The Case of Empathy: Understanding Why Sherlock Holmes is an Empathy Expert

Bhoomika Mhatre
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International University (Deemed)


Empathy is conventionally defined as the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another person. However, there are two types of empathy and this definition is restricted to the emotional type (affective empathy). This paper sheds light on the lesser known type of empathy, which is known as cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy allows an individual to understand the perspectives of other people. It has various applications, which this paper demonstrates by emphasising its irreplaceable role in detective fiction. By doing so, the paper also illustrates the relationship between cognitive empathy and rationality. In order to better understand how the detective uses empathy, the character of Sherlock Holmes is studied by analysing the literary works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Separate sections are dedicated to determining Holmes’ humanity, examining Dr. John Watson’s role as the companion-narrator, and understanding the effect achieved by the narrative structure. Two novels were selected for analysis – A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. On finding several instances that support my argument, I conclude that Sherlock Holmes is a highly empathetic detective, who uses empathy to his advantage at all times. 

Keywords: empathy, Sherlock Holmes, cognitive, detective. 


Who is the first person that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘detective’? For many of us, it’s the man who says it’s his business to know what other people do not know. Indeed, it’s none other than Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective. Fans around the world have marvelled at and been perplexed by the brilliant sleuth’s extraordinary intelligence and reasoning powers for years. Yet, the thought of Sherlock Holmes being empathetic might seem more baffling than some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best mysteries. We admire his intelligence, sense of justice, morality, unerring judgement and wit. But his general image is that of a cold, apathetic, aloof and eccentric mastermind. However, as this paper intends to highlight, the character of Sherlock Holmes also provides a wonderful portrayal of empathy. One might rightfully question the credibility of this statement. After all, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t fit the bill of someone who would attempt to understand your feelings and soothe your pain. It is quite easy to dismiss the possibility of Sherlock Holmes being empathetic precisely because his utilisation of empathy does not fit in with our traditional understanding of the concept.

This paper focuses on empathy as a broad concept and demonstrates how it plays an extremely important role in a detective’s profession. I argue against the popular notion that empathy hinders rationality, in defence of the contemporary idea of empathy and rationality being interlinked (Slote, 2010). Empathy is based on subjectivity and imagination, and rationality is based on objectivity and reasoning. As such, the two are always viewed as completely separate from one another and with good reason (Slote, 2010). However, combining them leads to some interestingly significant results. Drawing on this idea, this paper focuses on the application of empathy in detective fiction. As detective fiction is celebrated for its emphasis on rationality, the role of empathy in this genre helps us understand why these two concepts bring out the best in each other. Sherlock Holmes happens to be the best candidate for this paper as he expands rationality with his imagination and empathy with his reasoning. 

Keeping this in mind, two Sherlock Holmes novels were selected – A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the first section, I discuss the role of empathy in detective fiction. This section illustrates how a collaborative effort between empathy and rationality occurs in detective fiction. In the second section, I delve into the psychological underpinnings of empathy and how Holmes makes use of it in his profession. In the third section, I explore how Doyle humanises his detective and how the Holmes-Watson dynamic contributes to it. The fourth section illustrates the importance of narrative and elaborates on the detective-companion narrative model. I conduct narrative analysis on the two novels to explain how the narrative and the writing style affect our interpretation of the stories. The final section highlights instances from the selected novels to demonstrate the exact ways in which Holmes uses empathy. These novels contain various instances where Holmes puts his imagination and cognitive empathy to use and solves his cases.

The Science of Empathy

When we think of detective fiction, empathy is perhaps the last thing that crosses our minds. Why would any emotional skill be considered by someone contemplating a genre that’s rooted in analytical and rational problem-solving? However, relying on the same logical thinking that detective fiction celebrates, one can easily deduce that empathy actually plays an important role in the detective’s job. When the detective figure decides to investigate a crime, he or she is primarily dealing with the criminal’s thought process because that’s precisely what led to the crime. Consequently, the detective has to simulate the thought process of the criminal. Often, feelings and emotions influence our thoughts, which lead to a particular behaviour or action. This implies that in the process of understanding the criminal’s mind, the detective will also inadvertently access the criminal’s feelings and emotions. But even if that were not the case, a crucial part of the detective’s job can be described by the idiom “putting oneself in someone else’s shoes’”, which is popularly used for understanding empathy. For the detective, this ‘someone else’ is usually the criminal. However, the detective can use empathy multiple times to decipher the mystery surrounding a crime. For instance, empathy can help the detective understand the actions of other people involved in or related to the crime and the victim(s). So, try as it might to reduce human beings to objects and crime to a puzzle (Mandel, 1985, pp. 15, 21), detective fiction heavily relies on the humanity of its characters and their psychology. Yet, our conventional understanding of empathy bars us from considering its unique role in detective fiction. Empathy is generally understood as the ability to share and understand another person’s emotions and feelings (Engelen & Röttger-Rössler, 2012). But this definition is quite constricted and does not fully encompass what the process of empathy really entails. Then what is an all-encompassing definition of empathy and how does the process actually work? 

In psychology, the definition of empathy is a topic of much debate. Although the term was coined by psychologists in the early 1900s (Konnikova, 2012; Lanzoni, 2021), they still haven’t reached a consensus on a universal definition of empathy (Coplan, 2011; Engelen & Röttger-Rössler, 2012). The term ‘empathy’ was derived from the German term Einfühlung, which was translated to English in the early twentieth century by American psychologists (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1990, p. 17). Since then, there have been multiple definitions of the concept of empathy (Hall & Schwartz, 2018). Early conceptualisations of empathy did not focus on an understanding of affect (emotions) and lacked self-other differentiation (Deutsch & Madle, 1975). As Deutsch & Madle observe, Mead was the first psychologist who recognised the need for self-other differentiation. They further note how Mead defined empathy as ‘a capacity to take the role of the other person with whom one interacts or putting yourself in his place’ (as cited in Deutsch & Madle, 1975). In recent years, one of the most comprehensive definitions of empathy was given by Carré et al. (2013):

[Empathy] requires the recognition of one’s own and other people’s emotions. It also requires the ability to share and replicate other people’s emotional states while simultaneously being aware that these emotions are not one’s own (i.e., affective responsiveness). In addition, it demands the ability to adopts another person’s perspective while simultaneously preserving the distinction between self and other (emotional perspective taking). Finally, it requires individuals to choose the best socioemotional response (e.g., by soothing a sad person without being as sad as this person). (p.680)

Furthermore, extensive research on empathy, especially in the field of psychology, has led to the discovery of many important findings and theories. 

Most psychologists agree that there are two main types/systems of empathy – affective empathy and cognitive empathy (Shamay-Tsoory, 2010; Preckel et al., 2018; Weisz & Cikara, 2021). Affective empathy is defined as sharing the experience and feelings of another person. The conventional and popular definition of empathy essentially refers to affective empathy, which is also called emotional empathy. In the context of modern day use, when someone says ‘I feel you’, they are inadvertently referring to affective empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand, but not share, the perspectives, mental states and emotions of others. It’s also called ‘mentalizing’ or ‘perspective taking’ (Hall & Schwartz, 2018). It helps us understand where someone else is coming from and consider the potential rationale behind their actions and beliefs. Even the aforementioned idiom, ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’, refers to cognitive empathy. More importantly, this is the type of empathy that the detective employs as well. Furthermore, it must be noted that ‘perspective taking’ has two different forms – imagining how another person thinks and feels, and imagining how you would think and feel if you were in their position (Batson et al., 1997). Naturally, the detective figure utilises the first form of perspective taking to draw inferences from the actions of any person involved in the investigation. The discovery of a dual system process was beyond significant as it implied that empathy has two equally important components – feeling and thinking. Furthermore, it has been proven that the neural pathways of affective and cognitive empathy are different and they work separately, but they can also work together under specific contexts and situations (Weisz & Cikara, 2021). So, even a ‘cold-hearted’ or ‘insensitive’ person has the capacity to empathise with others. 

Adjectives like ‘cold-hearted’ and ‘insensitive’ are often used to define the detective figure, specifically Sherlock Holmes, who certainly seems misjudged to some extent. Now that we have established the role of empathy in detective fiction, it calls for a closer look at literature for a better understanding. In her essay, ‘The empathy machine’, Maria Konnikova asks, ‘What would it look like if we were to imagine a personality that was deeply empathetic – and yet wholly unemotional? This person would be, I think … Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective.’ As this paper intends to demonstrate, Konnikova is right on the mark with her hypothesis. How is it that most of the metaphors used to understand empathy are rooted in cognitive empathy, yet affective empathy takes the centre stage in our actual understanding of the concept? As mentioned earlier, our general understanding of empathy is a little too restricted. A character like Sherlock Holmes offers a unique take on empathy and its applications, thereby broadening our own perspective of the concept. Holmes shows us how important cognitive empathy is and how greatly it helps us in understanding other people. As Konnikova (2012) notes, Holmes’ empathy is unbiased, unprejudiced and less ego-centric:      

So, Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place – seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalizing and considering that state, and exhibiting prosocial concern. Indeed, he is a master of it. 

In this way, Sherlock Holmes demonstrates the benefits of cognitive empathy and how it counters the downside of affective empathy. Empathising with others solely using affective empathy can be emotionally draining and mentally exhausting for the empathizer (Waytz, 2016). Such results are counterproductive as you cannot care for others effectively if all your energy is consumed by one or two individual’s problems. Relying more on our cognitive empathy turns out to be more sustainable as it allows us to empathise with other people while maintaining our own emotional well-being (Waytz, 2016). Thus, cognitive empathy proves to be a better option for all the parties involved.

In recent years, exceedingly interesting research has been conducted in the area of empathy. For instance, researchers have found that cognitive empathy and empathic concern are major factors in predicting sensitivity to injustice for others (justice sensitivity). On the other hand, it was found that affective empathy, astonishingly, was not associated with justice sensitivity (Decety & Yoder, 2016). As the name suggests, justice sensitivity is defined as ‘an individual’s concern for justice’ (Decety & Yoder, 2016, p. 2), and empathic concern refers to ‘the motivation to care for another’s welfare’ (p. 2). Furthermore, the researchers also mentioned how previous research has indicated that ‘empathic concern plays a primary role in eliciting prosocial behaviour, particularly when other-oriented concern develops in concert with understanding others’ internal states’ (p. 3). If we delve into his characterisation throughout the series, we can easily infer that Sherlock Holmes displays high justice sensitivity. Thus, the above study’s findings provide further support for Holmes’ heavy reliance on cognitive empathy as a detective, as well as the underlying empathic concern he has for his clients. Interestingly, Holmes also demonstrates what is known as ‘advanced empathy’ (also known as advanced accurate empathy) in psychotherapy. Counsellors use advanced empathy to understand and interpret the implied meanings and messages behind what their clients explicitly express (Wicks et al., 1993, p. 109). They focus on not just what the client is saying but also how it is being said by using tone of voice and body language, among others, as cues. Counsellors also take into consideration the developmental and historical context of their client’s problems and personal narrative. Thus, advanced empathy is a result of meticulous practice and significant experience as it requires the counsellor to see the world through their client’s eyes. We can easily draw parallels between a counsellor who uses advanced empathy to gain a better understanding of their client and Holmes, who uses cognitive empathy in a similar manner to produce a solution for a crime investigation. 

Since empathy is considered to be a core aspect of human nature, it’s necessary to establish Sherlock Holmes’ humanity. In the following section, I argue that despite his popularised image, Doyle’s detective is far more human than what most critics and ardent fans would like to believe. He is not simply a self-conceited, arrogant and reclusive character and he is certainly not cold-blooded and apathetic either. It also highlights the importance of Holmes and Watson’s friendship in humanising the consulting detective’s character.

Perfectly Imperfect: Exploring Sherlock Holmes’ humanity

The idea of Sherlock Holmes being an expressive character, full of all kinds of emotions, would sound absurd to most people and reasonably so. Readers are so accustomed to viewing Holmes as a ‘genius’ and ‘superhuman’, whose powers seem surreal, that we often forget his ultimately human existence. And it’s not just the readers who forget that, but the other characters, specifically Watson, tend to follow suit as well. Some of Holmes’ own thoughts and opinions reinforce his ‘inhuman’ image. However, when all is said and done, Sherlock Holmes turns out to be just as human as the rest of us. Right from the first novel, Holmes is extremely expressive, sometimes even more than Watson. Holmes and Watson’s first meeting is an excellent demonstration of the same:      

At the sound of our steps, he glanced round and sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure. ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found it,’ he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. ‘I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin, and by nothing else.’ Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features. (Doyle, 2003, p. 35)

He often smiles, chuckles and laughs throughout the stories. This expressive nature is complemented by a clever sense of humour, which is prominent in his frequent witty remarks and snide retorts. At times, even his perpetually self-assured demeanour seems to ever so slightly fall apart (p. 62). The consulting detective had his highs and lows, usually ending up on the extreme ends of the scale. He was lively and full of vigour when he had a truly baffling or enigmatic mystery to solve. Watson tells us about the ‘glitter’ that shoots out of Holmes’ eyes whenever ‘he was keenly interested’ (p. 667). But when there was no such crime demanding his brilliant skills, he would lapse into periods of listlessness and depression. He would then turn to drugs like cocaine and morphine to stimulate his brain during these periods. Consequently, some critics suspect that Holmes suffered from manic depression/bipolar disorder (Redmond, 2009, p. 42). 

Although minor and relatively inconsequential to the cases, Holmes is even proven to be wrong from time to time. We see an instance of this in A Study in Scarlet, when he is fooled by the murderer’s accomplice, who was disguised as an old lady. But of course, Doyle ensures that the accomplice’s acting is brilliant enough to fool the great detective. Watson notes that Holmes’ reaction to this error was initially somewhere between ‘amusement and chagrin’, but he ultimately ‘burst into a hearty laugh’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 59). Similarly, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes’ deductions about an unknown visitor, who had left his stick behind, are proven to be slightly off as well (p. 657). Just like the rest of us, Sherlock Holmes makes mistakes too and even laughs them off. By endowing Holmes with such vulnerabilities, Doyle accentuates the detective’s humanity. As a result, Doyle succeeds in counterbalancing Sherlock Holmes’ extraordinary powers with his flaws and weaknesses, creating a complex and rich character who is certainly more human than a ‘calculating machine’. In his introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume I, Kyle Freeman aptly sums up Holmes’ humanity and ability to empathise: 

Holmes shows emotion in many stories. His judgement about people is tempered by a knowledge of human passions and desires that can only come from introspection. You can’t recognize how these feelings work in other people unless you have understood how they work in you. (p. 26)

Cogman (2017) takes it a step further when she says, ‘It’s that humanity, and all the complexities in the human character, which have made Holmes a character that has lasted for more than a hundred years, and who has been and will remain an icon in popular culture’. 
As the next section will emphasise, narrative plays an important role in every story. The readers need to remember that the Sherlock Holmes stories are actually Dr. John H. Watson’s memoirs. Everything we know about Holmes comes from Watson. The Baker Street sleuth’s first description comes from Watson’s colleague, Stamford, who claims that: ‘Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 35). While Stamford has his own reasons for believing this, through him, Doyle gives us a general idea of what most people perceive Sherlock Holmes as – unapproachable, eccentric, whimsical, mercurial – essentially everything that constitutes his image in the real world as well. But as the detective’s cherished companion and roommate of many years, Watson gets to meet Sherlock Holmes at a much different and personal level than the other characters of their world. Hence, through Watson, we get to explore Holmes’ character at a much deeper level as well. Watson is the one who humanises Sherlock, but he’s also the one who compares him to an ‘automaton’ (p. 119). Yet, if it weren’t for Watson and his relationship with Sherlock Holmes, we wouldn’t know (and love) the character as we know him today. It’s also important to realise that Watson cherishes and needs Holmes’ companionship as much as, if not more than, Holmes needs it. In the initial chapters of A Study in Scarlet, it’s clear as day that Watson is quite lonely and craves company. He is not in the best place mentally either. At such a time, Holmes provides him with not just company but also a much-needed escape. A friendship that was built on such a foundation not just created a wonderful bond but possibly left a lasting impact on Watson as well. We often want the people we love to be loved by others too. One of Watson’s main goals with the stories would then be to improve Holmes’ image in the public eye and make people realise that the consulting detective is not as bad as they think. The personal touch that Doyle adds by making these stories Watson’s memoirs also has a brilliant effect as it makes the readers feel like they actually know Sherlock Holmes too and adds to the authentic feel of the stories. As some critics have observed, it makes Watson and Holmes feel more real and relatable. Thus, the Holmes-Watson friendship plays an extremely crucial role in humanising Sherlock Holmes.

A Study of Narrative

In detective fiction, it is quite common for the stories to be narrated by the detective’s companion. This tradition can be observed right from the very beginning, when Edgar Allan Poe introduced his detective, Auguste Dupin, through the words of an unnamed companion-narrator in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841). While Doyle’s deep admiration for Poe’s works (Doyle, 2003, p. 16) was perhaps a huge contributing factor in the narrative form that he selected for his detective stories, it provides several advantages as well (p. 20). The detective’s companion (Watson) is able to frame the story more dramatically than the detective (Holmes) could because the companion is in the dark about the outcome as well. Thus, the companion can sustain the suspense of the mystery and share his feelings of astonishment and bewilderment with the readers when it’s solved. Essentially, Watson makes the readers feel like they are involved in the process of investigation. Furthermore, as the narrator, the detective’s companion also has the freedom to glorify his friend. Conversely, if this were done by the detective, as the narrator instead, he would certainly appear much less likeable to the readers. Hence, having his adventures narrated by an admirer turns out to be quite beneficial for Doyle’s detective as well as his readers. 

As the previous section emphasised the importance of Holmes and Watson’s friendship, Holmes’ claim of being “lost without my Boswell” (p. 190) cleverly hints towards the importance of the narrative structure employed by Doyle for the stories (with a few exceptions). Guttzeit (2016) states that, in the Sherlock Holmes canon, Dr. Watson functions ‘as a representative of the writer, a foil to Holmes, and a double of the reader’ (p. 85). Watson’s role as the writer gives him the leeway to sensationalise Holmes’ cases, much to the latter’s dismay (Doyle, 2003, p. 113). As Guttzeit notes:

While Watson stylizes the story, Holmes sticks to the facts of the case and reports them in a matter-of-fact manner, thus keeping up the illusion of a factual investigation that is only subsequently made literary – in a secondary process. There is thus a way of using Watson’s function as a writer of the story of investigation to prolong the dénouement. In contrast, Holmes’s comments on Watson’s narration and his own customary statement of the case are kept factual in order to give the reality effect of detection. The writerly function of Watson thus connects the illusion of factual detection with the literariness of the genre – without any apparent contradiction.(p. 87)

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when Watson and Holmes fail to catch the man who was dogging his clients in London, the latter makes an interesting statement: ‘Was [there] ever such bad luck and such bad management, too? Watson, Watson, if you are an honest man you will record this also and set it against my successes!’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 682). Thus, as the writer and narrator, Watson is required to ‘record’ all the facts of the case and present the whole truth to the readers, which inevitably increases his reliability and objectivity as the writer/narrator. In ‘Side by Side: The Role of the Sidekick’, Buchanan (2003) strengthens the idea of Doyle’s humanisation of Sherlock Holmes: ‘But, more importantly, Watson, through his heavily detailed narrative, maintains Holmes’s humanity, balancing Holmes’s strengths of observation and deduction with his weaknesses of poor violin playing and depression over inactivity alleviated only by cocaine injections’ (p. 21). Stories that lack Watson’s narration highlight how significantly different and incomprehensible Holmes seems to the readers without his Boswell (Redmond, 2009, p. 47). 

Besides his ‘writerly function’, Watson’s ‘everyman’ also functions as a wonderful contrast to Holmes’ ‘superman’. Guttzeit points out that the similarities in the two characters’ professions serve to further exemplify this contrast. As a doctor, Watson has been trained to identify symptoms and deduce their causes and diseases. Yet he fails to deduce facts from the clues that he is presented within the stories, further establishing Holmes as a ‘superhuman reasoner’. Lastly, Watson functions as ‘a double of the reader’ as well. He asks a lot of questions to Holmes, out of curiosity, and most of them reflect the doubts that a reader might have while reading the story. The readers depend on Watson to understand Holmes’ logic and thought process behind solving the mystery. Even the readers who are able to figure it out beforehand must patiently wait for Watson to validate/invalidate their solution. Watson’s ‘everyman’ position allows the readers to relate to him. As Buchanan (2003) puts it, ‘Because we approach Holmes through Watson’s faculties, we readers parallel Watson’s reactions to Holmes’s deductive powers, first feeling awe at the detective’s somewhat mystical skills but then feeling foolish at our own inabilities to observe the commonplace and common sense clues before’ (p. 18). Thus, the readers perceive Watson to be just like them, curious yet clueless, and perhaps feel relieved that they are not the only ones who feel that way.

A Study in Scarlet introduces the formula that almost all the other Holmes stories will follow. It’s laid out neatly by Freeman in his introduction: 

Someone seeks out the detective at his Baker Street rooms to solve an unusual mystery. Holmes and Watson then set out to explore the scene of the mystery. The police are often involved, but of course they never have a clue. After an adventure or two that builds suspense, Holmes solves the case in the most dramatic way. The two investigators end up back at Baker Street, where Holmes explains any point in his chain of reasoning that might have escaped Watson’s understanding, and all’s once again right with the world. (p. 21)

Interestingly, as many critics have observed, A Study in Scarlet is closer to the sensation novel model than the classical detective model. The sensation novel was one of the popular genres of the 1860s-70s. The plot of these novels was concerned with deception, criminality and bigamy. As Pittard (2010) notes, ‘This genre can be defined not only in terms of content but also in terms of reader response. One of the leading characteristics of the sensation novel is the author’s intention of eliciting a reaction, a sensation , from the reader’ (p. 107). Doyle himself has called his language in A Study in Scarlet as ‘rather sensational and overcoloured’. However, since this was Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, it’s reasonable that he decided to borrow several elements from the sensation novel. This genre was massively popular and well-established at the time of the writing and publishing of A Study in Scarlet (p. 108). Among the borrowed elements, Doyle’s portrayal of Jefferson Hope stands out the most. The sensation novel often incorporates sympathetic portrayals of its criminals (p. 107). Despite Hope’s crime of murdering two people, the readers can’t help but sympathise with him. Doyle intentionally gives his criminal a name that would elicit positive and sympathetic feelings for the character, which he backs up with Hope’s revenge story. Right from the beginning, Doyle establishes Hope’s righteousness and his victims’ karmic fate. When Watson encounters the first victim, Enoch Drebber, he describes the latter as ‘ape-like’ and simply horrifying. He goes on to state, ‘So sinister was the impression which that face had produced upon me that I found it difficult to feel anything but gratitude for him who had removed its owner from the world. If ever human features bespoke vice of the most malignant type, they were certainly those of Enoch J. Drebber, of Cleveland’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 56). Through the emotions that Drebber evokes in Watson, the readers begin to perceive Hope as a hero and Drebber as a villain. Watson’s description of Hope, before he was revealed to be the murderer, greatly differs from his description of Drebber as well. It is as if Doyle attempts to condition his readers in the first part to generate a naturally sympathetic response from them by the end of the story. Exposing the crimes and cruelty of the two murdered men allows the readers to resonate with Hope’s ‘they-deserved-to-die’ mentality. When Hope begins narrating his story, he tells the men – Holmes, Watson and Lestrade – ‘You’d have done the same, if you have any manhood in you, if you had been in my place’ (p. 101). It is quite possible that Doyle used this dialogue to make the characters – as well as the readers – empathise with Hope.     . 

The Hound of the Baskervilles holds an especially important place in the canon, and the hearts of the fans, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it’s the story that revives Sherlock Holmes, whom Doyle had grown tired of and killed off in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893). The consulting detective remained missing in action for nearly a decade, against the strong wishes of innumerable fans. So, when news of its publication was released in 1901, it generated a lot of hype and expectations (Doyle, 2003, p. 30). The result not only fulfilled all such expectations but went beyond them. It’s not just Holmes who seems to be ‘at his very best’ (p. 30) in the story, but we even get to see his eternal companion in a different light, when Holmes sends Watson in his stead to the scene of the crime. For the first time in the series, Watson investigates a case independently and plays the detective’s role, albeit only for a while. He plays a much more important role in this story and directly contributes to the case’s solution. By replacing Holmes with Watson, Doyle makes the differences between Holmes and Watson even more apparent and accentuates Holmes’ exceptional skills. Thus, The Hound of the Baskervilles further emphasises Holmes and Watson’s interdependent relationship and why each is best suited to his designated role. As mentioned earlier, when Watson is absent from the story, Holmes proves to be an ineffectual narrator (Guttzeit, 2016, pp. 93-95). Similarly, Watson seems to fall short in the role of the detective, in the absence of Holmes. Moreover, Doyle experiments with a different narrative style in this novel. In the other three novels, Doyle includes a retrospective narrative in the form of a ‘flashback’, towards the end, which illustrates the events leading up to the crime. But this flashback forms a separate tale which is unrelated to the actual investigation and solution. However, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, we are not given any such flashback. Even Dr. Mortimer’s first reading of the Baskerville legend, which could be considered as a flashback, has a different function. As Kissane and Kissane (1963) explain, ‘The legend is a beginning to the action rather than a clarification at the end; it is essential to the actual crime, and its atmosphere permeates the enveloping mystery’ (p. 354). Doyle blends the circumstances leading up to the crime and the subsequent investigation into a single narrative, creating ‘a work of greater unity than he managed to do in his other longer efforts’ (p. 354). Furthermore, The Hound of the Baskervilles is heavily influenced by the Gothic genre (Allan, 2019). Apart from the obvious tropes like the themes of horror, fear and terror, the novel contains Gothic elements like ‘a fragmented narrative (consisting of an ancient manuscript, letters, telegraphs and journal entries), a family curse, questions relating to lineage and inheritance, entrapment (physical and metaphorical), a persecuted woman and ‘domestic tyrant’, doubles, a tell-tale portrait, aberrant and heightened states of mind and an ancient manor (Baskerville Hall)’ (Allan, 2019, pp. 221-222). The legendary hound, the vast and uncanny moor, and the deadly mire are especially reminiscent of Gothic literature. Moreover, the struggle between science and superstition is central to the novel, with the former winning over the latter and reaffirming the ‘superior’ status of scientific reasoning and rationality. In his first novel, Doyle makes his readers feel sympathy and sorrow, but in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he makes them feel absolute terror and fear. Who has not felt a chill run down their spine after reading Dr. Mortimer’s hushed confession at the end of chapter 2, ‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 541). As the novel reaches its end, Watson confesses that he tried his best to ‘make the reader share those dark fears and vague surmises which clouded our lives so long and ended in so tragic a manner’ (p. 631). He certainly succeeded but a good amount of Watson’s success is owed to empathy. The readers can only ‘share’ the characters’ feelings of fear by empathising with the characters and mentalizing what it would be like to be in their shoes. Thus, empathy helps the readers to thoroughly enjoy a terrific novel.

The Sign of Empathy

Coming back to the larger idea of empathy in the Sherlock Holmes series, we must now turn our attention to the exact ways in which Sherlock Holmes utilises and demonstrates his empathy. In ‘The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual’, Holmes perfectly outlines how he incorporates cognitive empathy in his profession – ‘You know my methods in such cases, Watson. I put myself in the man’s place, and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances’ (Doyle, 2003, p. 441). The concept of Holmes’ skillful usage of cognitive empathy to complete his chain of reasoning and solve the mystery is naturally first established in A Study in Scarlet. While Watson is in awe of Holmes’ analytical powers, Doyle gives us a glimpse of how perceptive and respectful the detective is of others’ feelings and emotional states. When they return home from the crime scene, Holmes is quick to notice Watson’s disturbed state of mind and mentions that he understands why Watson feels so upset and shaken. Holmes even explains the involvement of the Baker Street Irregulars to Lestrade and Gregson – ‘without meaning to hurt either of your feelings’ (p. 71). Although, in this case, there’s a high possibility that he was just being sarcastic, the statement alone is enough to infer that he was otherwise respectful and attuned to others’ feelings. Doyle even hints at Holmes’ vast and wonderful imagination, a quintessential skill in empathising, when Holmes states, ‘One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature’ (p. 56). In chapter 5, we come across a direct instance of Holmes’ use of cognitive empathy, when he explains why the murderer would be willing to come and take back his lost ring: 

Now put yourself in that man’s place. On thinking the matter over, it must have occurred to him that it was possible that he had lost the ring in the road after leaving the house. What would he do then? He would eagerly look out for the evening papers in the hope of seeing it among the articles found. His eye, of course, would light upon this. He would be overjoyed. Why should he fear a trap? There would be no reason in his eyes why the finding of the ring should be connected with the murder. He would come. He will come. (p. 57)

When Holmes elucidates his deductions, he also sheds light on the possibility of empathy and rationality working together, and its subsequent results. When trying to ascertain that Hope was posing as a cab driver, Holmes imagined what means a man trying to follow another man through London would use, which helped him to solidify his initial answer. He further explains how he finally tracked down Hope: 

If he had been [a cab driver], there was no reason to believe that he had ceased to be. On the contrary, from his point of view, any sudden change would be likely to draw attention to himself. He would probably, for a time at least, continue to perform his duties. There was no reason to suppose that he was going under an assumed name. Why should he change his name in a country where no one knew his original one? (p. 109). 

These instances from the novel neatly illustrate how Holmes uses cognitive empathy in his profession. It should be noted that these are just the major and direct instances of cognitive empathy that can be found in the novel, which contains several other minor and indirect ones as well.     

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle shows us how understanding and considerate Holmes can be of others when he reassures and pacifies a visibly stressed Sir Henry during their first meeting (p. 550). This scene deserves special attention as it takes place right after Sir Henry presents a brand new little mystery to Holmes. Given his love for mysteries, one would expect Holmes to ignore Henry’s harsh remark, yet he understands Henry’s state and acknowledges it. Later, Holmes assumes the perspective of an elderly and feeble man to deduce that Sir Charles was waiting for someone on the night of his death. In an attempt to explain his chain of reasoning is not mere guesswork, Holmes makes an interesting comment, ‘It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation’ (p. 551). For Holmes, the scientific use of imagination often leads to the scientific use of empathy, as he utilises mentalisation and perspective-taking. This further demonstrates how rationality and empathy can combine forces to produce remarkable results. In chapter 5, Watson tells us about Holmes’ remarkable ‘power of detaching his mind at will’ (p. 557). Holmes could absorb himself entirely in one subject and forget about any other during that period. This implies that such a power plays an integral role in his empathising as it enables him to leave behind any preoccupying thoughts and enter the mind of another being, using his mentalising powers, to re-create their past actions to derive his deductions. Holmes’ reaction to Henry Baskerville’s supposed death is one of the key moments from the novel. On finding what they assumed to be Sir Henry’s dead body, Holmes and Watson are utterly shocked. Holmes takes the blame upon himself, while feeling absolutely outraged and devastated. His reaction proves that Holmes values and feels responsible for the lives of everyone involved in an investigation. His empathy shines through as Doyle demonstrates that Holmes doesn’t just solve a case like it’s a puzzle; rather he acts in accordance with the fact that his investigations affect real people and could prove to be dangerous for them. This explains why Holmes would react so strongly to Sir Henry’s presumed death. Another intriguing scene is Holmes’ reaction to finding Mrs. Stapleton and witnessing the horrors she had to go through at her husband’s hands. Considering the amount of cases Holmes has solved, you would expect him to be absolutely desensitised to such hideous crimes and scenes, yet he gets furious over the ill-treatment Mrs. Stapleton received, displaying his sensitivity and compassion for any innocent person who experiences injustice. Moreover, Holmes repeatedly expresses his deeply apologetic feelings for Sir Henry, as he feels responsible for Sir Henry’s shattered nerves and empathises with his wounded heart as well. On a different note, we can assume that, to some extent, it was easy for Holmes to empathise with Stapleton and figure out his actions as the two of them seemed to be on the same intellectual wavelength, which Holmes himself remarked upon a couple of times throughout the novel. In the last chapter, Holmes exclusively uses cognitive empathy to explain the perspectives and actions of Stapleton, his wife, Sir Charles, and even the hound. Holmes aptly sums up the very methods he uses by saying:

The whole course of events from the point of view of the man who called himself Stapleton was simple and direct, although to us, who had no means in the beginning of knowing the motives of his actions and could only learn part of the facts, it all appeared exceedingly complex. (p. 633)


By demonstrating that Sherlock Holmes is an empathetic character, this paper aimed to broaden the conventional understanding of empathy and its applications. Empathy plays an extremely important role in our lives yet some of its most important mechanisms tend to be overlooked. As previous sections have emphasised, empathy isn’t limited to just being an emotional experience. More often than not, it is an intellectual feat. The main argument of the paper is that the intellectual part of empathy (cognitive empathy) works closely with rationality, which ultimately leads to better outcomes. Thus, the paper focuses on the genre of detective fiction to substantiate this argument. It establishes how empathy is integral to detective fiction, without which the detective would never be able to consider and mentalize different perspectives and deduce the reasons behind the crime. Within detective fiction, the focus was narrowed down to Sherlock Holmes, who helped in highlighting the functions of cognitive empathy and demonstrating how empathy is interlinked with rationality. Sherlock Holmes proves that when we hone our cognitive empathy, we develop a better understanding of the world around us. His empathy is reasoned and scientific, which amplifies the functions of both – empathy and rationality. Holmes’ utilisation of cognitive empathy is similar to the concept of ‘advanced empathy’ in psychotherapy. To solidify the main argument, several instances from A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles were provided, to demonstrate how Holmes uses empathy as a detective. This paper took an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together psychology and literature, to understand empathy. Further studies can explore the portrayal of empathy in other genres, films and television shows, from a newer perspective.


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