Dancing on the head of a pin - Expression

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
I have heard the expression "to be dancing on the head of a pin" and have found this comment on a (religious-information) website: "There never was a debate about angels dancing on the head of a pin. It started out as a rhetorical illustration to demonstrate the futility of out-of-touch theological debates."

Extra information as to when / how the expression is used in today's conversation would be useful. I suppose it is often used merely to refer to futile efforts or convoluted debates that will not change anything substantial in 'the real world'.
 
  • In my experience, "You are arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin" is most often thrown out by people who want to ridicule the intricacies of their opponents' arguments because they cannot understand them.

    It does indeed have a religious origin. To be precise, the origin is in Catholic theology. As the website you have found says, it started as a warning against ridiculous arguments about impossible concepts. However, it was taken up and distorted by others who wanted to prove that that is the sort of thing that Catholic theology deals in.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    OK, so it confirms what I thought, i.e. it is a dismissive way of saying that someone is arguing round and round in circles, and similar things.

    As for your explanation, from a warning against this kind of - misguided - theology by certain Catholics against other Catholics, it came to be remembered as typical of Catholics in general, if I get. It goes to show: Beware of imperfect communication. Particularly if one is a Catholic, apparently.
     
    OK, so it confirms what I thought, i.e. it is a dismissive way of saying that someone is arguing round and round in circles, and similar things.

    As for your explanation, from a warning against this kind of - misguided - theology by certain Catholics against other Catholics, it came to be remembered as typical of Catholics in general, if I get. It goes to show: Beware of imperfect communication. Particularly if one is a Catholic, apparently.
    Beware of not only imperfect communications but also those who deliberately distort! Let's leave it there, or we'll get moderated.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    As for your explanation, from a warning against this kind of - misguided - theology by certain Catholics against other Catholics, it came to be remembered as typical of Catholics in general, if I get. It goes to show: Beware of imperfect communication. Particularly if one is a Catholic, apparently.
    I think you have missed the point.

    The statement has its origin as a dismissal of the sort of arcane considerations that Scholasticism (which was a medieval form of philosophy) dealt in: in this case, the question really has to do with the relationship between incorporeal things (such as angels, or the human soul) and physical space. (In answer to the question, I would argue that since angels are incorporeal, an infinite number can occupy the same "space", be it ever so limited -- such as the head of a pin -- at the same time.) There is nothing "misguided" about such an approach to philosophy; it is merely not popular in our fast-food, thinking-in-soundbites age.

    To suppose that a familiarity with the theological considerations of Scholasticism is typical of "Catholics in general" is so absurd as to be truly amusing.
     

    Oeco

    Senior Member
    English - US
    There is nothing "misguided" about such an approach to philosophy; it is merely not popular in our fast-food, thinking-in-soundbites age.
    Actually it was also unpopular with the Humanists and Erasmus in particular. It was they who may have invented the term "Scholastics." But GWB is exactly right. These are the kind of questions that occupied the medieval academy. Though, as James Brandon notes, this particular argument may have never taken place but was invented by the humanists to make fun of Scholasticism in favor of the age of Humanism. But there were other similar such arguments.

    And as an intellectual exercise, it is similar to 18th century, Bishop Berkely's "can something exist without being perceived" which was later framed by the famous, "If a tree falls in a forest..."

    see this History by Alistar McGrath in googlebooks.
     
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    gasman

    Senior Member
    Canada, English
    "You are arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin" is most often thrown out by people who want to ridicule the intricacies of their opponents' arguments because they cannot understand them.
    Surely the whole argument is not about the number of angels, because that is a finite figure, but about the non-finite definition of an angel. No volume, no mass, and unseen, so an infinite number can dance anywhere.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I did not mean to offend Catholics, or angels, or pins (and their heads). I have done no research into the origin of the controversy, but a very quick glance at the background information appeared to be saying that the expression and the controversy could be going back much further than Scholasticism, and to the early stages of Christianity, when everyone was, really, a Catholic (i.e. anyone who was a Christian), but for a few minorities here and there. But we are in danger of slipping into a theological debate as opposed to an explanation of language - i.e. doing what the expression says as opposed to explaining it.

    Having said all this, I am always pleased to entertain. :p
     
    ......... But we are in danger of slipping into a theological debate as opposed to an explanation of language - i.e. doing what the expression says as opposed to explaining it.
    Sometimes, the only way to explain a word or phrase is by investigating its genesis.

    It isn't possible to understand how the concept of dancing on the head of a pin arose without knowing a bit about the theological and philosophical background, is it?
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I am happy you were not offended, since it was not my intention to offend anyone - even if some of my comments may have come across as flippant! You cannot take yourself 100% seriously 100% of the time, can you? (I can't, anyway.)

    As to the origins of the expression, it is undeniable that it helps to have a bit of context and background, and the references below give a superficial overview...

    http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/35011

    http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a4_132.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_many_angels_can_stand_on_the_head_of_a_pin?
     

    broglet

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The above discussion about the use of the expression 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' has been like discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Recently I heard "It's like discussing Teletubbie anatomy", which seems to express the same idea -> a futile argument becoming heated on a subject about which nobody has firm evidence. (See also Gulliver's Travels and the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians who argued about which end to open a boiled egg.)
     

    Orble

    Senior Member
    Australian English
    Extra information as to when / how the expression is used in today's conversation would be useful. I suppose it is often used merely to refer to futile efforts or convoluted debates that will not change anything substantial in 'the real world'.
    It is also used as an amusing metaphor in scientific discussion. The question is seen as the epitome of one that defies the scientific method - an open question for which any hypothetical answer cannot be tested against objective fact.

    For example,
    Surely we are arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - we just don’t know enough yet about epigenetics to even take a stab at it.​
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I was re-reading the Thread and it is clear the expression is used to dismiss a discussion which, it is felt, is going round and round in circles regarding a matter that cannot be known, hence a useless discussion. Its origin has been clarified too, and all of that is interesting. It made me think of 2 things.

    First of all, and I am no theologian, I suppose there is a purely religious/ Biblical issue, i.e. the question could be framed as: 'What is the nature of angels?' Depending on how you answered this question, the number of angels you would have dancing on the head of a pin would differ. What I mean is that this could be considered a serious theological question if you are interested in religion and Christianity. I am not sure angels are defined and described precisely in the Bible, for that matter. They are envoys of God and are not human. But they cannot be God or gods, since there is only one. So, what are they? God-like creatures. But to what extent? We can leave it at that, since it is not the subject of the Thread, but it could be a real debate for theologians, I suppose.

    Second, someone said it is like discussing the anatomy of Teletubbies. It occurred to me that it is a bit like the Brexit debate in the UK, right now, and for the past 2 long years of getting, well, nowhere. Brexit means Brexit, but how many types of Brexit does one want and can one have: that is the question. :p
     

    alpha-beta-soup

    New Member
    English - New Zealand
    I was curious about this question a few months ago, and just now encountered someone using the expression seemingly to express the idea that dancing on the head of a pin was a dangerous activity, rather than an arcane debate. When I last did some background reading into it, I cam across someone who suggested that the origin of the phrase is actually a pun. They argued that the oringal expression used a "needle's point" rather than a "pin". The pun, apparently, is in the similarity to a "needless point".

    All that said, I do actually find the theological point genuinely interesting.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    As I remember, the consensus view was that the origin of the expression relates to theological notions around the nature of angels, if only used in a metaphorical way, i.e. to describe a futile debate (as in, 'does it matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?').
     

    ain'ttranslationfun?

    Senior Member
    US English
    Welcome to the Forums, alpha-beta-soup! And thanks for, er, 'pointing' out why the (smaller than a needle's head) "point" was in the the original expression :thumbsup:. I blush that I, "The Punmeister", hadn't thought of this!
     
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    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    There is nothing "misguided" about such an approach to philosophy; it is merely not popular in our fast-food, thinking-in-soundbites age.
    That approach would be nugatory, as, whatever the answer, (i) there is no evidence to support it, and (ii) even if it were answered, it would be non-salvific.

    The example preceded Wittgenstein by what appears to be some centuries: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Tractatus 7).

    Gonna grab me a burger... :D
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Well, thanks to Paul Q, we have at least established that much of this discussion is 'nugatory' since the issue, if addressed, would be 'non-salvific', hence what is the point discussing it, or, as Wittgenstein would have said (etc.).

    I hope I have interpreted #22 properly. Time for a cold shower.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Well, thanks to Paul Q, we have at least established that much of this discussion is 'nugatory'
    :D
    If, by "this discussion", you mean discussing such subjects as "How many angels, etc", then "Yes".
    If you mean discussing the meaning of "How many angels, etc", then "No."
     
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