Monday, June 29, 2015

Dunce Upon A Time

It is ironic that one of history’s greatest scholars, John Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher and thelogian, is the origin of the word dunce, which means a “slow-witted or stupid person, especially an under-achieving student.” Duns Scotus was probably born between 1266 and 1270, most likely in Duns, Berwick County, Scotland. He became a Franciscan friar, studied at Oxford, and was on the faculty of the prestigious University of Paris by 1304. His contribution to medieval thought is ranked with that of Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam. Scotus died unexpectedly in 1308 in Cologne. 

Scotus was called the “Subtle Doctor” for his nuanced, precisely reasoned views on such abstruse topics as the univocity of being, the formal distinction between the conceptual and the real, and haecceitas, or “thisness,” of each individual entity.  Widely admired in scholarly circles, he drew a large number of devotees who were known as “Dunsemen” or simply “Dunses,” a term that bore no pejorative connotation.

In the sixteenth century, however, Protestant and humanist scholars of the Renassance rejected Scotus’ hair-splitting theology, which was regarded by them as narrow, close-minded, and legalistic. “Dunses” became objects of reproach, and soon the term was applied to all the more conservative philosophers, who were thought of as hopelessly old-fashioined fuddy-duddies clinging to outmoded beliefs. By the 1570s, “dunce” had been expanded to apply to any dullard or slow-learning student. 
The “dunce cap”—the conical headpiece sometimes inscribed with the letter “D” that is sometimes associated with dunces—is also said to be derived from a practice of Duns Scotus. He considered the cone-shaped caps as “funnels” of knowledge into the brain, pointing out that wizards were depicted as wearing them, and he thought that they would enhance scholars’ ability to learn. Eventually, along with the word dunce, the hats became associated with ignorance instead of learning.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a closet full of dunce hats—one for every social occasion. He also puts one on whenever he writes verse.


  Those thinkers Aquinas and Occam and Scotus
  Were smart theologians, who said, “Please don’t quote us.”
  It wasn’t that Scotus and Occam and Aquinas
  Were noted for modesty, meekness, or shyness.
  The truth is Aquinas and Scotus and Occam
  Were terribly fearful the Pope would defrock ‘em.

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