Cartesius Aristotelicus

Descartes’s philosophical anthropology is widely thought to mark a radical break from the preceding Aristotelean tradition. But Paul Hoffman has been arguing for the past quarter-century that, despite various differences, Descartes is actually far closer to the Aristotelean conception of the embodied human being as a hylomorphic unity than to the popular textbook “Cartesian” stereotype of two separate substances interacting.

Descartes by Weenix

Of course Descartes differs from Aristotle over the separability of soul and body – but so did Aquinas. Hoffman’s point is that for Descartes, as for Aquinas, separability does not imply separation; so long as soul and body are united, they make up a single substance.

Hoffman identifies still further Aristotelean legacies in Descartes’s thought, such as the identity of action and passion, and the existence of the cognised in the cogniser.

Hoffman was my professor back in the 80s, and he largely convinced me of his interpretation. The passages that Hoffman relies on to make his case are not exactly unknown, but they are often dismissed (even by non-Straussians) as merely attempts on Descartes’s part to cover his ass and appear more orthodox than he really was in order to avoid persecution. Consequently, such passages have not received as much careful analysis as they deserve; but once one does analyse them, as Hoffman does, the ass-covering interpretation becomes very difficult to take seriously.

I’m happy to see that a collection of Hoffman’s Descartes essays is now finally in print.

The bad news is that it’s pricey. The good news is that many of the essays in it are online here and here. You can also read Hoffman’s own summary of his interpretation.

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7 Responses to Cartesius Aristotelicus

  1. MBH May 13, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    Opponents of Hoffman’s interpretation assume that mind and body are like an inconsistent system — parallel lines that never intersect. But Descartes imagined mind and body as an independent system — intersecting lines. The point of intersection is the human experience. In a Cartesian coordinate system, (0,0) would be the paradigm.

  2. anon May 15, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Paul Hoffman died the day this was posted. RIP.

  3. Vichy Fournier May 28, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    lol @ Straussian jibe.

    • Roderick May 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

      If you like Straussian jibes I got plenty more here.


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