Word Origins John Duns Scotus the Dunce Part 2

About the history and biography of John Duns Scotus man whose name came to mean an idiot or stupid person.


JOHN DUNS SCOTUS (1265?-1308?)

Dunce (duns) n. A stupid person; numbskull.

During his years at Paris and Oxford, Duns Scotus took issue with the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas. He incorporated the writings of Aristotle into Christian theology and followed the lines of traditional Augustinianism, but with innumerable nuances and clarifications of his own. He became known as the Subtle Doctor, and although subtle in Middle English meant simply "clever," or "fine," it was particularly appropriate considering the fineness of the distinctions between his and other metaphysical doctrines. He stressed a kind of "univocity of being," which translates to mean that there is a point of ultimate abstraction for everything that exists. Also peculiar to his thought is the concept of "thisness," by which Scotus meant that there exists a distinct principle of individuality, which foreordains that, for example, every snowflake shall be different from every other snowflake, although they all have a common nature as snowflakes. He took interesting stands in theology as well. He maintained, for example, that God could change or suspend the last seven of the Ten Commandments, presumably because the history of man suggested new prohibitions not known in Moses' time. (The first three, however, must remain, for it would be irrational for God to permit negative feelings or acts against Himself, and God represents supreme rationality.)

Duns Scotus is also known in Catholic theology as the Marian Doctor, for he was the first to defend the idea of Mary's immaculate conception in Paris theological circles (in all probability it was the uproar created by this issue that caused him to leave the French capital for Cologne). The great doctors of the Middle Ages asserted that Mary, like all other descendants of Adam, had to be redeemed by Christ, who was conceived and propagated in the ordinary way. But Scotus disagreed. He argued that Mary was preserved from all sin, actual and original, by reason of the redemption of her son, Jesus Christ. A heated debate on this point continued over the next five centuries before Scotus's view was accepted and definitively declared a doctrine of the Catholic religion.

The "Dunsmen," or "Dunses," represented an important school of Christian theology until they were somewhat discredited by the humanist theologians of the Renaissance. According to the followers of Thomas Aquinas and other critics, a "Duns," or "dunce," was a philosophical adherent of DunsScotus, and thereby a hairsplitter who objected for the sake of objecting. Thus, by extension, a dunce came to mean one who, although fanatic about details, has no capacity for real learning.

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