Monday 22 August 2022

From Duns to Dunce

 You live and learn. Dipping last night into that fine gallimaufry of odds and ends, The Frank Muir Book: An Irreverent Companion to Social History, I discovered that the word 'dunce', denoting a slow-witted person, derives from the name of the great medieval philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus. He it was who developed such ideas as the univocity of being, the formal distinction and, best of all, haecceity (thisness) – not the kind of things you'd expect the average dunce to come up with. However, such was their distaste for the medieval schoolmen that the rising humanists and reformers used the name of one of their number, the unfortunate Duns, as a byword for imbecility. Duns became 'dunce', a word that was to become all too well known to generation after generation of unfortunate schoolchildren who were forced to stand in a corner of the schoolroom, often wearing the conical 'dunce hat'. This can hardly have improved their educational prospects.
  Muir quotes Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (the original 1870 edition by the sound of it) to tell the story of how Duns became 'dunce': 
'DUNCE. A dolt; a stupid person. The Word is taken from Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), so called from his birthplace, Dunse, in Scotland, the learned schoolman. His followers were called Dunsers or Scotists. Tyndal [William Tyndale] says, when they saw that their hair-splitting divinity was giving way to modern theology, 'the old barking curs raged in every pulpit' against the classics and new notions, so that the name indicated an opponent to progress, to learning, and hence a dunce.'
(By the way, apropos 'hair-splitting divinity', the medieval schoolmen never did argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, though the calumny is still widely believed.)
  Duns Scotus – 'who of all men most sways my spirits to peace' – was a favourite of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the subject of one of his sonnets. The opening lines, with their evocation of a still semi-rural medieval Oxford, are rather lovely, I think...

Duns Scotus's Oxford

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.


  1. The American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce wrote of Duns Scotus with respect. For that matter, Martin Heidegger wrote his dissertation on Duns Scotus, though he soon went in a very different direction.

    1. Thanks Anonymous. I guess there are (dotted) lines that could be drawn between Duns and Heidegger...? I know too little of either.

    2. Duns Scotus had a huge influence on Heidegger, particularly with his idea of 'haecceitas' (though the bulk of Heidegger's habilitationsschrift is an analysis of a work we now know to be by Thomas of Erfurt, not Duns).

  2. The 'angels dancing on the head of a pin' claim appears to have originated in seventeenth century England - early examples are found in William Chillingworth's 'The Religion of Protestants' (1638) and in the work of the Cambridge Platonist philosopher and poet Henry More (in 'The Immortality of the Soul', published in 1659). More also coined the term 'fourth dimension'.

    1. Thanks Hec. Henry More looks to be an interesting figure – and I love the other term he coined for the fourth dimension: 'essential spissitude'...

    2. Yes, isn't that a wonderful phrase! He is very interesting but not much known now except by specialists in seventeenth century thought. His poetry seems to have been quite odd - including a long defence in Spenserian stanzas of the Neoplatonic view of the soul:

    3. Thanks Hec. Formidable!

  3. The old Everyman’s Library used to have mottoes for its various categories. For Fiction: “A tale which holdeth children from play & old men from the chimney corner” (Sir Philip Sidney). For Poetry and the Drama: “Poets are the trumpets which sing to battle…poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Shelley). Travel and Topography: “To the wise man all the world’s a soil” (Ben Jonson). And so on. The mottoes were quietly dropped when the Everyman format was redone.

    The motto for Philosophy and Theology was “How charming is divine philosophy” (Milton). One would not choose “charming” as an adjective for the representative philosophers of the 20th century; but it might well fit the work of Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist (1614-1687).

    The young C. S. Lewis had thought about doing Ph.D. work on More, but decided it would not enhance his employment prospects. He returned Wards 1710 Life of More to its library.

    Many years later, in a letter, Lewis said, “I did a good deal of work on Henry More once: a beautiful man of whom it was often said ‘He was often so drunk with happiness that he had much ado to keep himself from falling down & kissing the very stones on the path.’” Lewis here is probably recalling Ward: “And he was so enamour’d, as I may say, with the Wisdom of God in the Contrivance of things; that he hath been heard to say, A good Man could be sometimes ready, in his own private Reflections, to kiss the very Stones of the Street.”

    Lewis added: More “is also one of the earliest people to mention kindness to animals as a duty.”

    Dale Nelson

    1. Thanks so much for that, Dale. I never thought this post would attract so many and such interesting comments.