The Epistemology of Sherlock Holmes

Focus or branch out?

In 1887, Sherlock Holmes didn’t care at all about breadth of knowledge, and wasn’t interested in amassing esoteric information. He was ignorant of many things, focused purely on his rather narrow interests. He didn’t even know, for example, that the Earth orbits around the Sun:

“It is of the highest importance not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones … you say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” – A Study in Scarlet

But then something changed. In 1915, Holmes is reported to have said:

“Breadth of view, my dear Mr. Mac … the interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest.” – The Valley of Fear

And then in 1927:

“I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge … my mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein – so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there.” – The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane

The latter two statements clearly contradict the first. Holmes has moved from a tightly focused schema of knowledge to one that is all-encompassing and places value in ‘out-of-the-way’ information.

What are we to deduce? Did Holmes change his mind, and his methods? Did he receive a serious bash on the head at the Reichenbach falls? Did Watson misunderstand or miscommunicate some (or all) of these moments? Are we then to consider him an unreliable narrator?

Perhaps this is the more interesting question: Why did Arthur Conan Doyle switch tacks?

Is an obsessively focused mind more convincingly capable of observation and induction in the investigation of crimes, or do we prefer the Renaissance Man of the late Holmes, whose holistic sense of knowledge enabled him to make unlikely connections?

I think these differences really caught my attention because they seem to mirror the choices we are asked to make – or, at least, the unconscious patterns we eventually fall in to – when it comes to knowledge. To become expert in any one area is usually predicated upon selective ignorance in a host of others. We might be impressed by someone with a vast range of information at their command, but how often would we call them a genius? Is it realistic to horde tidbits of esoterica on the basis that it might some day come in handy?