Friday, June 06, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Fourteen

Previously: Part Zero ... Part Thirteen

Because Cynical "debasing the coin of the realm" corrupts the way in which individuals or organizations are aware of the world, it may be hard to see how one gets beyond this destruction. Now I would like to speculate on how we can think of Cynicism as a constructive method.

Cynical attacks on categorical ways of knowing (I called them signals earlier) challenge the categories by turning something into its negation. A counterfeit is, and is not, a coin. When I started thinking about using a destructive method of constructing, the Sherlock Holmes quote came to mind. This led me down a rabbit hole that ironically illustrates the point. When I searched for the quote, I found the following attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
I wanted to be sure, and it took some time to track down a reference. One site put these words in the mouth of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet". However, this doesn't seem to be the case. After more work I found the complete works of Doyle in a single text file here. The word 'eliminate' is only used twice in the whole body of work. Here's the one we want, in the first chapter of The Sign of Four,  with Watson speaking first:
"How, then, did you deduce the telegram?"
"Why, of course I knew that you had not written a letter, since I sat opposite to you all 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."
[Update: I subsequently found the actual quote by searching for 'improbable'. Leaving the rest of the post unchanged.]

Now it's possible that Doyle used the first quote outside of a novel, but the story becomes odder when we look at the record. Using Google's ngram server, I searched for "eliminate the impossible" and "eliminate all other factors." Here's the result:

Red line is "eliminate all other factors", blue is "eliminate the impossible"
Tantalizingly, this has the common quote coinciding with the publication date of The Sign of Four, according to this site. The oldest edition I could find was a book (not the original magazine, in other words) scanned from University of Michigan's library:

Its publication date is "MDCCCCI," or 1901. I tried adding the "you" in front of the first quote, and got no hits on the ngram server, but it may have a limit on how long phrases can be. After more searching I found a scanned copy of the original 1890 Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. It has the same text as the book shown above. This would seem to rule out a change in the language between the original magazine publication in 1890 and subsequent compilation in 1901.

Google Books results show that there are 19th century instances of "eliminate the impossible," which probably explain the eruption of the blue line in the graph before the (book) publication of The Sign of Four in 1901. I looked for other partial phrases too, like "no matter how improbable." These didn't turn up Doyle, but other treasures. From Doing Business in Paris:

 and this one:
The sentiments of both of these is that untruths can propagate wildly, given the right conditions, which may be what we're seeing here, and a good reason for Cynical weeding out.

Moving forward in time, I scanned 1900-1920 with Google Books, and found a magazine called Woman Citizen with this text from April 26, 1919.

The offhand rephrasing switches "Eliminate all other factors" with "Eliminate the impossible." Six years later, we find:

This has the "however improbable" drama that Doyle didn't put in the mouth of Holmes. The attributed quote finally appears in full form in 1949:

Not only is the hyperbolic "however improbable" in appearance, it's in italics for extra effect. The book seems to be an edited volume by various authors of Doyle/Holmes-related biography, anecdotes, and lit crit, although all I have to go by is the random samples that the stingy owner of copyright allows Google to produce. Worldcat coughed up only five copies, none of which are online. Let us allow the matter to come to rest here.

By eliminating possibilities, we come to the tentative conclusion that Doyle's famous quote is actually due to fan fiction, which can easily be seen as a Cynical debasement of the original. This example illustrates this by switching out Doyle's concise "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth" with the nearly breathless "Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The fact that the latter one is much more well known, and attributed to Doyle is a clear debasement of the latter's words, and is a minor disturbance in the reality of anyone who believes the wrong version. The famous quote is, and is not, by Sherlock Holmes.

It takes a lot of work to separate signal from noise, which makes Cynics dangerous. Now what about that construction? That will have to wait until after the rabbit soup.

Next: Part Fifteen

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