Look at a word and see the world. The motto is mine, with apologies to the U.S. Navy, but the sentiment is Emerson’s, among others: “Language is fossil poetry.” I suspect one could start with any word and trace a chain of associations that, given sufficient time, resources and imagination, could contain the known universe and bring you back home to your desk. This Borgesian fancy came to me as I was reading The Dunciad, Alexander Pope's satire in which the goddess Dulness threatens to take over the world and make it even more like our own. “Dunciad,” of course, is Pope’s epical inflation of “dunce,” as in dunce cap – the conical hat teachers placed on the heads of slow-witted pupils.
Out of curiosity, and having no idea of its derivation, I looked up “dunce” in Webster’s Third, the dictionary with the spine that is not just broken but detached, that has been sitting on my desk for 33 years. I was at first pleased then offended to find the word is derived from the name of the 13th-century Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus, about whom I wrote last month in connection with haecceity. Sixteenth-century English thinkers, flush with Renaissance arrogance, turned “Duns,” the theologian’s birthplace, into “dunce.” This subtle thinker had his name turned into a synonym for, according to Webster’s third definition, “a dull-witted and stupid person: dumbbell, dullard.”
I checked several dictionaries and histories of philosophy, and confirmed the derivation. Then I checked The Secret Lives of Words, an idiosyncratic word horde compiled by novelist Paul West, who begins his entry on “Dunce” with typical mordancy: “There is nothing so vindictive as punishing the terminal moraine left behind him by a philosopher.” Dating the first use of dunce caps to the 19th century, West continues:
“It is an odd historical spectacle, requiring over five hundred years to complete itself, as if the causuistical Scot had put a curse on his detractors, making them ever late (or re-tarded). Duns Scotus was one of the most ingenious thinker of the Middle Ages, but, when his devotees opposed the Renaissance that swept Europe, they rapidly became `duns men’ and got him a bad name.”
So, where does all this take us? There are many promising paths to follow, all discovered in less than 30 minutes of browsing in books and online. I learned that the eminent American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce extravagantly admired Duns Scotus. I noticed several references to the Islamic thinker Averroes, which reminds me of Borges’ story “Averroes’ Search.” How well did Duns Scotus know Averroes’ work, and did he serve as a conduit for Aristotlean or Islamic thought? I want to know more about the 18th-century Shakespeare scholar, Lewis Theabald, mocked by Pope as chief among the Dunces. Why did the Church wait until 1992 to beatify Duns Scotus? Why did he endorse the forced baptism of Jewish children? How well did Duns Scotus know the work of Maimonides? And so on. I’m back to Pope, but I’ll remind myself of these digressions the next time I feel bored and dunce-like.