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The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes

edited by Philip Tallon and David Baggett

Publication Year: 2012

Arguably the most famous and recognized detective in history, Sherlock Holmes is considered by many to be the first pop icon of the modern age. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective has stood as a unique figure for more than a century with his reliance on logical rigor, his analytic precision, and his disregard of social mores. A true classic, the Sherlock Holmes character continues to entertain twenty-first-century audiences on the page, stage, and screen.

In The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, a team of leading scholars use the beloved character as a window into the quandaries of existence, from questions of reality to the search for knowledge. The essays explore the sleuth's role in revealing some of the world's most fundamental philosophical issues, discussing subjects such as the nature of deception, the lessons enemies can teach us, Holmes's own potential for criminality, and the detective's unique but effective style of inductive reasoning. Emphasizing the philosophical debates raised by generations of devoted fans, this intriguing volume will be of interest to philosophers and Holmes enthusiasts alike.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Front cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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Introduction The Case of the Conan Doyle Conference

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pp. 1-6

This volume came together at a special Sherlock Holmes colloquium, convened at the University of Bern, near the famous Reichenbach Falls.1 Despite the fearsome headlines and morbid details popular in the press coverage of the event, it was mostly a delightful and relaxing conference, with many...

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Sherlock Holmes as Epistemologist

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pp. 7-22

A philosopher friend of mine tends to give his waitresses a hard time, though they never seem to mind. When they ask him if there’s anything else he needs, for example, he tends to reply that, now that they ask, he would like to be given the meaning of life. He’s a good tipper, but not that good. Beyond containing a skein of mysteries...

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Not the Crime, but the Man

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pp. 23-36

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is, in many respects, unique among Sherlock Holmes’s adventures.1 In the first place, Holmes does not investigate any crime, nor is he asked to. Rather, he becomes a criminal himself, burgling a man’s house and witnessing his murder without trying to prevent it or report it. Second, his antagonist, Charles...

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A Case of Insincerity

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pp. 37-48

Whether disguising himself as an Italian priest in “The Final Problem” or leaving false evidence of his own death in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Sherlock Holmes always seems to be one step ahead of friends and adversaries alike. Holmes’s ultimate...

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Sherlock's Reasoning Toolbox

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pp. 49-60

It is simplicity itself. . . . My eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my...

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Watsons, Adlers, Lestrades, and Moriarties

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pp. 61-76

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle praises friendship with powerful words. “For without friends no one would choose to live,” he asserts, “though he had all other goods.”1 Friendship is helpful in nearly every stage and station in life (though Aristotle does pause...

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Eliminating the Impossible

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pp. 77-92

In the opening scene of Guy Ritchie’s first movie adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved and enduring literary franchise, Sherlock Holmes (2009), the audience promptly makes the acquaintance of a most sinister character by the name of Lord Blackwood. Looming over a young woman as she lies flat in a trance, dagger in hand, ready to...

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Was It Morally Wrong to Kill Off Sherlock Holmes?

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pp. 93-108

The “Great Hiatus” is the term used by Holmes scholars to refer to the period of time between Holmes’s tumble off of Reichenbach Falls in the “Adventure of the Final Problem” and his resurfacing three years later (in the chronology of Doyle’s stories) in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” During those three years, Holmes...

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Sherlock Holmes

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pp. 109-120

Mr. Sherlock Holmes is the remarkably successful detective that all the world readily acknowledges him to be because he is a preeminent man of reason, which means, in more specific terms, that he is a man of method. The method, in turn, can be said to be the natural corollary to his complete dedication to logic. Holmes...

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Sherlock Holmes and the Ethics of Hyperspecialization

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pp. 121-132

Sherlock Holmes is highly specialized in the art of criminal detection— hyperspecialized, in fact. He possesses highly trained powers of observation and reasoning, which he pairs with a deep knowledge of matters that bear directly on his profession, including chemistry, anatomy, the history of crime, footprints, bloodstains...

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Passionate Objectivity in Sherlock Holmes

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pp. 133-142

The detective novel as we now know it has its origins in the nineteenth century. It was very much a phenomenon contemporary with the dissemination of Auguste Comte’s (1758–1857) positivist philosophy, a rigorously scientific approach to problem solving.1 Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49)—one of several authors heralded as the creator...

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The Industrious Sherlock Holmes

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pp. 143-152

Hard work was a prime Victorian virtue, and Sherlock Holmes, good Victorian that he was, was an exceptionally hardworking guy. Holmes was a person “who, when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging his facts, looking at it from...

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The Dog That Did Not Bark

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pp. 153-166

A good detective asks himself the question, “Am I missing something?” One can miss something in at least three ways. The first and most obvious way is to overlook something that is in front of you, such as a book you are searching for when you misremember its being red rather than blue. A second and fairly common way is not to recognize the significance of what you do notice, discounting...

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Aristotle on Detective Fiction

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pp. 167-180

Some twenty-five years ago, it was rather the fashion among commentators to deplore that Aristotle should have so much inclined to admire a kind of tragedy that was not, in their opinion, “the best.” All this stress laid upon the plot, all this hankering after melodrama and surprise—was it not rather...

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The Grim Reaper on Baker Street

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pp. 181-196

Long before CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and other murder mystery shows, people gathered around—and under—the guillotine to watch the bloody spectacle of death, and even, as The Scarlet Pimpernel describes, to collect hair from the fallen heads. Centuries before that, crowds roared around the...

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pp. 197-198

We would like to say a few words of thanks to the many people who helped bring this project to the light of day. Many thanks to Anne Dean Watkins, Bailey Johnson, Amy Harris, Karen Hellekson, Ila McEntire, and Steve Wrinn at the University Press of Kentucky...


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pp. 199-202


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pp. 203-206

Further Reading

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pp. 214-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780813136875
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813136714

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Doyle, Arthur Conan, -- Sir, 1859-1930 -- Characters -- Sherlock Holmes.
  • Holmes, Sherlock (Fictitious character).
  • Detective and mystery stories, English -- History and criticism.
  • Philosophy in literature.
  • Private investigators in literature.
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