BBC News - A Point of View: The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes

17 August 2012 Last updated at 15:19 GMT

A Point of View: The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes
The fictional detective retains his grip on our imaginations, even in an age when we have lost faith in the power of reason to solve problems, says philosopher John Gray. When the future seems more than usually uncertain and there's something troubling in the present, it's natural to look to the past. Could that be why the figure of Sherlock Holmes is once again in our minds? Brilliantly re-imagined in the new BBC series, Holmes uses the power of his luminous intellect to solve seemingly insoluble riddles. He is described as relying on reason, employing a science of deduction that enables him to explain events that have so far proved baffling. Yet it's not the methods used by the fictional detective that fascinate us. It's the contradictory figure of Holmes himself. Nearly 100 years on from the setting of the last of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in August 1914, we've witnessed a succession of failed experiments in using reason. It's not just the collapse of communism followed by upheaval in free market capitalism - both of them systems based on theories that were supposed to be rigorously rational. In everyday life, systems that were designed to be infallible - from the security software we install on our home computers to the mathematical formulae used by hedge funds to trade vast sums of money - have proved to be dangerously unreliable. From the health service to care homes and prisons, institutions and services have been remodelled to obey principles of rational efficiency, with the result often turning out to be lacking in human sensitivity and at worst a mere shambles. As a result of these failures, faith in reason has been dented. The idea that the intellect alone can be our guide in life is weaker than it has been for many years. At the same time, Sherlock Holmes - a symbol of the power of intellect if ever there was one - is as powerful a presence in our imagination as he's ever been. It's a contradiction worth exploring. It's not the science of deduction that gives Holmes his power over us, since he doesn't in fact use it. In The Sign of Four, Holmes declares: "I never guess. It is a shocking habit - destructive to the logical faculty." Yet the type of reasoning which Holmes uses in most of Conan Doyle's stories includes a good deal of guesswork. We tend to think there are two types of reasoning:
deduction, where we move with logical certainty from general principles to a particular conclusion, as in "all swans are white, this is a swan, so this must be white" and induction, where we move from particular observations to general principles, as in "all the swans that have ever been seen are white, so all swans are white" www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19268563?print=true 1/4

co." With some of the qualities of a late 19th Century decadent. "When you have excluded the impossible.comes up with hypotheses he tests one by one. while induction yields probabilities that can always be falsified by events . He wants justice to prevail. or else our universe has no meaning and that is unthinkable.hadn't gone away. On the one hand he seems devoid of human feeling . must be the truth." he tells Watson. religion seemed to have been discredited. only the best available account of events. He does this in many of his cases. to which reason. "I can never bring you to realise the importance of sleeves.A Point of View: The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes Deduction is infallible as long as the premises are true. The servant of reason.bbc. or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace. "the suggestiveness of thumb nails. A physician himself before he became a writer.uk/news/magazine-19268563?print=true 2/4 . but he reaches his conclusions by using his judgement. the plodding Scotland Yard officer: "You know my method. but it's not applying this rule that accounts for his astonishing feats.above all. Holmes is also a romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality. At times he treats Watson ." Holmes notices things other people don't. Importantly. asking the right questions and crafting theories to account for what he has found. as much as much on reasoning. But the human needs to which religion answered . has no answer.that can't offer certainty or any precise assessment of probability.12/27/12 BBC News . and where necessary he's willing to flout the law in order to ensure that it does. and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience."a high-functioning sociopath. But what purpose? That is humanity's great problem. It is founded on the observation of trifles. www. Like a good doctor. With the advance of science. But he's not just playing at being a detective. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box." Here Holmes is voicing an anxiety felt by many at the end of the 19th Century." Holmes has the knack of knowing where to look.a stand-in for human beings in general . more conjectural kind . If anything. At this point we're getting close to the contradictory sources of Holmes' power over the imagination. the need for meaning was felt more acutely than before. He's ready to disregard legal rules when they seem to him unfair or out of place in the circumstances at hand. Holmes bases his inferences on evidence. he asks. and a deep sense of the random cruelty of the human scene.using a mental agility that involves creative imagination rather than the mechanical application of any method of reasoning ." as he describes himself in the new series.to stave off boredom. I have learned caution now. whatever remains. It's not cold logic but a clairvoyant eye for detail that enables him to solve his cases. supplemented and corrected by observation. published in 1892.with something not far from contempt. What's striking is that Holmes relies on guesswork and imagination.the black swans that turn up when no one is expecting them." Here Holmes is describing what he calls reasoning backwards . and then . And he doesn't rely on his judgement only in the work of detection. As he puts it to Watson. But he also has genuine affection for his friend. If Holmes can identify an unlikely pattern in events. Doyle tells us that he based the character of the detective on a medical professor he had known.sometimes called abductive reasoning .moving from the facts to an explanation of what has produced them by a process of elimination. "What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose. the need for meaning in life . so far. As Holmes tells Inspector Lestrade. The type of reasoning Holmes uses is of another. it's by using what Watson describes as his "extraordinary genius for minutiae". "Once or twice in my career I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. Holmes turns to detection as he does to his cocaine habit . however improbable. this kind of reasoning can't be practised simply by following rules.

some of which lies within the highest authorities in the land. M. in an unconventional picture of 'consultant' detective who works for his own intellectual needs. trying to remodel the world on rational principles that in practice produce chaos? Here is a selection of your comments.uk/news/magazine-19268563?print=true 3/4 . we need myths and myths very often contain contradictions. Denis Williamson. Mohit K.politics. The conclusions reached are only as reliable as the axioms. Mumbai. He. which are only as good as his initial assumptions. He is a true Ronin. sense that established power structures . en masse. Doyle found consolation in spiritualism . health care and correctional facilities that is flawed.a movement with many of the functions of religion. Holmes is one such myth. The same can be said of Holmes' deductions. but find it hard to live without.. Holmes embodies the modern romance of reason .12/27/12 BBC News . If we're not content with the process of living itself. Aside from a few relics of Victorian rationalism who find a curious comfort in Darwinism. autonomous agent. Miami. Rational efficiency is applied in worlds of human endeavour simply because it is easier than the alternatives. Mexico It is the misapplication of factory-based. those in power try to set the 'true' premises of what should be and then come to deductions not always necessarily correct. but which claimed to be based on scientific evidence. most of us now accept that reason can't give meaning or purpose to life. Checkley. India Sherlock Holmes is more than a detective. government. The appeal of such figures is sharpest when we. Sherlock embodies independence. production-line efficiency to areas of life such as education. David Hodgson. Sherlock's appeal is better understood in terms of autonomy and power. profound skill and hope. That particular rationalist creed was followed by others. rather than social benefits of crime free state. He is a manifestation of pure dedication . or the "Ronin" Samurai of deep cinematic influence.bbc. Seeming to find order in the chaos of events by using purely rational methods. he actually demonstrates the enduring power of magic. he applies his skills for their own sake . more militant and political in nature. I'm sure Sherlock would have said much the same if you had asked him. He wants criminals as much as he hates them. is a highly-skilled. US Logic is rigorous but rather limited in what it can achieve since any system to which it applies starts with axioms .supposedly self evident truths to which logical deductions are applied. Those in power have mistaken it as their right to enforce their deductions on their societies and made it the duty of their fellow being to accept it. Hong Kong A beautiful analogy between Holmes and how we have come to construct the human society over the past decade. discipline and passion. Kidderminster www. a man who stands apart from other human beings but who is moved by a sense of human decency.reveling in the detail and challenge .a myth we no longer believe in.A Point of View: The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes Along with others at the time. not reason per se. As in democracy or communism. mass media. Piyush Joshi. An exemplar of logic who lives by guesswork. Guadalajara.co.are in question. All of them claimed to have solved "humanity's great problem" and to have done so by the use of reason. which in the cases quoted are far from self-evident. like Jason Bourne. Can we learn to be reasonable without expecting too much of reason? Or will we blunder on. Solving crime is his appetite. big business . Not because it is better.while remaining acutely aware he works amongst sinister powers. Surrounded by corruption.

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