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The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 10, Number 1, April 1986
pp. 122-123 | 10.1353/phl.1986.0059

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122Philosophy and Literature The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, edited by Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok; xi & 236 pp. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1984, $22.50. This collection promises "a semiotic approach to abduction," and most of the ten essays examine analogies between the methods of Sherlock Holmes and the theory of hypothesis limned by Charles Sanders Peirce. There is no evidence of direct influence; rather, the contributors show in diverse ways how the signreading of Holmes depends upon acts of abduction comparable to the process identified in Peirce's famous "beanbag" syllogism. The essay by Thomas Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok enunciates the book's thesis: "Holmes's powers of observation . . . and of deduction are in most cases built upon a complicated series of what Peirce would have called guesses." Shrewd abduction, we learn, requires vast knowledge; signs are signs only when one recognizes the system to which diey belong. For readers of detective fiction as well as semioticians, this insight may not constitute a major breakthrough, though a few of the essays offer intriguing theory. Carlo Ginzberg's "Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes" unfolds an eclectic concept of evidence as unconscious disclosure; similarly, Gian Paolo Caprettini's "Peirce, Holmes, and Popper" explores the way in which detectives and readers both identify symptoms, clues, or traces and endeavor to discover connections between "small facts" and global questions. The essay by Jaakko and Merrill B. Hintikka speculates on the relationship between observations, questions, and tacit information, as they define the process of inference; but when the discussion turns to question-answer sequences in game theory (also elaborated in an ensuing essay by Jaakko Hintikka), the reader enters the densely technical realm of formal logic. Explaining their title, the editors acknowledge a desire to send readers "back to the funhouse of rampant triplicities." But in subtracting one from The Sign of the Four to designate a triumvirate of semioticians, Eco and Sebeok devise an inadvertent sign of reductiveness. The significant number is not three but two: Holmes and Peirce receive ample consideration, but Poe's Dupin is little more than a token presence, evoked to give a semblance of historical perspective. In fact the only essay giving more than casual attention to Poe is a revised "term paper" that examines but one of the diree Dupin stories. The essay by Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok typifies the neglect of Poe; noting the intellectual stunts of Holmes (guessing occupations and reading thoughts), they trace Doyle's debt to his medical teacher, Joseph Bell, overlooking clear precedents in Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," respectively. Since both Doyle and Peirce read Poe and were influenced (albeit in different ways) by the Poesque model of ratiocination, the superficial treatment of Dupin seems all the more regrettable. The collection amounts to a "sign of two" also in the sense that Sebeok and Eco here indulge in a playful exercise of authority; together with friends and col- Reviews123 leagues, the two dabble in the logic of detection with scarcely a glance at the impressive body of theory and criticism on the detective story which has accrued in the last ten years. The casual "let's-see-what-happens" approach marks Sebeok's introduction: "A key question addressed, explicitly or implicitly, by most of die contributors to this volume, is whether any juxtapositions of the American polymath with the great English detective . . . are likely to vent esperable uberty?" Sebeok glosses "esperable uberty" as "hoped-for abundance," but aside from abundant typographical errors, the collection does not display the expected "rich growth." It reveals instead a quirky effort to transform enthusiasm for Holmes and Peirce into a book "important for epistemology and the history of science." However efforts to connect Peirce's abduction theory with the methods of Holmes finally prove pointless. In detective fiction, Eco at last concedes, abduction is really a display of"infallibility," having litde to do with the fallible process by which human beings construct clever hypotheses and run the risk of failure. Louisiana State UniversityJ. Gerald Kennedy The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, by Jean-François Lyotard; translated by Geoff Bennington and...