Tag Archives: epistemology

Sherlock Holmes and the Man of Reason

10 Oct

I was on my way back from the library the other day when I realised something pretty crazy about everyone’s favourite detective-in-a-deerstalker and our social conception of knowledge.

So if you’re sitting comfortably, I will attempt to explain, according to my recently acquired and somewhat hazy understanding of alternative feminist epistemologies.

Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle’s and especially the current BBC incarnation of same – is the quintessential Man of Reason. He eschews emotions because emotions cloud reason. He seeks objectivity; truth; understanding. He believes he can arrive at knowledge through deduction and intuition. He has a method, and the method will always produce results providing he can adhere to it. Knowledge is of things, and these things are clear and discrete objects which exist on a plane separate from sensation and emotion. He is, also, as it happens, a man.

Sherlock sounds a lot like the kind of guy Descartes was thinking of when he outlined his philosophy exactly as I’ve just described above.

All well and good, you may be thinking. Sherlock is actually a reincarnated 17th century French philosopher. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, Benedict Cumberbatch. But here’s the thing. Descartes was one of the first – certainly not the only one, but certainly a big deal – in the reformulation of ‘reason’ as a non-feminine trait.

Wait, what? I hear you cry. Maybe you’re saying ‘but women ARE emotional and less good at reason’ (in which case, allow me to disagree wholeheartedly; go and do some hardcore reading). Maybe you’re saying ‘we can’t pin all that on poor old Descartes’ (in which case, you’re not wrong. I’m using him because his critique looks so eerily familiar). Maybe you’re saying ‘OK. Explain.’. In which case, I will.

The 17th century was a bit of a scientific turning point for the West. Up until this stage, ‘science’ wasn’t really delineated by gender, except in women’s access to learning it. If anything, it was pretty effeminate in that its biggest audience was women and many of its major funders were women (the salons of France in particular gave rise to a lot of scientific texts and were very much written for this audience). Science wasn’t really carried out in a particularly empirical or rigorous way; it just sort of happened based on what people already knew and what they were interested in. Science wasn’t connected with a style of thought. Science is from the Latin ‘scientia’, which is the noun formed from the verb ‘scio’, ‘I know’. Science is just stuff we know.

For a long time prior to this (again in the West), woman had been generally considered man’s ‘helpmate’, thanks to the dualisms of Aristotle (cheers, Aristotle) and subsequent interpretations of him by Christian scholars like St Thomas Aquinas, etc. Woman is definitely not the equal of man at this point in history; whenever she becomes threateningly close to some modicum of fair treatment, a backlash is instigated which confines her once again to the field, the drawing room, the non-male environment, etc.

So, the stage is set for the arrival of Descartes, and then, not long after, Sir Francis Bacon (not the modern sculptor; the founder of the Royal Society). Descartes identifies what he believes is the way one should acquire knowledge. At the very root of this is the ability to shuck off the emotions like some great big emotionless snake (my simile, in case you hadn’t realised) and reach mental and therefore metaphysical transcendence through reason and the acquisition of knowledge. Bacon does something similar – empirical research, conducted according to methodology and rigorous attention to detail – is prioritised over superstition, belief and the substantiation of knowledge only on the basis of what we wish to see or think to be true.

On the face of it, this all sounds pretty damn good. Right? Objectivity, empiricism and correlation with subsequent studies are all features of what these days we could conceivably call good scientific research.

Well. Let’s go back to the status of women. And let’s go back, too, to Aristotle and his dualisms. Man, for Aristotle, has reason. What does woman have? Emotion; passion. And what does Aristotle (and basically everyone since) think about women? Well, they’re inferior to men, aren’t they. So as soon as a doctrine of knowledge is created which says that ultimate knowledge of the universe and the nature of things can be arrived at by abstracting oneself from the emotions and employing reason, women are in a bit of a fix. Christianity (and, let’s face it, most religions) holds that women can’t ‘not be’ emotional. And now philosophy is sort of claiming that one can’t reach a metaphysical eternity unless one recognises and rejects emotion. Either way, women can’t obtain transcendence. They’re just too weepy. Fuck. Oh, and women can’t do science, either, because science is knowing stuff, and women can’t know anything when those pesky emotions keep getting in the way.

It’s at this point in history that Man as scientist and Woman as non-scientist is articulated. It is of course ingrained over the course of many years and many further theorists, scientists, writers and philosophers. And it’s self-fulfilling, too, because if you keep telling women that we can’t do science, we lose interest in trying. And it works in the other direction, of course – keep telling men that emotions are ‘girly’ and they lose interest in connecting with them. How successful we’ve been about turning around this trend is not really what I’m writing about here, so let’s get back to Sherlock.

As described, Sherlock is pretty Cartesian in his approach to knowledge. He thinks he can deduce and intuit everything. One of his favourite mantras (in the TV series at least) is ‘people lie’. He has no time for emotion. And we as viewers accept this. Sherlock can deduce everything. His extreme objectivity is genuinely capable of ultimate knowledge.

Watson, on the other hand, frequently doesn’t have a clue what is going on. And he is definitely emotional. He’s not unintelligent – far from it; he’s a doctor, after all – but he can’t deconstruct and reconstruct in the way Sherlock can. And we accept that, too. The Man of Reason is an ideal, but he’s pretty unattainable for most people.

So, Sherlock, the Man of Reason, is the ultimate knower. He makes no secret of his complete disdain for all other opinions or theories of knowledge. He can know everything, because the books and TV shows require that he gets there eventually (although his excuse that he doesn’t know about the solar system because it’s ‘not important’ in an episode in S1 is pretty incredible). But here’s the thing, and I’m sure even hardcore fans won’t mind me saying this (I know this because I am one myself): Sherlock is a bit of a cock. He *cannot* use his emotions. And yet – he can still seemingly know everything.

This makes it all the more frustrating that he has to ‘win’ against (or on behalf of, I suppose) Irene Adler in the S2E1 A Scandal in Belgravia. Oops! The screenwriters just totally reconfirmed everyone’s bias that only knowledge derived through reason is good enough to win the day. Knowledge that has any connection to emotions is just not going to cut it. Watson, I’m looking at you here.

The Man of Reason knows. He knows everything. But he doesn’t know emotion.

What does that say about what we – 21st century, multicultural, lovely Britain, think of as ‘knowledge’? And if knowledge is power – what does that say about who is powerful?

I’ll leave that one with you.