The Ironic Cultural Misrecollection of Sherlock Holmes

A couple years ago, sick of all the heavy literature I had been reading, I picked up the complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, expecting, in essence, a fun romp.  Sherlock Holmes was, I thought, the original puzzle-fiction: solvable who-dunnit (or how-dunnit) mysteries that encourage the reader to exercise their reasoning skills and that maybe teach something about perception applicable to everyday life.  I did not expect themes that resonated with me deeply.  Is Sherlock Holmes the best work of rationalist fiction ever written?  Objectively yes.  I’ve read all the fiction, and Sherlock Holmes is the best.

The primary criticisms I’ve heard of the original Sherlock Holmes are based on a particular conception of what the work should be, rather than what it actually is.  It’s not good puzzle fiction, and it’s not good genre mystery: The solutions to the mysteries are often things that the reader could never have guessed.  And it’s not good “let’s admire the prowess of this fictional human mind” fiction either—it’s easy to write fiction with a character who makes accurate inferences; it’s harder to write a character who is actually compellingly intelligent.  Compelling intelligence requires accurate inferences that the character reaches through valid and non-obvious reasoning, and it requires a world that punishes characters for fallacious reasoning (Death Note and Worm are both good examples of fiction with characters who meet these requirements for compelling intelligence).  Holmes’ inferences often seem outlandish and unlikely, but are overwhelmingly correct.  Therefore, on the surface at least, he’s not really a compellingly intelligent character.

The idea that we should be interacting with Sherlock Holmes according to genre mystery or compelling-intelligence standards is, I think, based on a cultural misrecollection of what Sherlock Holmes is.  Sherlock Holmes is not a puzzle, and it’s not wish-fulfillment, and it’s not instruction on how to use deductive reasoning to wow your peers and solve crime.  It’s an exploration of the power of scientific reasoning, and a prescient look at the implications applying rational modes of thought to societal problems.

The basic question that Sherlock Holmes attempts to answer is “What if we used science to solve crimes?”  The answer to this question is that we’d probably solve more crimes. Holmes is good at what he does.  Hypothesis testing combined with deduction is an effective way to know things, and if you introduce science somewhere where it’s never been applied before, of course you will quickly make intellectual progress.  Other characters, who don’t understand the power of science, then are constantly amazed by Holmes’ intellectual abilities, and seem to view him as possessing some sort of superhuman intelligence.  Because the stories are narrated by Watson, this sense of Holmes as superhuman is impressed upon the reader.  He’s always a  few steps ahead.  He understands what’s going on well before anyone else.  He holds all the cards.

Sometimes it seems like this superhuman aspect of Holmes is all our cultural memory of the character retains from the original stories.  Take for example, Holmes’ catchphrase in many lesser adaptions, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  What does this catchphrase communicate?  Holmes is intellectually superior.  Watson struggles through some difficult intellectual question, and reaches a non-obvious conclusion, but Holmes was there ages ago.  To Holmes these conclusions are basic; they’re so evident from available information, that they hardly merit even saying.

This conception of knowledge is anti-scientific.  Knowledge doesn’t come from isolating yourself from the outside world and thinking really hard about available information.  Knowledge comes from collecting and assimilating information and then collecting more information.  The idea that Holmes can just look at a situation and know infinitely more than anyone else exemplifies the limiting ways we collectively think about intelligence.

The original Sherlock Holmes actually pushes hard against this superhuman conception of science and intelligence.  Conan Doyle’s Holmes never says “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  He calls a conclusion “elementary” once, in “The Crooked Man,” but with the opposite intended implication.

“Excellent!” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader.”

This type of comment from Holmes on Watson’s depiction of him is not rare in Conan Doyle’s stories.  The stories portray the awe that intelligence can inspire in us.  And then they go on to tell us over and over again that intelligence should not be impressive.  Knowledge does not come from superior intuition.  It comes collecting information.  Watson’s instinct to marvel at Holmes intellect is wrong, and it works to limit his own intellectual ability.  The belief that knowledge comes from within rather than from without in the best case stifles curiosity in favor of futile contemplation, and in the worst case stifles thought in favor of  intellectual learned helplessness.

Holmes goes on to tell us a healthier way to think about knowledge:

“Now, at present I am in the position of these same readers, for I hold in this hand several threads of one of the strangest cases which ever perplexed a man’s brain, and yet I lack the one or two which are needful to complete my theory. But I’ll have them, Watson, I’ll have them!” His eyes kindled and a slight flush sprang into his thin cheeks. For an instant only. When I glanced again his face had resumed that red-Indian composure which had made so many regard him as a machine rather than a man.

To Holmes, all things are understandable.  Events that seem surprising or nonsensical are not incomprehensible; they’re just not yet understood.  They should be taken as indications that there is more to learn.  It is this attitude that encourages Holmes to constantly collect information, and this attitude is what ultimately enables his seeming super human intellect.

It is with this perspective that we should understand the literary value of Holmes’ seeming failure to conform to standards of compelling intelligence.  Holmes draws nonsensical conclusions that turn out to be correct not because of superior intuition, but because he has information that the reader doesn’t.  The work implores us to extend this understanding of Holmes to intelligent people in the real world.  When someone is able to quickly reach conclusions that to us seem out of reach, it’s not because of some naturally vastly superior intellect.   It’s because they have information and experience that we don’t.

With this understanding of the work, the cultural memory (or at least the portion of cultural memory I received based on general exposure and a few modern adaptations) of Sherlock Holmes is an ironic vindication of its message.  The original Sherlock Holmes warns us that we have a tendency to think about intelligence and knowledge in this anti-scientific innate-ability way.  And true to this warning, we’ve collectively forgotten that Holmes is effective not because of an innate ability but because of his application of scientific principals to new problems.  Instead, in shows like BBC’s Sherlock, he stands for exactly what he wanted to stand against: He personifies the ideal of Smart Person with Unattainable Super Human Intellect.

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