Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Origin of the Word "Dunce"...


Inspires a modicum of respect and empathy for the Rennaisance Scotists:

"DUNCE, a slow or stupid person, one incapable of learning.  The word is derived from the name of the great schoolman, John Duns Scotus, whose works on logic, theology and philosophy were accepted text-books in the universities from the 14th century. "Duns" or "Dunsman" was a name early applied by their opponents to the followers of Duns Scotus, the Scotists, and hence was equivalent to one devoted to sophistical distinctions and subtleties.  When, in the 16th century, the Scotists obstinately opposed the "new learning" [i.e., anti-scholastic Renaissance  humanism], the term "duns" or "dunce" became, in the mouths of the humanists and reformers, a term of abuse, a synonym for one incapable of scholarship, a dull blockhead."  (From Chisholm, Hugh, ed. Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911.)


Geremia said...

This is true! From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: An application of the name of John Duns Scotus, the celebrated scholastic theologian, called ‘Doctor Subtilis’ the Subtle Doctor, who died in 1308.

His works on theology, philosophy, and logic, were textbooks in the Universities, in which (as at Oxford) his followers, called Scotists, were a predominating Scholastic sect, until the 16th cent., when the system was attacked with ridicule, first by the humanists, and then by the reformers, as a farrago of needless entities, and useless distinctions. The Dunsmen or Dunses, on their side, railed against the ‘new learning’, and the name Duns or Dunce, already synonymous with ‘cavilling sophist’ or ‘hair-splitter’, soon passed into the sense of ‘dull obstinate person impervious to the new learning’, and of ‘blockhead incapable of learning or scholarship’.

awatkins909 said...

Certainly this is a mischaracterization of Blessed John, of course.

Geremia said...

C. S. Peirce thought very highly of about Scotus (CP 1.17):

17. Notwithstanding a great outburst of nominalism in the fourteenth century which was connected with politics, the nominalists being generally opposed to the excessive powers of the pope and in favor of civil government, a connection that lent to the philosophical doctrine a factitious following, the Scotists, who were realists, were in most places the predominant party, and retained possession of the universities. At the revival of learning they stubbornly opposed the new studies; and thus the word Duns, the proper name of their master, came to mean an adversary of learning. The word originally further implied that the person so called was a master of subtle thought with which the humanists were unable to cope. But in another generation the disputations by which that power of thought was kept in training had lost their liveliness; and the consequence was that Scotism died out when the strong Scotists died. It was a mere change of fashion.

And Peirce (late 19th, early 20th century) seemed to be a solid philosopher. What do most Thomists think about him?