Harvard, as well as my professor for a Descartes-Locke-Leibniz course where he first converted me to his brilliant interpretation of Descartes. I was always amused by the contrast between his extreme interpretive charity toward Descartess darker sayings and his impatience with the same from Leibniz!
Paul was very egalitarian with his students and made them feel at ease; and I remember the festive atmosphere he provided when I climbed the stairs at Emerson Hall to turn in my senior thesis. He liked one of the examples I came up with in my honours exams for the major, and used to quote it in his classes. One of my roommates not a philosophy major took his modern philosophy course and spoke highly of it.
By another coincidence, Paul transferred to Cornell at the same time that I started my graduate studies there. (Hed also been one of my recommenders.) I took a Spinoza seminar with him that had just three attendees: a faculty member (logician Harold Hodes), a beginning grad student (myself), and an undergrad whod never had a philosophy course before. Such a diversity of audience must have been a daunting prospect, but Paul amazingly kept all three of us engaged.
I also TAd for Pauls moderns course; I still remember two things he would tell the class on the first day. Hed recount Descartess theory of birthmarks (the expectant mother sees a cow and so produces a cow-shaped birthmark, etc.) as an example of how really smart people can believe really dumb things; and hed urge the students to come to his morning class even if they fell asleep, because its amazing how much you can take in when youre half-asleep. (I think that this last must have been a noble lie.)
I also vividly remember, from both Harvard and Cornell, the tall blue mug he would always use to demonstrate the relation between form and matter. Im sure that for many generations of students hylomorphism and Paul Hoffmans blue mug are indelibly associated.
I cant remember when I last saw Paul; no doubt a quick handshake in passing at an APA meeting. Im very sad for his family; but Im glad that he at least lived to see his major lifework published.