welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Philosopher as Detective

Colin Harper investigates the case of Ernst Bloch.

In Philosophy Now No.3 Peter Rickman compared the activity of a philosopher to that of a spy. Whilst I completely agree with his comments on the usefulness of such comparisons for philosophical self-understanding, I do not find the image of ‘spy’ all that apt. He suggests two defining characteristics of spying. Firstly, that the knowledge sought by the spy is not only hidden, but secret, that the obstacles to attaining such knowledge are there by design. Secondly, in the attempt to acquire such knowledge the spy uses subterfuge. However, a spy’s search for knowledge is not only obstructed by others, but rather spying is the attempt to gain knowledge or information which is already held by others and, when the spy’s efforts are successful, the knowledge does not then become public knowledge, but rather a secret for the employers of the spy as well. The knowledge invariably remains a secret and the activity of spying itself, to stand any chance of success, also remains secret. I find this secrecy which pervades spying quite alien to philosophy. If philosophy is in any sense a search for truth, then the use of such appearances in this manner can only be counterproductive. Likewise with subterfuge, which is a means of ensuring the secrecy of the search for secrets. Can truth ever really be served by the use of deliberate falsehood? Is it not rather the case that the use of such means inevitably corrupts the end? Spies belong to an elite group and serve to gather information for an elite group. If philosophy is a common pursuit of wisdom, rather than solely an activity pursued by an intellectual elite, then the philosopher cannot act like a spy and remain a philosopher in any meaningful sense. Philosophy and poetry may not be irreconcilable opposites, but philosophy and sophistry are. Whilst Rickman’s examples of why a philosopher might wish to appear as other than he or she is are broadly valid, they seem to me to be more the result of the kinds of societies in which philosophers have had to work than to result from the nature of philosophy itself as a human activity. As Rickman points out, there are many occasions on which it is dangerous to pursue the goals of philosophy openly, but is it not simply the case that philosophy as such is dangerous? It is dangerous to the sophists of the world and, for that reason, they are dangerous to philosophers, as Socrates found out. It is dangerous to the philosopher, as it can undermine all that had been held to be important, turn the philosopher’s world upside-down and lead to him or her being seen as mad. The use of subterfuge by philosophers can certainly be understood, but must surely be seen as a retreat from philosophy rather than as belonging to the nature of philosophy itself.

In this article I wish to draw on the work of the twentieth-century Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch to suggest that a better image for philosophical self-understanding than that of ‘spy’ might be that of ‘detective’. In 1960 Bloch gave a lecture entitled ‘The Form of Detective Stories and Philosophy’.1 In this lecture he considered the question of the defining characteristics of the much neglected genre of the detective novel Such novels are a relatively recent appearance in the history of literature; they emerged only with a shift in the legal process away from a dependence on trial by confession to the use of evidence to decide the facts in a case and apportion guilt.2 Bloch suggests three main characteristics of such stories.

Firstly, that of suspense, of anxious uncertainty caused by the delayed revealing of what is really going on. This effect is not brought about simply by a mountain of corpses, but by the intellectual tension of an unsolved mystery which urgently demands a solution.

The second characteristic is that of discovery or unmasking. The clues which lead the detective are often small, apparently incidental details which carry an importance out of all proportion to their size. Such details always escape the plodding approach of the police and only the detective as an outsider seems to notice them. Different detectives employ different methods in gathering and interpreting these unconventional clues: Bloch contrasts the ‘scientific-inductive method’ of Sherlock Holmes (with his study of the natural sciences and classification of things such as perfumes, mud and tobacco ash) with Hercule Poirot’s ‘intuition of the totality of a case’ using his ‘little grey cells’. He sees the different methods of these model detectives as being related to the ideas prevalent in society at the time. Thus, as the 20th Century progressed, “Bergson and totality theory triumphed over J.S. Mill”, even in the detective novel. However, the concern with small details is common to both, only the nature of the progression from clues to conclusion differs.3 Discovering the truth of the matter, through the use of unconventional clues leads to the unmasking of the criminal, or criminals, or even of the apparent criminal as innocent. Often the least suspected person, the one who appeared the least likely to be the criminal, turns out to be the one being sought. Behind the lace curtains that drape the bourgeois drawing room all manner of crimes are also hidden. This aspect of the detective novel Bloch compares to Freud’s method of analysis, which also refuses to take claims at face value and shares the suspicion that the more neatly the mask fits, the less salutary that which goes on behind it.

The third characteristic, that of the pre-narrative event, which Bloch regards as the most important, distinguishes the true detective novel from all other narrative forms.

“Before the first word of the first chapter something happened, but no one knows what, apparently not even the narrator. A dim focal point exists, as yet unrecognised, whither and thither the entire truckload of ensuing events is mobilized – a crime, usually murder, precedes the beginning. In all other narrative forms both deeds and misdeeds develop before the omnipresent reader. Here, on the contrary, the reader is absent when the misdeed occurs, a misdeed that, though conveniently home-delivered, shuns the light of day and lingers in the background of the story. It must be brought to light and this process itself is the exclusive theme.” (p.249)

None of the characters admits to knowing what happened and the detective must attempt to recreate the unknown events. This aspect, unlike the search for evidence, can be found quite early on in the history of literature. The archetype here is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the crime which led to the plague under which Thebes suffers, he lets no stone rest unturned and relentlessly interrogates all those who appear before him as to the truth. He engages in detective work only to discover in the end that he has been unmasking himself, that the crime at the beginning was his own crime and that he was profoundly mistaken about his own origins: detective and criminal turn out to be one.

As well as having precedents in literature, the idea of a concealed misdeed at the beginning also appeared in speculative form, as in the Cabbala, the work of Jakob Bohme or the late philosophy of Schelling. Here a crime or misdeed precedes the creation of the world itself. Not a murder, but a revolt, of the angels or of Adam, which led to our imprisonment or exile in the world for a crime committed before the world came into being. As prisoners or exiles within a fallen creation we search for the nature and cause of our crime in the hope of making restitution and thereby attaining freedom or the estate which we have lost. According to this conception, it is not law and order which lie behind the world, but rather crime and chaos. Our original misdeed lies in the darkness of our origins and must be brought to light. We know that we exist, but why we exist or what we are is unknown. Bloch suggests that we are like foundlings lost in the world, suffering from homesickness without knowing where home is.

These characteristics of detective novels as described by Bloch seem to me to provide an interesting basis for a comparison of the philosopher and detective. Without a certain amount of suspense, anticipation or wonder would human beings bother to philosophise at all? Of course, if philosophy were simply about the meanings of particular words and the logical relation between particular propositions, then suspense would play no role in it – rather boredom would predominate. However, insofar as it attempts to grapple with larger questions, to solve greater mysteries, and does not abdicate its vocation by denying that it can attempt this, or by seeing such attempts as quixotic bravado, then the anxious uncertainty about what we will learn always remains. The repeated shaking of the foundations of our commonly held assumptions about ourselves (not just about our language) leads to a sense of our state of suspension between the past and our unknown future. That we are in search of something is plain, what we are searching for remains unknown, just like a detective.

Philosophy can certainly unmask – the wise man as fool and the fool as wise. At a social rather than individual level, practices can be revealed as the opposite of what they appear to be or are claimed to be (e.g. throwing people onto the dole as irrationality rather than ‘rationalisation’). Theories which masquerade as descriptions of human nature can he revealed as limited to particular societies and times. Ideologies which portray the historical as the eternal, the social as the natural betray themselves to close inspection and, when a class is interrogated as to motive, means and opportunity, these ideologies as alibis do not appear to be so sound after all. For Bloch, the paradigmatic example of such detective work is that of Marxism which, with a highly cultivated suspicion, unmasks the social basis which lies hidden under a blanket of ideology. The third analogy seems to me to be the most consequential. It is not only of relevance to highly speculative philosophy, to metaphysics, but can also be read as the starting point for a form of existentialism. In this case the search for the mystery at the origin of the world is displaced by the less ambitious search for our own origin or nature. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is going on in the human story? The philosopher as detective has a hunch that something happened at the start and looks for clues as to what. Where the spy, like the political or religious ideologue, cultivates mystery and ignorance, the detective, like the philosopher, seeks to dispel them.


1. For a later version of this lecture see “A Philosophical View of the Detective Novel”, in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature (London: MIT Press, 1988), pp.245-64.

2. Bloch suggests that this dependence on confessions had led to the use of torture in order to obtain them and that this was “unthinkable atrocity, the worthless extortion of guilt, against which the Enlightenment rebelled for both humane and logical reasons. Since then, evidence is necessary and must be produced; it is the basis for proof before judge and jury in most cases. (This applies at least outside the colonies and to non-fascist jurisprudence at home)” (p.246). Given the recent history of British ‘justice’, was Bloch being naive in believing this, or, given his qualification in brackets, was he completely right?

3. Bloch thought that in the study of society small details were as important as the larger view, an approach he shared with Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. The first volume of Bloch’s Collected Works is entitled ‘Traces’ and is a collection of stories, fables and puzzles. He thought that these enigmatic traces were clues which indicated something about the world that discursive thought had not yet captured. They are the mysteries, the problems which make up the subject matter of philosophy, the tracks which must be followed.

© Colin Harper 1993

Colin Harper has been a postgraduate student in Belfast for longer than he cares to remember and not only is he left wing enough that the Labour Party wouldn’t have him as a member, he is so left wing that he doesn’t even want to join.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X