So why doesn’t he just take up philosophy?

For the most part in this series, I’m going to use the title of the essay in the book itself, but I couldn’t resist changing the title for this one, and you’ll see why in the minute.

The first essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is by Kate Rufa and is entitled “A Sherlockian Scandal in Philosophy”. After revealing her major crush on the good detective, the essay basically associates Holmes with the Spinozan ideal man, and argues that Holmes indeed meets the criteria for that except for one trait: his morphine and cocaine use.

Now, I’ve never studied Spinoza myself. I did talk with some students who were taking a class on Spinoza, and so in noting my own Stoic leanings they seemed to suggest that Spinoza was heavily influenced by the Stoics. So, perhaps, I should pick him up someday. Certainly Rufa’s comments about his dispassionate and logical approach fit well with the Stoics. To that end, I’d like to examine Holmes’ addition in light of Stoic principles, and argue that they do a better job of criticizing it than Spinoza would.

As is revealed in the essay, Holmes uses the drugs when times are slow, as a way to keep his mental faculties moving. Basically, if his mind is not challenged he becomes bored, and artificial stimulants can move him out of that for a time. Watson, of course, criticizes him for it because he knows the harm they can do.

Rufa uses Spinoza to address both parts. According to her, Spinoza argues that the ultimate goal is actualization, which can only come about through detailed logical and cognitive work. Holmes, then, is striving to stay in that fully actualized state as much as possible, and so uses the stimulants to stay there when the world itself does not provide it. However, Rufa also points out that existence is one of the highest principles according to Spinoza, and so that Holmes shortens his existence to stay in that state of actualization is irrational.

The Stoics would likely not object, at least, to the actualization argument, although they probably won’t demand it as much as Spinoza does. However, they will disagree with the existence principle. If your existence leads to irrationality — and here in Spinoza that would be slipping out of that fully actualized state — then your existence must give way. So, then, Holmes shortening his existence to stay in an actualized state is not, in fact, irrational … as long as shortening his existence is indeed the rational response.

And here’s where the title comes into play, because it seems that taking the artificial stimulants is not the rational response. What is the rational response is to take up other issues and other problems when his detective work doesn’t give him the problems he needs. Why, then, doesn’t he take up philosophy. Surely the philosophical problems of ethics or epistemology or other fields are challenging enough to provide him with plenty to think about in his lean times. And since they have been talked about over thousands of years, it isn’t like they’re pressing either, so it’s perfectly reasonable for him to treat it as a hobby. Or, heck, he could even do science, as at the time — and even today — there were more than sufficient problems to keep him and his investigative nature occupied. Philosophy requires less materials, but science sticks to his empirical strengths.

Thus, if Holmes wants to keep his mind occupied and thus stay in that state of actualization, there are plenty of alternatives for him. If his issue was that he needed drugs to calm his mind and his thoughts to avoid burning out, that would be another story. But since he’s looking for problems to at least examine, there are many problems for him to examine. He should never need artificial stimulation to stimulate his mind. And thus, his use of it is irrational.

So, again, why doesn’t Holmes just take up philosophy?

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One Response to “So why doesn’t he just take up philosophy?”

  1. docktorstrangelove Says:

    Holmes always brags about his “powers of deduction”, when in fact his discoveries are always inductive. I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, don’t get me wrong, but I must criticize his misuse of philosophical jargon.

    There’s no questioning that Holmes’ mode of thinking is philosophical by nature. He takes an objective approach to everything and takes probability into account, and cross references that with the facts. He points out formal and informal fallacies without actually naming them: The author’s way of brilliantly explaining a fallacy without dazzling the reader with philosophical jargon–which is what makes me suspect why Holmes says “deduction” rather than “induction”. Doyle may have liked the ring to “deduction” rather than “induction”, and just relied on the philosophical illiteracy of his audience. Either way, Holmes’ thinking is certainly philosophical in nature. In a way, he lived for philosophy.

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