Quotation for the week: Poe

The writer Edgar Allen Poe is often described as the founder of detective fiction: the eccentric and superintelligent detective C. Auguste Dupin who appears in three of his short stories is recognisably an ancestor of Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Dupin is somewhat conceited about his powers of reasoning, and in the story The Purloined Letter he bridles when it’s suggested that the villain they’re facing, the Minister, must be especially ingenious because he is a mathematician.

“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all…

A fairly long and indignant rant follows, of which the gist is that

“I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity… Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth.”

There’s a nice discussion online of whether Poe knew enough about mathematics for his criticism to carry any weight. It’s interesting to note, though, that Arthur Conan Doyle later chose to make Sherlock Holmes’s chief adversary, Professor Moriarty, a disgraced professor of mathematics…


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