dietrich von hildebrand experience

The Sherlock Holmes of Philosophy

2:54:00 PMGrace Davies

Sherlock Holmes was a genius of observation. He could walk into a crime scene and grasp the essential details of evidence, however minute or seemingly insignificant. He could see what the Scotland Yard detectives habitually over-looked. He would admonish Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand had a similar aptitude in the field of philosophy. He had a peculiar gift of insight into the natures of things. He achieved well his goal of aiming “at an insight into the necessary facts rooted essentially in the nature of the given being.” He takes up Socrates' mission of asking “What is it?” about important realities, and he investigates with a refreshing clarity. He does this through strict fidelity to “the immediately given” data of experience.

As a phenomenologist, he was wholly committed to the evidence. In the Prolegomena to his work Ethics he describes the philosophical approach of phenomenology, and it savors strongly of Sherlock:

“It will be one of our chief aims to avoid any thesis which is not imposed on us by the data and, above all, to abstain from tacit presuppositions which are neither evident nor proved. We take reality seriously in the way in which it discloses itself; we greatly respect everything which is immediately given, everything which possesses a real, intrinsic meaning and true intelligibility.”

We can imagine Inspector Lestrade incredulously questioning Sherlock: “How can you suspect a murder? Here is the note and the pistol. Clearly it must have been a suicide.” Yet Sherlock always insists on faithfully following the evidence, not forming conclusions about the crime based on premature theories. In A Scandal in Bohemia, he makes this very point: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Similarly, Hildebrand warns against the dangers of premature systematization, which he defines as: “the tendency we have to be caught by the immanent logic of a system, and to become more anxious to preserve the consistency of this system than to do justice to the nature of a being. The interpretation of a new datum is then determined more by the frames built up in the system than by the nature of the object.”



He therefore advocates a very Sherlockian “constant readiness to revise, modify, or give up any hypothesis which a new datum renders impossible. Instead of adapting, like Procrustes, the people to the bed, we should always be ready to adapt the bed to the people.” We can almost hear Sherlock's exasperation with Inspector Lestrade: “Do you intend to solve this crime, Inspector, or to selectively arrange the facts to suit your own hasty assumptions?”


For both of these masters of observation, the evidence always has priority over theories.

As a phenomenologist, Hildebrand was uniquely able to “approach being with a readiness to grasp the specific nature of every new datum.” Similarly, Sherlock approached every crime scene with a readiness to observe whatever evidence was really there.

Sherlock Holmes famously used these powers of observation and deduction to solve mysterious and seemingly unsolvable crimes. Hildebrand, too, used his keen powers of observation in the service of Justice (and other important realities). His Ethics is a moral investigation of refreshing clarity and insight, built upon “the facts, Watson, nothing but the facts!”

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