Although Ginzburg also cited serendipity in his essay, the connections between abductive capacities and finding what one is not looking for remain very weak. This is demonstrated by the fact that, in the wake of Zadig, all the samples of circumstantial knowledge are almost infallible, other than the science of the unexpected. They have to solve a mystery, apply the circumstantial method and hit the mark. In the Murders of the Rue MorgueDetective Auguste Dupin analyzes every detail, proceeds by exclusion and even manages to read his friend’s mind, reconstructing the passages of his reasoning.
“Observation is a kind of necessity,” he says. Of course, you have to think about what no one has thought, like the scientist in the face of an anomaly, not withdraw even in the face of the strangest hypotheses (even that the culprit is an orangutan), but in the end anyway, perhaps with the help of glorious theory of probabilities, “experience always reveals its true logic”. Collateral and accidental events are important, but Dupin dominates them by making them “the object of absolute calculation”, tracing the unexpected to a mathematical formula. The end result is therefore a denial of serendipity.
Sherlock Holmes is no exception. Its inventor, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a doctor, pupil and secretary of an expert in medical semeiotics, Joseph Bell, a surgeon in Edinburgh, a lover of induction, connections between clues, wizard of diagnosis in the ward, who later the young Arthur Conan Doyle had to do it in writing. Conan Doyle wrote the first sketches of his character while waiting for patients in his specialist clinic, between ship trips and the other as a ship’s doctor. For a year he also studied tuberculosis in Germany with Robert Koch, but without being very impressed. Detective Holmes is therefore the son of circumstantial knowledge in medicine. Bell was renowned for his extraordinary powers of observation: not only did he catch the disease on the fly, but often also the profession and class of the patient, without asking him anything. Sherlock Holmes is the literary incarnation of him, only slightly dramatized.
From Bell, therefore, and from the example of Poe’s detective Dupin, Conan Doyle drew in 1886 the model of a scientific policeman with great investigative skills. He had to apply a rigorous and realistic circumstantial method, not relying on lucky coincidences, but on footprints in the mud, cigarette ashes, calluses on his hands, wear and small details imperceptible to most. The protagonist must deserve success with effort and reasoning, not discover the culprit thanks to fortuitous circumstances. In literary fiction, Holmes is even the author of systematic and almost paranoid catalogs of clues such as cigarette ash and calluses on his hands.
There is very little serendipity here. Strokes of luck almost never exist in real life, wrote Conan Doyle in a letter from 1900 in which he recounted the birth of his character. That is why it occurred to him to draw inspiration from his old Edinburgh professor, from the implacable logic that traced the effects to his causes and thus diagnosed illnesses at a glance. The medical master, however, appreciated his dedication and told Conan Doyle in 1892. Since then he has even started to send him suggestions on criminals and misdemeanors. Holmes is therefore even more of a scientist than Dupin, rational and systematic. Science takes the place of chance and crimes that of disease.
On closer inspection, Sherlock Holmes, almost inhumane, heartless but gifted with a magnificent logical intelligence, takes abduction to such extreme consequences as to deny it. Watson counteracts his presumptions of infallibility, but to no great effect. Indeed, Holmes’s science is presented not as an abduction but as a logical deduction: from general premises to underlying and inevitable consequences. In the first chapter of the Sign of the four, “The science of deduction”, Sherlock Holmes defines the investigation as “an exact science”, devoid of emotions and misleading romanticisms, an analytical reasoning that goes back from the effects to the causes and solves the enigma.
Personal qualities must not mislead this Galilean exercise. The customer, Holmes says, scandalizing Watson, is just a number, a factor in an equation. It is an art, investigation, which requires intuition, of course, but also many notions, observation skills, to put oneself in the role of the criminal, of meticulous classification. Like Zadig’s, Holmes’s science also deals with minutiae, for example by cataloging the 140 varieties of tobacco that leave as many differences between their respective ashes (but then he solves the case in the old way, resorting to the nose of a good police dog) .
This science is by no means serendipitous but on the contrary exact, according to the unbeatable Sherlock Holmes, because “once we have eliminated the other variables, what remains is the truth”. Or said in a more philosophical way a little further on: “eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must necessarily be the truth”. This is none other than the typical experimental procedure for which the various variables and hypotheses involved are analyzed, compared and discarded, in order to corroborate a theory (scientific and investigative) discarding false leads.
Conan Doyle’s detective is aware that this science works up to a point, that is, only when you are sure of, and have the tools to, really evaluate all potential variables. Often several conjectures remain on the table, equally probable or improbable, because human and non-human nature can be twisted. “What a strange puzzle, man!” Writes Conan Doyle. When he acts alone it is “an insoluble puzzle”. The rest then is the calculation of probability and luck, admits Sherlock Holmes, as indeed William of Baskerville. So it’s not exactly an exact science, but that is the ambition. Unforgettable inside his crumpled raincoat, Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbus, a very attentive apparently careless observer, is decidedly more human: from the first scene we know who the culprit is, but we remain glued to witness his investigative prowess.
This excerpt is taken from the book Serendipity. The unexpected in scienceby Telmo Pievani, Raffaello Cortina publisher
Image: Nedko Solakov – Amadoodles2007, black ink on wall, dimensions variable, Photo Ela Bialkowska, courtesy Galleria Continua-Installation by Nedko Solakov at Castello di Ama in Chianti
Telmo Pievani is full professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Padua.
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