“Knowledge of Philosophy.—Nil.” [STUD]
In his initial assessment of Sherlock Holmes's limits, Watson would have us believe that Holmes was completely uninformed as to philosophy. But Holmes's actions—and later his words—tell us differently.
One of the universal similarities in many religions and in philosophy is the cyclical structure of things: nature and human nature are repetitive and predictable.
Ice ages follow eons of warmth, only to be followed by warming once again.
Volcanoes rise from the ocean depths, creating islands that later teem with life. But reactivated lava can snuff out that life and build more land mass.
On Ash Wednesday, the Christian religion reminds us that "you are from dust and unto dust you shall return." The Hindu religion has a belief in the cyclical and self-renewing nature of all things. It’s called saṃsāra.
In the Victorian era in which Holmes and Watson lived, a sense of order and predictability was prized above all else. This is why clients sought the help of Sherlock Holmes: he used his logic and knowledge of past crimes to help make sense of the uneasy present.
In fact, he recommended to Inspector MacDonald to study the history of crime, indicating that he would find trends to help guide him in future crimes:
“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again. I’ll tell you one or two things about Moriarty which may interest you.” (The Valley of Fear)
Was Holmes ignorant of philosophy? Perhaps in the traditional sense of studying particular philosophers. But in practical terms, Sherlock Holmes understood and embraced some of the lessons that philosophy teaches.
By having an institutional memory and a broader understanding of human nature from plenty of reading, he prepared — just as we can — for what might come next.
Such wisdom is less like a map and more like a compass: it provides a sense of direction to avoid getting lost.
The decisions we make will be based on the terrain in front of us.
And like Holmes, when we recognize patterns, it means sure footing.
Of course, it's never sure footing at Baker Street Elementary...
Baker Street Elementary follows the original adventures of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, as they and their friends work through the issues of elementary school in Victorian London. An archive of all previous episodes can be viewed at www.bakerstreetelementary.org.