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Arts & Letters

A Forgiving Reason: The Secret of Sherlock Holmes’ Success

Tim Weldon detects links between Sherlock Holmes and Blaise Pascal in the operation of intuition.

How did the most famous fictional detective in history triumph over evil in over fifty celebrated cases? To what – or to whom – might we attribute his success?

Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle self-admittedly modelled Holmes’ manner and methods on the man for whom he was once a clerk, the eminent Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell (1837-1911). Of course we should give full credit to Bell’s extraordinary powers of observation and deduction. However, a careful reading of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures reveals that there is more to his case-solving than can be explained by Bell’s inspiration alone.

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes by Darren McAndrew 2018

Holmes’ Schooling

Rightfully, much has been made of the cognitive prowess of Sherlock Holmes: his command of common sense, minutiae-driven observation, dogged focus, summary appraisals, and power to synthesize. From what philosophical school (if any), to what system (if applicable), and to whom, among the great thinkers of history, is he indebted? Given Holmes’ citizenship and environs, one could reasonably start with the philosophical tradition known as British Empiricism, and link Holmes with, say, the thought of John Locke (1632-1704) or David Hume (1711-1776). The above habits of thought are certainly characteristic of Empiricism, as are Holmes’ interest in science and reliance on experimental evidence. Or perhaps we should look a little further away, in space and time? Perhaps Holmes’ careful systematic skepticism springs from the skeptic René Descartes (1596-1650)? Also, given the times, we mustn’t forget religion. That Holmes was familiar with Scripture is as established as is his use of logical reasoning and his ironclad morality. Do his methods then reveal a kinship with the medieval metaphysical realist, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275)? Or one could head south and back through more than two millennia, to link Holmes to Aristotle himself, since both men demonstrated proficiency in the natural sciences and in metaphysics. Or, given Holmes’ temperament, choice of cases, and dramatic flair, is it more accurate to say that he belonged to the Romantic school?

It is my contention that Holmes and his methods defy easy association with any school of thought or thinker; yet in the end they come to side most closely with the philosophy (although not necessarily the theology) of one thinker – someone closer to Holmes’ French ancestry than British, and more in line with his artistic side than scientific: Blaise Pascal. Using support from the stories, I hope to demonstrate the philosophical kinship between Holmes and Pascal, and in so doing pinpoint the cognitive source of Holmes’ unbridled success.

Intuitive Bloodlines

Holmes chemistry
Holmes Strand illustrations © Sidney Paget 1891

In the story ‘The Adventure of The Greek Interpreter’ (1893), Holmes and Watson can be found discussing “how far any singular gift in an individual was due to his ancestry and how far to his own early training.” To which Holmes responds: “My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural for their class. But nonetheless, my turn that way was in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” So it is in the French heritage of Sherlock Holmes that we discover his greatest inheritance, and much like his great uncle, even a certain artistic genius, although not as a painter (or a violinist, for that matter).

Sherlock Holmes, French? Artistic genius? How can this be? In popular culture, Holmes personifies a stereotypical association of the modern British mind with empiricism: wholly observant, properly dispassionate, ever rational and quantitative; in other words, the true scientist. Such characteristics truly carry the day for the mathematician, the microbiologist, the actuary, and the accountant. Even in the area of detection, some of Holmes’ cases were seemingly solved by what could be gleaned from a magnifying glass or microscope rather than musings produced from an armchair (and Holmes is the only fictional inductee into Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry). With modern achievements in forensic science and, for example, forensic ballistics, solving crime today has become a matter for the laboratory.

Yet given the complexity of crime and its origination from human flaws, and taking into account the presence of evil (as Holmes would admit), there is more to crime-solving than simple empirical assessment. And like any good detective, Holmes was a moralist. Good and evil colored his world as they defined his métier. Evil is as mysterious as it is manifest, and in figuring out how goodness is to prevail, one needs more than a tally of physical evidence. In reality as in literary fiction, detectives are famous for pivoting from a hunch, or on instinct or gut feeling – all synonymous with intuition. In fact, a detective’s hunch is nothing more or less than a hypothesis as yet unconfirmed. So Holmes’ methods at once include and transcend measurements, diagrams and graphs, numbers, and formulae.

From the Latin intueri, ‘to look at’, intuition is ultimately a mystery in origin and operation. However, I suggest that detectives use intuition to solve cases, and would be at a disadvantage if they did not. In its capacity to point the way, intuition can break a case wide open and prove a stepping stone for its solution. No one knew this more than Sherlock Holmes, with his ability to reason through the material evidence of a crime and intuit beyond it. But to best understand this, we must turn to the genius of his philosophical soul-mate, Blaise Pascal.

A Philosopher of Finesse

“We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart,” begins the French mathematician and philosopher Pascal (1623-1662) in Section One (Chapter Six) of his greatest work, Pensées (Thoughts, 1670). The influence of Pascal on modern philosophy is invaluable for this proposition alone, as by it he re-opened (and left open) a door to a question that dates back to antiquity: Is reason the sole source of and vehicle for truth? Can anything give me knowledge apart from or in addition to calculation, deduction, and inference?

Few in history have been able to make such a statement about going beyond reason from such credible foundations, with such an impressive resumé. Reported to have discovered for himself the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid at the age of twelve, Pascal published his first mathematical work at seventeen, went on to invent a calculating machine, and was heralded for his experimentation with vacuums, atmospheric pressure, and probability theory. He even designed a public transport system, by horse carriage [see Brief Lives, Issue 125, Ed]. The majority of Pascal’s writings were not on philosophy or theology, but on mathematics, science and technology. (Small wonder then that a programming language was named after him.) But just as Pascal understood the inestimable value of mathematical and scientific reasoning, he understood its limits. Towards the end of his short life, scientific matters bothered him little, whilst philosophy and theology concerned him greatly.

“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” said Albert Einstein. And unlike those famous thinkers whose work is defined by expansive thought in prolix tomes, Pascal’s genius is found in his simplicity. On the origin of humanity’s existential discontent (and this may be equally applicable to our criminal inclination) Pascal writes: “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (Pensées §136, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer).

In outlining the way we think, Pascal proposed that the mind is two-tiered and operates along two tracks, though not without the necessary intersection:

“We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. The skeptics have no other object than that, and they work at it to no purpose… For knowledge of first principles, like space, time, motion, numbers, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its argument. The heart feels that there are three spatial dimensions and that there is an infinite series of numbers… Principles are felt, propositions are proved, and both with certainty though by different means.” (§110)

Furthermore, for Pascal, the course of mathematical thinking (ésprit de geometrie), with its logic and calculation, travels along the rational track, while what we intuit or judge (esprit de finesse) advances by way of summary evaluative supposition emanating from our hearts (or as we might say in more modern terminology, from our unconscious). The effects of the former are more credible owing to their transparency to the data. However, the latter, ever mysterious in both source and operation, is capable of judgment by preceding and transcending data. Whether in matters of beauty – why does the painter choose one color over another, this scene or setting rather than that?; or of good and evil – why would anyone, how could anyone commit murder? – intuition is exercised for the sake of a qualitative or evaluative understanding. As Pascal scholar and translator A.J. Krailsheimer explains:

“Just as lines, squares and cubes (or x, x2, and x3) cannot be added together as being of different orders, so in the realm of human knowledge that which is proper to the body (the senses), to the mind (the reason), and to the heart are of different orders and must be carefully distinguished if error is to be avoided. The heart, in Pascal’s scheme, is the appropriate channel for intuitive knowledge, for apprehending pre-rational first principles and assenting to supra-rational propositions, as well as for emotional and aesthetic experiences.”
(p.22, Pensées, Penguin Edition, 1966.)

How difficult it must have been for Pascal, the eminent mathematician, so dependent upon logical demonstration, to advance the theory of an alternative and in the end, superior faculty of judgment! And intuition is judgment. Pascal writes, “Intuition falls to the lot of judgment, mathematics to that of the mind” (§513. Note that here, as was his habit, Pascal uses what has been translated as ‘mind’ – la raison – interchangeably with mathematical reasoning – ésprit de geometrie.) How true this is for the detective, for whom so much is at stake. In the solving of a criminal case, hypotheses must be made and attended to, and ultimately judgments must be offered and acted upon, with every subtlety accounted for in between. In his heart, Holmes understood this as he exercised his intuition with unparalleled success.

The Heart of a Detective

Holmes in train
Holmes Strand illustrations © Sidney Paget 1891

Holmes’ interests were as varied as his clientele, ranging from bee-keeping to Baritsu (or Bartitsu, an eclectic martial art). They inspired exhaustive research and attention, especially when connected with a pressing case. The diligence and intensity with which Holmes pursued the truth was often mistaken for aloofness, even officiousness. “Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness,” observes Young Samford in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Even Dr Watson reproached his old friend, saying “You are really an automaton – a calculating machine” (The Sign of Four, 1890). But in truth Holmes was anything but cold-blooded, and his manner anything but machine-like. In disposition he was every bit the bohemian: unconventional in profession, hours and habits (some unhealthy), temperamental, ever-inclined to drama (“Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well staged performance,” Holmes reminds us in The Valley of Fear, 1915), and drawn to the outré – hellhounds, vampires, etc. He was capable of love (of the woman) – but only of the courtly type. This reveals the thoroughly romantic disposition of a medieval knight errant – or of a Victorian-era detective who lives to right wrongs. In method, Holmes’ stock-in-trade empiricism is literary legend: “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles” (‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ 1891). But once the evidence was gathered, through observation and the collection of clues, the greater difficulty lay ahead: divining motive, character analysis, moral implications – all that exceeds the grasp of any data-driven scientific analysis. As Holmes was to say: “Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems” (A Study in Scarlet).

Holmes’ labelling of Deduction and Analysis (note the capitals) as both science and art places him squarely in Pascal’s philosophical backyard, as does his theory of the moral and mental aspects of a crime. At the scene of a crime, Holmes could no more intuit the origin and type of a footprint than he could identify tobacco ashes by intuition; but data doesn’t commit crimes. Holmes must also reckon with what transcends the immediate data – the human factors, such as love, hate, avarice, lust, ambition, jealousy, and other nefarious motives that inspire wrongdoing – and ultimately this will provide the conduit to solving the crime. He must also reckon on how virtues and vices are revealed in or concealed by the subtleties of human behavior, from furtive glances to pregnant pauses. This is all the work of intuition.

Holmes professed such intuitive ability from the beginning. He admitted as much to Watson when the latter wondered just what a consulting detective does in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes answers that his clients “are all people who are in trouble about something, and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket a fee.”

“But do you mean to say… that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every little detail for themselves?”

“Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way.”

Holmes’ achievements derive from his uncanny ability to balance the physical evidence of a case – the objective data – with its often more challenging subjective truths, into a single coherent judgment. Specifically, he was able to account for both what can be reasoned to and what can’t be, with gimlet precision. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) highlights as much, as we shall now see.

A Season of Forgiveness

“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season.”

‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is Holmes’ only Christmas case. The setting, introduced by Watson, is noteworthy. The virtues and sentiments of the season provide the backdrop for the story: discussions of love and demonstrations of forgiveness, conversion, charity and reverence, however implicit, give the adventure its uniqueness among the canon. So too does Holmes’ mindfulness of the season and his manifest understanding of what Christmas means with its capacity to transform lives. Given its existential import then, the Christmas theme provides the best milieu for Holmes to exercise his intuition about the human psyche.

The Blue Carbuncle

The plot begins with the curious presence of an unloved hat. “The matter is a perfectly trivial one,” Holmes challenges Watson, “Here is my lens. You know my methods.” “I can see nothing,” Watson’s replies, as he studies the hat. Holmes responds, “That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.”

There is far more to the hat than meets Watson’s eye, then. From an easy rendering of the appearance of the hat, including Holmes’ then-fashionable dabbling in the pseudoscience of phrenology (that it is obvious that the man was highly intellectual is because the hat was quite large), the great detective moves from analysis to judgment: ‘evil days’, ‘moral retrogression’, ‘evil influence’, and an unloving wife are pronouncements emanating from intuitive understanding. Although each of these judgments is supported by physical evidence – for example, that the hat has “a week’s accumulation of dust” translates into the loss of a wife’s affection – implicit in Holmes’ judgment is an understanding of good and evil, of moral and immoral, and of love which necessarily transcends the evidence. If this case is to be solved, Holmes has to depend upon his intuition.

When the owner of the hat returns, Holmes’ judgments are confirmed, giving the cogency and credibility necessary for him to evaluate additional clues: a bungling commissionaire and a Christmas goose – the latter producing the priceless gem of a burgled Countess. But although ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is named for that royal swag, Holmes is able to judge the stone in its proper context: “Who would think that so pretty a toy would be purveyor to the gallows and prison?” Balancing every nuance, his understanding of contrast unfailing, Holmes then reveals the true implications of the case with all its moral weight: “Remember Watson, that though we have so homely a thing as a goose at one end of this chain, we have at the other a man who will certainly get seven years’ penal servitude unless we can establish his innocence. It is possible that our inquiry may but confirm his guilt; but in any case we have a line of investigation which has been missed by the police, and which a singular chance has placed in our hands. Let us follow it out to the bitter end.”

As winding as it is wintry, Holmes’ line of investigation means, on the one hand, attending to every place where evidence is to be had, and on the other, interacting with every person involved. His perceptive finesse – the ability to size up straightaway the personality or psychological profile of anyone connected with the case – proves indispensable to the freeing an innocent man.

Holmes’ encounter with the primary suspect is the story’s best example of his people skills. Tracking the trail of the gem-filled goose back to its irascible seller, Holmes and Watson come face-to-face with their primary suspect, “a little rat-faced fellow.” To expedite the inevitable, Holmes hails a cab for the trio and proceeds to lead the thief to confession by degrees:

“But pray tell me, before we go farther, who is it that I have the pleasure of assisting?” The man hesitated for an instant. “My name is John Robinson,” he answered with a sidelong glance. “No, no; the real name,” said Holmes sweetly. “It is always awkward doing business with an alias.” A flush sprang to the cheeks of the stranger. “Well then,” said he, “my real name is James Ryder.”

Holmes stokes the tension with a silent half-hour ride to Baker Street, wherein, before the home fireplace, he produces Ryder’s glistening, erstwhile booty: “The game’s up, Ryder,” said Holmes quietly, “Hold up, man, or you’ll be in the fire! Give him an arm into his chair, Watson. He’s not got blood enough to go in for felony with impunity.”

Ryder’s subsequent confession of the burglary, replete with the details and name of an accomplice, is only punctuated by kneeling contrition: “For God’s sake, have mercy… think of my father! Of my mother! It would break their hearts. I never went wrong before! I never will again. I swear it. I’ll swear on a Bible. Oh, don’t bring it into court! For Christ’s sake, don’t.”

Holmes considers the penitent Ryder, lecturing and listening and eliciting more information about the crime, before unexpectedly saying: “Get out!”

“What sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

Holmes’ admittedly curious rationale for releasing the thief is due to a shift in focus – again emanating from his intuition. With the framed man guaranteed his freedom, Holmes’ mind, and heart, turned to the plight of Ryder. Holmes’ decision is a hunch-inspired bet that Ryder will henceforth be guided by penitence.

The wager is no whim. Steeped in the spirit of Christmas, Holmes’ decision was inspired. Ryder’s genuine plea for mercy, in Christ’s name, has to be met with forgiveness: Ryder’s future life, even his very soul (not to mention the soul of Holmes) depends upon it. As Holmes explains to Watson, “This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The sentence could have been written for Holmes. For in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, the world’s greatest detective displays the brilliant, albeit paradoxical, mind of one who is able to exercise reason capable of forgiveness, and forgiveness that is reasonable. Surely, this is the mark of a mind, and of a man, who is as endearing as he is noble.

© Dr Tim Weldon 2018

Tim Weldon currently serves as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the University of St Francis in Joliet, Illinois. He can be reached at tweldon@stfrancis.edu.

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