I should have known that “dunce,” by a comically cruel mischance of etymology, derives from the name of John Duns Scotus, one of the subtlest and most lastingly interesting of Church thinkers. As my ninth-grade Latin teacher used to say, my learning is “laced with lacunae.” Waiting in the optometrist’s office on Tuesday, I was browsing in The Private Lives of English Words (edited by Louis G. Heller, Alexander Humez and Malcah Dror, 1984), looking for words other than pandemonium coined by poets, when I happened on the “dunce” entry. The editors feebly term the etymology “ironic.”
Duns was born around 1265, possibly in Duns, a village in Berwickshire, Scotland. He never called himself “Scotus,” as Heller & Co. note:
“The Scotus, often mistakenly believed to be part of the philosopher’s name, is actually a Latin epithet used by those outside the British Isles to identify him as the man from Scotland.”
Duns was a theologian and Franciscan, and earned the title “Doctor Subtilis” for the acuity of his thought. His was among the earliest generations of Church thinkers to attempt an integration of the “pagan” philosophy of Aristotle into Christian thought. The editors explain that his followers were known as “Duns men, “a phrase with a wholly favorable connotation of reasoning both clever and sophisticated.” However,
“…the students were not the equal of the master, and by gradual stages such phrases as Duns men, Duns prelate, Duns learning acquired new connotations signifying `petty sophistry’ and `caviling purely for the sake of arguing.’ Eventually this degenerated into meaning `acting like a fool.’”
It’s Duns’ notion of the haecceity of a thing – its thisness, not its whatness (its quiddity) – that most interests me, as it did Hopkins and J.V. Cunningham (a Jesuit and a lapsed Catholic). It can’t be said either poet coined the word but both frequently turn the concept to their own purposes. Here is Cunningham’s “Haecceity,” dating from 1943:
“Evil is any this or this
Pursued beyond hypothesis.
“It is the scribbling of affection
On the blank pages of perfection.
“Evil is presentness bereaved
Of all the futures it conceived,
“Wilful and realized restriction
Of the insatiate forms of fiction.
“It is this poem, or this act.
It is this absolute of fact.”
Here Cunningham uses haecceity in such a way that Duns would hardly recognize it. The poet writes of “Haecceity” in his essay “The Quest of the Opal” (from The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham):
“The subject of that poem was metaphysical evil, evil as a defect of being. Any realized particular, anything which is this and not that and that, is by the very fact evil. For to be this is to exclude not only any other alternative but to exclude all else in the universe. Perfection is in possibility, in the idea, but that which is realized, specific, determined, has no possibilities. It is precisely this and nothing else at all. It is lacking in all the being of the universe other than its own particularity. The more realized a thing is the greater its defect of being; hence any particular choice is as such evil though morally it may be the best choice.”
In a 1940 poem, “The Metaphysical Amorist,” Cunningham cites Duns as a possible way to resolve Plato’s idealism and Hume’s “sensationalism.” Here is the final stanza:
“Plato! you shall not plague my life.
I married a terrestrial wife.
And Hume! she is not mere sensation
In sequence of observed relation.
She has two forms—ah, thank you, Duns!—,
I know her in both ways at once.
I knew her, yes, before I knew her,
And by both means I must construe her,
And none among you shall undo her.”
This is not what Duns had in mind. For more on the subject, read Timothy Steele’s invaluable edition of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, including the introduction and commentary.