Weekly Forum: #49

Although mischaracterized as unobservant, Dr Watson was an intelligent man who learned from Sherlock Holmes’ methods throughout the many years they worked together. In fact, there is an example of this in DEVI, where Dr Watson applies those methods of observation to keep pace his friend’s deductions:

“Mr. Holmes,” said the vicar in an agitated voice, “the most extraordinary and tragic affair has occurred during the night. It is the most unheard-of business. We can only regard it as a special Providence that you should chance to be here at the time, for in all England you are the one man we need.”

I glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes; but Holmes took his pipe from his lips and sat up in his chair like an old hound who hears the view-halloa. He waved his hand to the sofa, and our palpitating visitor with his agitated companion sat side by side upon it. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis was more self-contained than the clergyman, but the twitching of his thin hands and the brightness of his dark eyes showed that they shared a common emotion.

“Shall I speak or you?” he asked of the vicar.

“Well, as you seem to have made the discovery, whatever it may be, and the vicar to have had it second-hand, perhaps you had better do the speaking,” said Holmes.

I glanced at the hastily clad clergyman, with the formally dressed lodger seated beside him, and was amused at the surprise which Holmes’s simple deduction had brought to their faces.

Can you find other moments in the Canon where Dr Watson uses Holmes’ methods of observation?

6 Replies to “Weekly Forum: #49”

  1. “Have a cigarette, Mr. McFarlane […] You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.”
    Familiar as I was with my friend’s methods, it was not difficult for me to follow his deductions, and to observe the untidiness of attire, the sheaf of legal papers, the watch-charm, and the breathing which had prompted them.

  2. Watson gives it his best effort in HOUN when he tries to analyze Dr. Mortimer’s walking stick.

  3. From RESI: It was ten o’clock before we reached Baker Street again. A brougham was waiting at our door.

    “Hum! A doctor’s – general practitioner, I perceive,” said Holmes. “Not been long in practice, or had much to do. Come to consult us, I fancy! Lucky we came back!”

    I was sufficiently conversant with Holmes’s methods to be able to follow his reasoning, and to see that the nature and state of the various medical instruments in the wicker basket which hung in the lamplight inside the brougham had given him the data for his swift deduction. The light in our window above showed that this late visit was indeed intended for us.

    This after the supposed “it must have been towards the end of the first year during which Holmes and I shared chambers in Baker Street.” Right, Watson, you moved in in January, found out about Holmes’ profession in March and by October you were sufficiently conversant with Holmes’ methods to follow his deductions yet in 1888 when you test Holmes with your brother’s watch you are still incredulous enough to accuse Holmes of trickery. Anyway, in BLUE Watson description of Henry Baker’s hat is so detailed that the only thing missing is the cut hair with lime cream, yet Watson is unable to draw any conclusion from it.

  4. “One moment,” I asked. “Did the stable-boy, when he ran out with the dog, leave the door unlocked behind him?”
    “Excellent, Watson, excellent!” murmured my companion. “The importance of the point struck me so forcibly that I sent a special wire to Dartmoor yesterday to clear the matter up.”
    “Is it not possible,” I suggested, “that the incised wound upon Straker may have been caused by his own knife in the convulsive struggles which follow any brain injury?”
    “It is more than possible; it is probable,” said Holmes.

    In answer to Pippin… I think there are two main reasons to explain why Watson is unable to fully grasp and apply Holmes’s methods. Number one, we know that it’s easier to appreciate the logical passages which form a chain of reasoning if someone else has already built that chain for us. It’s more difficult to look for the pieces, try to figure out which ones are the correct links and then to put them together in correct order. So, Watson is pretty good at grasping the logic behind Holmes’s reasoning, but finds it’s harder to do it by himself.
    (“I had listened with the greatest interest to the statement which Holmes, with characteristic clearness, had laid before me. Though most of the facts were familiar to me, I had not sufficiently appreciated their relative importance, nor their connection to each other.” [SILV])

    Reason number two, Watson is not specifically trained in observing and drawing inferences from his observations: most of the times, he relies implicitly on his friend Holmes doing this part. He lacks first, the power of observation, second, the experience (that Holmes has) to discern which are the important details to observe (see IDEN, where he draws a pretty accurate portrait of Miss Mary Sutherland, but fails to notice the little details that, in Holmes’s opinion, are fundamental).
    That this is due to his lack of specific training and a certain attitude of mental laziness, and not because of a lack of logical method, is evident by the fact that, in his own medical profession – for which he has received a specific training and he knows what to observe – Watson is often able to do quick and correct diagnoses, following the same abductive-deductive reasoning that Holmes applies to criminal investigation.
    The main limit of Watson’s mental powers is his inability to go from the singular to the abstract case: he does not realize that his own diagnostic method used in medicine is fundamentally the same kind of reasoning method that Holmes uses for the detection of crime. He lacks perhaps a bit of creative talent. That’s why he’s able to recognize a correct reasoning when Holmes explains it, but he has not imagination enough to build one of his own, when it requires expert knowledge that is outside his usual area of expertise.

    1. Your points on Watson are well taken, Reggie. I believe that Watson made himself appear more dull-witted in the stories, on occasion, than he was in real life to make Holmes’ brilliance appear all the more luminous. How else to explain how a man can talk of seeing the diggings at Ballarat [SIGN] then a few months later be ignorant of the place [BOSC]?

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