R.I.P. Paul Hoffman

I’m shocked to learn that Paul Hoffman, whom by eerie coincidence I’d 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. There’s some more info here and here, but not much.

Paul Hoffman

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 Descartes’s 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. (He’d 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 who’d 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 TA’d for Paul’s moderns course; I still remember two things he would tell the class on the first day. He’d recount Descartes’s 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 he’d urge the students to come to his morning class even if they fell asleep, because “it’s amazing how much you can take in when you’re 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. I’m sure that for many generations of students hylomorphism and Paul Hoffman’s blue mug are indelibly associated.

I can’t remember when I last saw Paul; no doubt a quick handshake in passing at an APA meeting. I’m very sad for his family; but I’m glad that he at least lived to see his major lifework published.


10 Responses to R.I.P. Paul Hoffman

  1. anon May 15, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    It is very sad indeed.

    There’s more information here:


  2. John Fischer May 15, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    We will have more information available soon. Also, there will be a memorial service for Paul Hoffman at UCR (probably in the Fall). We will miss him greatly.

    Thanks, Rod, for this great post.

  3. Stephen May 15, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    I’m curious. What were some of Descartes’ darker sayings?

    • Roderick May 15, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

      Well, for example, the apparent conjunction of the following theses:
      a) soul and body are radically distinct
      b) everything we experience is either a mode of soul (thought) or a mode of body (extension)
      c) a passion in the soul and the corresponding activity in the body are one and the same

      • Stephen May 15, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

        I see.

      • MBH May 17, 2010 at 2:47 am #

        What was Paul impatient with in Leibniz?

        • Roderick May 17, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

          Man, it’s been 25 years; I don’t remember.

  4. David Gordon May 16, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    I remember Paul when he was a grad student at UCLA. He was a very nice person.

  5. Sam Page May 19, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    I was shocked to hear of Paul’s sudden passing. Paul was one of my professor’s at UCR when I was in the PhD program. The word that comes to mind when I think of Paul is “integrity”. It’s been a few years since I saw Paul, but he was in great physical condition, which is partly why I was shocked at the news. Paul will be missed.

  6. Roderick May 19, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    There’s some updated info here.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes