2. Sherlock Holmes – Method and Character
2.3. The Historical Context of the Method
An inquiry into the historical background of holmes idealised ‘scientific’ working method. Pertinant extracts from A.C. Doyle’s original stories, juxtaposed to historical perspectives, situations, and sources.
There is some truth to Watson's remark that his comrade
certainly have been burned, had [he] lived a few centuries ago”. (1)
A man who devoted his life entirely to scientific research and was miraculously successful at it would certainly have been prosecuted in the Middle Ages – his ‘demonic’ gifts would have been a useless burden for him.
Consequently, a character like Sherlock Holmes originated from a time when science itself successfully challenged traditional believes and was eventually accepted as an additional way to interpret the world: the Victorian Age.
The Canon is in fact dominated by the ideas of a new, rational
approach to life as they developed at the time. The detective therefore
represents the ideal scientist – his method contains all major elements
of scientific enquiry:
At any point of his investigation, the scientist is guided by nothing but objective facts; common opinions or even the consequences of his findings are irrelevant to him in the first place. Interpreting all the facts correctly on the basis of pure logic, he is able to form a theory which explains the true nature of the phenomenon at hand. Because the researcher frees himself from any perturbing influences, the explanation he gives is ultimately valid. (2)
Once he has completed the scientific work itself, the scientist is free to consider the concrete effects of his work: He might give advice or take action himself – in any case, the researcher never gets out of touch with everyday life and sees to it that his findings are used wisely.
This extremely positive attitude towards science is typical of the
Victorian Era – which was
“above all else an age of enquiry and […]
At the époque, science flourished and had tremendous practical effects, so that even the
“common man in the street” could grasp
the scientific spirit in the air
“for he saw [it] day by day
remaking the world around him.” As it evolved into a practical
discipline, its influence on a wide range of affairs increased greatly.
The new way of reasoning also altered various traditional believes, because, unlike a priest, a scientist could offer visible evidence to support his claims and spoke with an authority he gained by
“[his] success in a hundred solid practical fields.”.
This ambiguous development stirred up great hopes as well as terrible fears, but there seems to have been a general feeling that
was decision and action, science was on the offensive,
science might become the god to replace a god.”(4)
It obviously was a popular believe of the époque that scientific enquiry would eventually provide reliable solutions, that it was, as a contemporary author put it,
“not any accomplishment or condition
of human progress, but human progress itself”.(5) People trusted in
science and its triumphs seemed to prove them correct at the time.
The Canon reflects much of this positive atmosphere of change. In
word or deed, Sherlock Holmes advocates the scientific ideals of that
time in every story, convincing the readers that they have the power to
create a better world: Applying his method with perfection, he is able
to assist people in desperate situations – in this own way, he keeps
the promise science held for many Victorians. The detective would never
doubt the validity of his principles, but, like the typical scholar of
“[act] on them for the with assurance for the rest of
Especially in his early days, Conan Doyle’s own ideas corresponded
to those of the ‘ideal scientist’ he invented. A doctor by profession,
science naturally had a big influence on his attitudes, even more so as
religious beliefs failed to thoroughly convince him (7). His trust in science never left him
completely: Even as a spiritualist, he tried to prove his convictions
with rational arguments - spiritualistic beliefs and scientific ideas
didn't necessarily contradict each other at that time. (8)
It's this confidence in rational thought that puts the Canon into the tradition of the Enlightenment or even ancient philosophy. (9)
Sherlock's brother Mycroft completes this idealistic conception of a better world. Unlike Holmes’, Mycroft’s enormous capacities of reasoning serve the society as a whole, as he assists the government in his pursuit for correct decisions and prohibits catastrophes on the basis of his superior view on political affairs. (10)
At first glance, the Victorian concept of science gives a solid
impression – Holmes’ method, consequently, appears to be completely
An attentive modern reader, however, tends to question many of its elements: Recent discoveries challenged the basic assumption that
universe is governed by laws which our reason can uncover and apply to
our environment” (11),
so that even a genius like Sherlock Holmes or Einstein might not be
able to arrive at the ‘ultimate truth’, provided that it exists at all.
At our time, it has become increasingly difficult to trust in scientific theories as a source of absolutely reliable knowledge – which is why we have to admit that, in the end, phenomenal results such as the detective’s can hardly be hoped for in our non-fictional world.(12)
Quite apart from that, experiences from two World Wars – if nothing
else – taught us that knowledge can also turn into a dangerous threat
to humanity: Who is supposed to contain a genius from abusing his
For all these reasons, the Method of Deduction may have lost part of his credibility, but none of its appeal, which lasts well into our time.