Calculating Humanity

For those who were hoping that during this blog run I’d return to Philosophy in Pop Culture … well, you might be happy today. Or not. Because I’m continuing the series with this post, picking up the next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy”. It’s by Timothy Sexton, and is called “Calculating Humanity”. In it, he attaches Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock Holmes to the Nietzschean Overhuman, as opposed to the Underhuman that the “calculating machine” depictions of Sherlock Holmes make of him (which includes the interpretation of the creator himself). While a big part of that argument is about Brett’s Holmes doing things with a lot of style, the part I want to focus on is the issue of superiority, and the sort of superiority that Sexton thinks that Holmes has. And to do so, I want to use another character in popular culture that reflects a bit of an irony here: Data from Star Trek, the actual calculating machine that takes on the role of Holmes, at least in part, to better understand humanity. I think that Data has a far superior form of superiority than Brett’s Holmes, which means that if Brett’s Holmes is the Overhuman and Data, as a calculating machine, is the Underhuman, then Data is actually the better human of the two.

Note that I’m not an expert on Nietzsche at all, so don’t take this as any kind of comment on Nietzsche’s actual comment. Go talk to Dan Fincke about that. I’m just talking about the forms of superior people and personalities discussed here.

So, how does Sexton describe his superiority?

What if the drive behind Sherlock’s need to solve cases was about “striving for excellence … striving to overcome one’s neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one’s own feelings”?

What this suggests to me is that for Brett’s Holmes, being superior, being better than everyone else, is a goal. It’s something that’s important to that Holmes, something that Holmes strives to be and strives to demonstrate. Again, not solving cases; solving cases in and of themselves is unimportant. No, what’s important is being better than everyone else, and solving cases is just the means by which that Holmes demonstrates that.

Now, of course, being overly modest isn’t necessarily a virtue … but that’s where we can get a better way to be superior from Data. In an number of cases, Data flatly states that he is superior to humans. He is aware that he is stronger than they are, that he knows more than they do, that he’s faster than they are, that he has less physical limitations than they do, and so on and so forth. But whenever he states this, he doesn’t state it as something he is either proud of ashamed of. He states it as if it is nothing more than a fact; he just is superior, and that’s that. It’s not important to him to be superior, it’s just a fact that he’s superior there.

To see how that attitude is better, consider what happens when the person finds out that someone else is superior to them. Brett’s Holmes ought to be devastated, and should take any measures necessary to try to beat that person. Beating that person, in and of itself, has to be a goal … even if they actually can’t be better than that person. In the Holmes mythos, it seems to me that there is someone superior to Holmes: his brother Mycroft. The calculating Data Holmes can indeed simply state that Mycroft is better than he is, and feel no rancor about it or any bitterness, or not allow it to influence his own behaviour or see it as something that he has to work to overcome. Mycroft might well just be naturally better, and that’s fine. Data Holmes will just do what he does and what he’s good at. Brett Holmes, however, can’t be as sanguine about it, because being superior is important to him … and it just isn’t important to Data Holmes at all.

The best kind of superiority is the superiority of fact: it just is the case. You just are better than them at something. It doesn’t make you better as a person or them worse, it’s not a sign of success on your part and failure on theirs, it just is. If someone is inferior to you because they just don’t work at it or don’t work at it properly, there is no harm in encouraging them to do that properly … even if it means that at the end of it all they end up better than you. If you are inferior to someone only because you don’t work at it properly, strive to work at it properly.

The proper goal — and I think Fincke would argue that the proper Overhuman — strives to be the best they can be, not to be better than anyone else. If you are the best you can be and better than others, that’s fine. If you are the best you can be and inferior to others, that’s fine, too. It’s not about being better than anyone else, but about being the best you can be. Data gets that; I don’t think Brett’s Holmes would.



One Response to “Calculating Humanity”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    There is a passage in the stories where Holmes flat-out admits Mycroft is the smarter brother, then says that modesty is as much a vice as bragging. He didn’t seem upset about this, and in fact had a decent relationship with his brother.

    I have no idea if Mycroft appeared in the Brett versions of the Holmes stories, but I know Brett tried to be very accurate in any case.

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