I have long since endeavored to complete the volume, or one might say, tome, entitled the Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume I. It has sat upon my shelf, keeping the company of other famous works and gathering dust, a most unfortunate predicament for any literary work.
My interest in the fictional detective was apparent long before he was realized in film and television by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and, most recently, Benedict Cumberbatch. The book, sadly, I have had little occasion to delve into. However, it was indeed the BBC’s magnificent portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories which implored to me to return to paper and learn of their origins. Sherlock Holmes’ deductive process has fascinated me to no end, and I have taken it upon myself to discover what of his methods are so blatantly eschewed by those of lesser observational skill.
The inspiration behind this post lies behind a short paragraph from A Scandal in Bohemia, which I will quote:
“I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. ‘When I hear you give your reasons,’ I remarked, ‘the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.’
‘Quite so,’ he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. ‘ You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.’
‘Well, some hundreds of times.’
’Then how many are there?’
‘How many? I don’t know.’
‘Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point.[...]‘”
It was this simple wisdom of Holmes’ that prompted me to explore the meanings behind the words ‘see’ and ‘observe’. From this short exchange, it can easily be noted that what Holmes implies by observation is an active pursuit, which, lacking such activity, would produce only the results of having ‘seen’ something; i.e., an impression of a place or a thing but little in the way of valuable information.
The definitions I am using are from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
‘See: To notice or become aware of by using your eyes. Origin: Middle English seen, from Old English seon; akin to Old High German sehan to see and perhaps to Latin sequi to follow.’
‘Observe: To watch and sometimes also listen to (someone or something) carefully. Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French observer, from Latin observare to guard, watch, observe, from ob- in the way, toward + servare to keep.’
Upon viewing these definitions and their derivations, it immediately became apparent to me the stark difference between the two, ‘see’ being to notice, become aware of, follow, whilst ‘observe’ is to watch carefully, guard, keep; to give an analogy, it is essentially the difference between offering a fellow traveler a friendly nod of acknowledgment and entering into a lengthy discussion with them.
I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had an extraordinary point to make when he gave his famous detective such prowess of intellect. We may not all aspire to such keen ability but we certainly have nothing but to gain from this perspective. Seek to observe rather than see, and you will garner more knowledge of the world around you than any dusty tome could provide.