The limits of my knowledge

2 minute read

There is a curious bit in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, where Watson actually lays out the limits of Sherlock’s knowledge – an estimation of the borders of his study and intellectual curiosity, in a way.

It’s curious because it seems as though every adaptation of Mr. Holmes presents us a sort of intellectual ingenue – a genius at work who flits from topic to topic, connecting the dots from what at first seem impossibly irrelevant details, the noticing and accounting of which imply an almost god-like accumen for knowledge of the world around him.

But no – Sherlock Holmes is human, and there are whole areas that he doesn’t know anything about – nor care to.

This is from Watson’s list:

  • Knowledge of Literature – nil.
  • Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
  • Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
  • Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  • Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  • Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  • Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  • Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
  • Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  • Plays the violin well.
  • Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
  • Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

It’s a shame we can’t be awed by his singlestick player prowess in this era.

Later accounts of Holmes’ expertise, as divulged through the canonical stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, end up contradicting this list to some degree. There are examples of him regaling Watson through intricate political news of the day, reading obscure philosophical monographs, and others where he is shown to be a voracious reader of classic literature.

So while list shouldn’t be set in stone, it’s a useful introduction to Mr. Holmes as it fleshes out a character of someone who is deeply analytical and linear in their thinking and approach to problem-solving – anything that isn’t directly related to his crime-fighting is given at most a second-order priority. Well that, and the violin (which comes in handy, as we all remember from his Stradivarius-playing in ‘The Cardboard Box’.)

I find even this little gem extremely helpful to reflect on. As we get flustered in our own studies and really try to hammer out what the “T”-style education is all about (breadth in many, depth in a few), it reminders us to consider that in order to be productive and say yes to projects, areas of study, and domains, we must also learn when and how to say no.