Sherlock Holmes, The Lovable Quack

by Mark Wallace

Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes is a recently published book by a PhD in psychology, Maria Konnikova. I’m studying the Holmes stories and their adaptations at the moment and Mastermind was going pretty cheap as an ebook, so I’ve had a look, and it’s got me thinking about the attraction of Holmes to many people, myself included. Konnikova theorizes two models of mind: the Watson system and the Holmes system. I won’t go into detail, as anyone familiar with Holmes and Watson can figure out the basic points of the contrast. As an early-stage academic writer and researcher in the humanities, one conclusion I’ve reached about my intellectual tendencies is that I’m more interested in specific analysis than generalizable theorizing. I sometimes recall the words of Carlyle on this:

[W]hat theory is so certain as this, That all theories, were they never so earnest, painfully elaborated, are, and, by the very conditions of them, must be incomplete, questionable and even false? (French Revolution, Vol. 1,Bk. 2, Ch. 7)

So rather than a general theory of mind and reductive binary categorization, I was interested in specific analyses of Sherlockian techniques or moments, of which Mastermind has some interesting ones, and some less so. The thing that struck me, though, and not for the first time, was how poorly Holmes’ own techniques often demonstrate his principles.  Holmes’ principles are excellent; ones quite applicable to my own occupation as well (I suggest):

It is a grand mistake to theorize before one has the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. (A Scandal in Bohemia)

The temptation to form theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession. (The Valley of Fear, Bk. 1, Ch. 2)

His uncompromising commitment to “severe reasoning from cause to effect” (The Copper Beeches”) is likewise impressive, as is the impartiality with which he tackles all fields of knowledge – a true interdisciplinarian; his ultimate aim is the simple yet profound one of seeing “all things […] exactly as they are” (The Greek Interpreter)  while his independence from all institutionalized forms of power marks him out as a true Hero, in the Carlylean sense. If we take Carlyle’s definition that: “A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, […] That he looks through the shows of things into things.” (On Heroes, lecture 1) we find that Holmes fits it very well.

And yet, Holmes’ actual methods, far from eliminating the impossible through the use of severe reasoning, are often based on less secure grounds, sometimes the most crass generalizing. The only reason one can read Conan Doyle’s stories without paying much attention to this is that Holmes does always turn out to be right, simply because the narratives are constructed to reinforce the idea of his great intellect. So, Holmes can receive a telegram and announce that it is from a man, giving his reason as follows:

No woman would ever send a reply-paid telegram. She would have come. (Wisteria Lodge)

He has eliminated the idea of a woman sending a telegram as impossible! Thus, of course, it had to be a man. And it does turn out to be a man, but that is no testament to Holmes’ assumption being a safe one, simply to Conan Doyle’s commitment to showing Holmes as an (almost) infallible genius – and, perhaps, his lack of commitment to coming up with properly thought-out demonstrations of this. An even more egregious example of Holmes’ presumptuousness is from The Blue Carbuncle. He can declare that a large hat he finds must be the possession of an “intellectual”. Why?: “‘It is a question of cubic capacity,’ said he. ‘A man with so large a brain must have something in it.'” It has been said that Holmes’ reasoning is effectively not deductive but abductive, or reasoning to the best explanation, but often he falls far below even this lesser standard.

Holmes, in short, is something of a quack, setting up as a professional science what often amounts to simple jumping to conclusions based on generalisations. Yet we all still love Holmes. Even I do. It is perhaps rather pedantic to find fault in the way I have done. This is not a real person, after all, but a fictional character. By his manner, his attitudes, his wit, and his explication of a certain worldview and a certain way of being-in-the-world, he fulfils our idea of a Hero. But also he quite nicely illustrates, as, probably, do most acknowledged real-life heroes, the difference between appearing to be heroic, and actually putting that into practice. So anyone intent on being “system Holmes” 24-7 should realize that not only is it a hard thing to be, it proved impossible to even write for Conan Doyle, whose Holmes is really most Holmes when he’s talking about being Holmes, rather than being Holmes.