Sherlock Holmes - Background to a Phenomenon (Header)
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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 “would 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 […] decision”.(3)
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“…science 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 that époque “[act] on them for the with assurance for the rest of [his life]”.(6)

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 reliable.
An attentive modern reader, however, tends to question many of its elements: Recent discoveries challenged the basic assumption that “the 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 talents? (13)
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.

 from: A Study in Scarlet.[Text]
for more details, see: Encyclopaedia Britannica (CD ROM, Standard Edition 2001): "Science, philosophy of";  Online : . [Text]
from: J. Bronowski: "Unbelief and Science", p.164; in: N.G. Annan: Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians.[Text]
 Ibid., pp.165 - 166. [Text]
Quote by W. K. Clifford, ibid., p.165 → q.v. in the subsequent paper: Ch 3.1., anot. 3 . [Text]
from: N.G. Annan (‘Unbelief & Science’), p.164. [Text]
confer: Daniel Stashower:"Teller of Tales" (2001), pp. 51.[Text]
Back then, the borderlines of science were not as set as they are today. –  Compare p. ex. : D. Stashower("Teller of Tales"), pp.161–163. [Text]
compare p. ex.: Sandra Kromm: "A Feminist Appraisal of Intellectual One-Upmanship In the Sherlock Holmes Stories", p.266, in: C. R. Putney et al. : "Sherlock Holmes", 1996. [Text]
 Holmes: "He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. […] The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange […] which makes out the balance. […] [A minister] could get his separate advices [sic!] from various departments upon each [aspect of an issue], but only Mycroft can focus them all, and say offhand how each factor would affect the other."(from: The Adventure of the Bruce Patington Plans)
see also: C. R. Wright: "They Were the Very Models of the Modern Information Age", p.23, in: C. R. Putney et al. : "Sherlock Holmes", 1996.[Text]
from: Sandra Kromm ('Feminist Appraisal'), p.267; original quote by Zuckov.
compare: Ibid., pp.268-269
for additional information, see p. ex. : J. Briggs et al.: "Die Entdeckung des Chaos" (1999). [Text]
Holmes, however, fights his amoral counterpart successfully in: "The Final Problem". [Text]
Author's Logo · Author: Paul - Christoph Trüper, 2004  - 2006.
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