What`s your method Mr. Holmes? Deduction, dear Freud, deduction!

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 23 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Conception of the Paper

2. The “Morelli-Method”

3. Sherlock Holmes and his Method
3.1. Applying the Method: A Scandal in Bohemia

4. Sigmund Freud and his Method of Psychoanalysis
4.1. Applying the Method: The Wolf-Man

5. The Similarities between Freud and Holmes

6. The Limits of their Methods

7. Conclusion

8. Works cited
8.1. Primary Literature
8.2. Secondary Literature

“From a drop of water”, said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. […] Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.”

(A Study in Scarlet, ch. 2, p.1)

1. Conception of the Paper

In the movie The Seven -Per -Cent -Solution[1], Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes join their forces in a rather weird series of adventures. In this paper, these two legendary figures will meet again: Freud, a detective of the unconscious, and Holmes, the famous Victorian investigator of the criminal side of human nature. The first, a historical character who has entered popular imagination; the latter, a fictional one so well known that he has often been taken for real.

So why will they meet again? Well, apart from their love of cocaine[2], Holmes and Freud share a certain style of reasoning, more precisely, both of them make use of a method of reading signs known as the “Morelli-method”. One part of this paper primarily deals with the style of reasoning Sherlock Holmes is making use of and how he applies his method. Therefore, the term paper will mainly refer to Arthur Conan Doyle`s detective novels A Scandal in Bohemia and The Sign of Four.

Another part of the paper will give a closer look at Sigmund Freud and his method. Therefore, a short introduction of his theory of psychoanalysis will be given, followed and underlined by examples from one of his ingenuous case studies, commonly known as The Wolf-Man.[3] Especially the centerpiece of this case-study, the analysand`s dream, will be discussed.

After that the collected similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud respectively the analogies between the literary and the scientific discourse of the time of the late 19th and the early 20th century will be summarized. This will form the main part of this paper. It will turn out that Holmes and the Viennese professor do not only use a similar method to solve their cases – which is well observed and described by Carlo Ginzburg in the essay Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.[4] Even the narrative structure of their case-studies is of striking ressemblance.

The conlusion will emphasise in general the importance of Holmes and Freud for the Victorian society of their days. But before shedding some light on these two brilliant thinkers, it is necessary to take a short glimpse on the so-called and already mentioned “Morelli-method”.

2. The “Morelli-Method”

Giovanni Morelli was born in 1816 in Verona, Italy. The later senator, doctor and art critic identified paintings by great masters that had been incorrectly attributed to minor artists. Other art critics of Morelli`s time made their determinations of authorship based upon the obvious elements of a painting like themes, compositions, figures. They looked at the piece as a whole and analysed only macroscopic characteristics and prominent features.

Morelli, however, was sure, that the most obvious elements of a painting were the easiest to copy. Instead, he was convinced, that “[…] one should concentrate on minor details, especially those least significant in the style typical of the painter`s own school: earlobes, fingernails, shapes of fingers and toes.”[5] These minor details, being the result of the painter`s unconscious habits, provided greater evidence of authenticity than the obvious details.[6] By the way, Morelli was a specialist for compareing anatomy!

In Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method Carlo Ginzburg tries to show that the method of Holmes and Freud consists of assigning the same great significance to circumstantial evidence gathered from observations and through “backward reasoning,” from consequence to cause, bringing it together in a coherent narrative: the history of a crime or of a neurosis.

The discourse of signs increasingly aroused in the 19th century, focusing on detail in a lot of different scientific disciplines, influencing the detectiv novel, psychoanalysis and medical science in general, all inferring from small traces at the surface to deeper meanings and causes. Ginzburg calls this process a semiotic paradigm or a paradigm of signs.[7]

Conveying the “Morelli-method” to the analytical work of a detective like Holmes the result is, that seemingly unintended signs left behind on a crime scene might be of importance. Like a painter who leaves behind traces on a canvas a criminal leaves traces on a crime-scene. For Morelli brushstrokes and drapery reveal the creator, for Holmes it is all about footprints in the mud or a cigarette stub left behind on the floor. Both seek for hidden fingerprints to detect the originator. In one case the originator of a crime, in the other of a painting.[8]

Looking at the psychologist Freud Ginzburgs notices, that his method of psychoanalysis is, like the Morelli-method, based upon seemingly worthless details. Freud himself read Morelli and referred to his method in his essay The Moses of Michelangelo from 1914. He writes:

„It seems to me that his [Morelli`s] method of inquiry is closely related to the technique of psychoanalysis. It, too, is accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations.“[9]

In an addendum to the Wolf-Man -case, Freud notes:

„In vielen Analysen geht es so zu, daß [...] plötzlich neues Erinnerungsmaterial auftaucht, welches bisher sorgfältig verborgen gehalten wurde.[...] und endlich erkennt man in jenem geringgeschätzten Brocken Erinnerung den Schlüssel zu den wichtigsten Geheimnissen, welche die Neurose des Kranken umkleidet.“[10]

Like the details in Morellis` case studies, the symptoms Freud has to decipher are supposed to reveal one`s personality coming directly from the unconsciousness. Thus, Freud supports Morelli in a decisive point: that one`s personality can befound where less applied. And the discipline of psychoanalysis is based on the hypothesis that apparently negligible details can reveal deep and significant phenomena.

Furthermore, Freud expressed the similarity between the methodological work of an investigator and his method of analyzing dreams. In one of his lectures he points out:

Wenn sie als Kriminalbeamter an der Untersuchung einer Mordtat beteiligt sind, erwarten sie dann wirklich zu finden, daß der Mörder seine Photographie samt beigefügter Adresse an dem Tatorte zurückgelassen hat, oder werden Sie sich nicht notwendigerweise mit schwächeren und undeutlicheren Spuren der gesuchten Persönlichkeit begnügen.[11]

In addition, it is well known, that Freud himself read Conan Doyle.[12] And as a letter to Jung proves, Freud was quite aware of the close analogy between his own work and that of the great Victorian: “Ich habe […] außerordentlich weise und scharfsinnig geantwortet, indem ich aus leisen Anzeichen Sherlock-Holmes-artig den Sachverhalt zu erraten schien.“[13] Freud has to read the hieroglyphics of his patients` symptoms and to reconstruct the hidden connection of the symptoms with the biography. Like Holmes, the father of psychoanalysis seems to be able to detect a person`s previous whereabouts or general situation by the subtlest of clues. For Freud and his early theoretical concepts of the unconscious, the detective paradigm seems to play not an inconsiderable role.

3. Sherlock Holmes and his Method

The famous literary character, Sherlock Holmes, was created by the Scottish author Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle.[14] His first piece of work – written in 1886 and published one year later in the Beeton`s Christmas Annual – presenting Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson was the crime-novel called A Study in Scarlet. But the career of the literary figure not began until 1891 when the first short stories featuring him appeared in the Strand Magazine.

Of course, everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is; at least that he is a man dressed in a deerstalker hat and checked cape. His appearance has become synonymous with rationality and it is his clinic-analytical mind for which he is most famous for and what made the stories that successful. The following pages will introduce the excellent logician, namely, a logician according to the standard of the late 19th century, and his method of operation.

Holmes`s method is primariliy based upon the exact, that means the positivistical observation of facts as well as objective reasoning which can be observed in all the novels. The method itself is explained in detail in the first chapter of the novel The Sign of Four[15], called The Science of Deduction.[16] To illustrate Holmes`s “style of reasoning”, here is a first sample:

[Holmes:] For example, observation shows me that you have been to the Wigmore Street Post Office this morning, but deduction lets me know that when there you dispatched a telegram.

[Watson:] Right! Said I. Right on both points! But I confess that I don`t see how you arrived at it. It was a sudden impulse upon my part, and I have mentioned it to no one.

[Holmes:] It is simplicity itself, he remarked, chuckling at my surprise – so absurdly simple that an explanation is superfluous; and yet it may serve to define the limits of observation and of deduction. Observation tells me taht you have a little reddish mould adhering to your instep. Just oppossite the Wigmore Street Office they have taken up the pavement and thrown up some earth, which lies in such a way that it is difficult to avoid treading in it in entering. The earth is of this peculiar reddish tint which is found, as far as I know, nowhere else in the neighbourhood. So much is observation. The rest is deduction.

[Watson:] How, then, did you deduce the telegram?

[Holmes:] Why, of course I knew that you had not written a letter, since I sat opposite to you all the morning. I see also in your open desk there that you have a sheet of stamps and a thick bundle of postcards. What could you go into the post-office for, then, but to send a wire? Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.

(The Sign of Four, ch. 1, p. 9.)

When Watson thereupon asks, whether all this is nothing but mere guessing, Holmes answers: “No, no: I never guess. [...] What seems strange to you is only because you do not follow my train of thought or observe the small facts upon which large inferences may depend.“ (The Sign of Four, chp.1, p.11.) Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, instead maintain: “What makes Sherlock Holmes so successful at detection is not that he never guesses but that he guesses so well.”[17] According to the post-episode that means, Holmes can only assume that Watson entered the post-office. Instead, he could have walked past the post-office, etc.[18]


[1] The film from 1976 is based on an equally-named novel written by Nicholas Meyer. In his psychoanalytical-historic crime-novel, written in 1974, Meyer tries to find the missing biographical link between Holmes and Freud in regard to their similar methods. The novel begins at the point where Arthur Conan Doyle “kills” his character Holmes and reinterprets the death as a cover-up to disguise Holmes`s real identity as a hopeless drug addicted man suffering from delusional paranoia focused on Professor Moriarty.

[2] Holmes quite openly takes both cocaine and morphine in several of Doyle`s stories. The Sign of Four opens, for example, with: “Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.” And a little later in the story Holmes states, “It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?” This comment formed the basis for the above mentioned novel The Seven-Percent-Solution.

[3] The term-paper refers to the edition: „Aus der Geschichte einer infantilen Neurose. [„Der Wolfsmann”]”. In: Freud-Studienausgabe. Fischer. Frankfurt, 1989. In the following quotet as Freud (1989).

[4] The original text was published under the title “Spie. Radici di un paradigma indiziaro”. In: Aldo Gargani (Hrsg.), Crisi della ragione. Nuovi Modelli nel rapporto tra sapere e attività umane. Turin. 1979, p. 57-106.

[5] Ginzburg, Carlo. „Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.“ In: Eco, Umberto and Thomas A. Sebeok, eds. The Sign of Three. Dupin, Holmes, Pierce. Bloomington : Indiana University Press. 1983. p. 82. In the follwing quotet as Ginzburg (1983).

[6] Morelli presented his new method to identify the creators of antique masterpieces under the alias Ivan Lermolieff. Between 1874 and 1876 he published a series of articles in the German art history journal Zeitschrift far bildende Kunst. The articles, proposing the new method for the correct attributes-of old masters, provoked much discussion and controversy among art historians. See Ginzburg (1983): p 81-83.

[7] Ginzburg (1983): p. 88.

[8] Compare Ginzburg (1983): p. 87.

[9] Freud, Sigmund. „Der Moses der Michelangelo“. In: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. X, Frankfurt: Fischer 1967, p. 185; here quoted from Ginzburg (1983), p. 85.

[10] Freud 203. To make clear the connection to Morelli , I highlightened the important part of the passage in italics.

[11] Freud, Sigmund. „Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse“. In: Freud-Studienausgabe, Vol. I. Frankfurt: Fischer 1969, p. 52.

[12] Gardiner, Muriel. The Wolf-man and Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth 1971, p. 135. In the following quoted as Gardiner (1971).

[13] In: Sigmund Freud/C.G. Jung, Briefwechsel. Eds. McGuire, William and Wolfgang Sauerländer. Frankfurt: Fischer 1984, p. 259.

[14] It is very likely that Doyle based the figure of Holmes on his old teacher Dr. Joseph Bell, who used deductive reasoning to track diseases and was well known for his excellent observational skills. Doyle met the consulting surgeon and professor at Edinburgh Universitiy, where Doyle studied medicine. In an interview with Blathwayt he admitts: “Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment […] of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University […]. He would tell [his patients] their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives and he would hardly ever make a mistake.” Blathwaigt, Raymond. “A Talk with Dr. Conan Doyle.” Bookman. 1892, p. 50. In addition, he dedicated The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to Jospeh Bell: “To my old teacher JOSEPH BELL MD”.

[15] The term-paper refers to the following edition: Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. London: Penguin Classics, 2001.

[16] Deduction is in terms of logic and philosophy the inference of a particular truth from a general truth previously known, as distinguished from induction, leading from particular truths to a general truth.

In their book The Sign of Four: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok propose that Holmes (and his prototypes in Dr. Bell and in Poe`s Dupin) actually reasons, not by “deduction” as he himself [Doyle] claims, but rather by what American linguist and early semiotican Charles S. Peirce called “abduction“. Sebeok points out that, while Holmes claims to be making the ironclad conclusions which lead inexorably from a sound deduction, what he is really doing is what Peirce claimed to be our chief mode of understanding – the abduction, what some would call enlightening guessing. But this differenciation shall not be discussed in this term-paper. For more information read: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok: “You know my method: A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes”. In: Eco, Umberto and Thomas A. Sebeok, eds. The Sign of Three. Dupin, Holmes, Pierce. Bloomington : Indiana University Press 1983, p.11-54. In the following quoted as Sebeok/Umiker-Sebeok (1983).

[17] Sebeok/Umiker-Sebeok (1983): p.22.

[18] For more information read Sebeok/Umiker-Sebeok (1983): p. 20-24.


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Title: What`s your method Mr. Holmes? Deduction, dear Freud, deduction!