NOTES on David Stewart (born 1938): The Philosopher as Detective


David Stewart (born 1938), in his article “The Philosopher as Detective,” argues that detective fiction and philosophy share several characteristics. He writes, “What attracts me to detective fiction is also what attracts me to philosophy: dependence on reason, the search for moral order, the development of analytic skills, the desire to find things out.”

A Dependence on Reason

Certainly both detective fiction and philosophy share a dependence on reason. One important part of philosophy is logic — the analysis of arguments. Most introductory philosophy textbooks leave out logic; however, Stewart and his Fundamentals of Philosophy co-author H. Gene Blocker believe that logic is so important in philosophy that they included a section titled “Thinking about Thinking (Logic)” in their textbook.

Reasoning is also important in detective fiction, as the detective must logically figure out who is the culprit. Without a conclusion in which the solution to the mystery is explained, there cannot be detective fiction. Of course, in detective fiction there are two contests. The first contest is between the detective and the culprit. Can the detective solve the mystery? The second contest is between the reader and the author. In a good mystery, the author does not hide clues from the reader; the reader has the same clues as the detective and the reader must try to correctly interpret the clues and unmask the culprit.

The Development of Analytical Skills

Detective fiction also shares with philosophy an interest in the development of analytical skills. In unmasking the culprit, the detective uses a form of reasoning known as inductive reasoning. Stewart describes inductive reasoning as “reasoning backward (from effects to causes).” The detective is presented with a murder (the effect) and must reason backward from clues to unmask the culprit (the cause).

In addition, the detective must form hypotheses just as a scientist must form hypotheses. It is impossible to come up with a step-by-step method for the formulation of good hypotheses (creativity cannot be reduced to step-by-step methods); however, Stewart does mention a few pieces of advice that can be used in hypothesis formulation:

1) Sufficient factual detail is important. The detective must search for all available clues to arrive at a good hypothesis.

2) “[T]he detective should abandon a hypothesis when the facts no longer support it.”

3) “[O]ne should not abandon a theory that fits the facts no matter how improbable the theory may be.”

The Desire to Find Things Out

Of course, both the detective and the philosopher are engaged in a search for truth. The detective wants to find out who the murderer is. On the other hand, the philosopher is engaged in a search for the answers to important questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Am I immortal?” and “How can I tell right from wrong?”

The Search for Moral Order

Detective fiction also shares with philosophy a search for moral order. For example, let’s say that a murder has been committed in a detective mystery. The moral order has been violated and the detective must restore the moral order by unmasking the murderer. An important part of philosophy is ethics, which is concerned with right and wrong. In detective fiction, the detective is usually a moral character. In hard-boiled American novels of the type Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote, the detective may be the only moral character in the novel.

In addition, the philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that in a rational world morally good people would be happy and morally bad people would be unhappy. Of course, we know that the world in which we live is often not rational. In this world, drug dealers sometimes seem very happy (and very rich) indeed, and murder is often unpunished. In detective fiction, however, murder will out, and the murderer is always unmasked. In detective fiction we often find a world that is more rational than the world in which we live.

Aristotle and Detective Fiction

Stewart writes that detective fiction has “certain definite structural constraints. Among these are concern for plot development, the buildup of dramatic tension, and the final resolution of that tension. Or to use Aristotle’s words, detective stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

In detective fiction, we can have what Aristotle calls a catharsis. This means that by feeling pity and fear we can somehow be purged of these emotions. Catharsis is felt to be beneficial to the person — whether a reader of detective fiction or a viewer of an ancient tragedy — undergoing it.

Hermeneutics and Detective Fiction

Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation. Originally, the term referred to the interpretation of religious texts; now, it refers to texts of any kind. For example, Wilhelm Dilthey believed that “human society should be investigated as a kind of text consisting of human actions, cultural creations, and so forth that stand in need of being interpreted.” If Dilthey is correct, then detective fiction presents the detective with a text that needs to be interpreted. The detective is presented with a chaotic situation, which is made meaningful through an interpretation by the detective.


Stewart concludes his essay in this way: “While you read detective stories or see them unfold on television or the stage, look for philosophical themes yourself. Not only might you discover that you are a closet philosopher; you will also have enormous fun.”

Note: The quotations by Stewart that appear in this essay are from his “The Philosopher as Detective,” which appeared in Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, 3rd edition, by Arthur J. Minton and Thomas A. Shipka.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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