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Christina Lupton - Tristram Shandy, David Hume, and Epistemological Fiction - Philosophy and Literature 27:1 Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 98-115

Tristram Shandy, David Hume and Epistemological Fiction

Christina Lupton


LAURENCE STERNE's Tristram Shandy, the nine-volume novel which dominated London's literary marketplace during the years of its publication between 1759 and 1767, has served over the course of its reception as a case in point for reading literature and philosophy side by side. Yet even in this lengthy and variegated history of Sterne appreciation, "side by side" has more often than not proved to be a question of reading philosophy as literature's source and the key to its logic. In most secondary work on the novel, Sterne's references to empirical psychology appear as clues to a line of influence which leads, depending on the turn of the critic and his or her milieu, either back to a Lockean faith in self-knowledge and to a Humean skepticism with its residual stress on the realm of social accountability and the merits of mental association, or forward to the terrain of modernism, with its insistence on the constitutive power of language itself. From the ongoing measured attempts to monitor Sterne's use of Locke to the conviction, instigated by John Traugott in 1954, that Sterne's dramatization of rationalism shares much with David Hume's positive account of association, this complex critical history is well rehearsed, and its variants soundly warranted by Sterne's liberal borrowing from each of the well-stocked Rabelaisian, empiricist, and Augustan shelves of his own library.

In recent decades, this critical debate runs towards a view of Sterne working self-consciously with an emergent sense of the aesthetic as a response to the epistemological quandaries of rationalism under pressure. In this essay, I will diverge from the critical tradition which has [End Page 98] combed the texts of British empiricism for the right "key" to Tristram Shandy. 1 I want to avoid this avenue of investigation not because it promises poor results—in the case of Sterne, rich moments of "unlocking" are undeniable—but because it relies on lining up philosophy and literature in a particular generic relation to one another. In general, this method assigns problem-raising to philosophy and problem-echoing to literature. Established Sterne critics, including John Traugott, Melvin New, and Arthur Cash, routinely ask how Tristram Shandy follows up or even solves the formal articulations of a problem raised by Locke or Hume.

Despite the importance to date of this philosophical-problems-played-out-in-literature model for reading Tristram Shandy, the model of reading literature and philosophy together which I want to introduce in this piece is much more a side-by-side one. More specifically, I want to suggest that the epistemological problem which shows up in Tristram Shandy is less a rearticulation of grand philosophical concerns at a local register than a transformation of the problem of epistemology at the site of its articulation. While knowledge can be seen as the problem which Locke's rationalism, Hume's rhetorical and social projects, or Kant's account of aesthetic judgment set out to solve, for Sterne, I will argue, epistemological uncertainty is less a problem than the basis of the productive relationship Tristram Shandy develops between, on one hand, literature as an object of knowledge and, on the other, the acknowledgement that words, particularly literary words, depend on subjective responses. By comparing Hume's Treatise and Tristram Shandy, my aim is to show how the closely allied texts diverge in their strategies for exploring and containing the fracturing implications of skepticism.


Like many other literary authors of the eighteenth century, Sterne is engaged in debates crossing what we now think of as the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and literature and, despite its celebrated status as an inaugural work of modern fiction, Tristram Shandy intimately incorporates nonfictional forms of political and philosophical inquiry. 2 One of Tristram's more celebrated briefs to his reader is a witty but revealingly knowing description of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding: "I will tell you in three words what the book is.—it is a history—A history of who? What? Where? When? Don't hurry yourself—it is a history book, Sir, . . . of what passes in a man's own mind." 3 [End Page 99] Suggesting that Tristram's autobiography is another such "history book," Sterne nods to his novel's own performance of reasoning as at once a flighty extension and a bringing down to earth of empirical psychology: as a "rational subversion of reason" (Traugott, p. 18) which overturns Locke's judicious attempt to account for the causes of ideas, to separate passion, association and wit from proper modes of understanding, and to subject ideas to analysis—all by taking Locke's attempt to chart the workings of the mind literally.

Walter Shandy, Tristram's unfortunate father and the book's most eager mouthpiece for the Lockean system, is frequently shown quoting almost directly from Locke's Essay, professing earnestly on the way in which "in every sound man's head, there is a regular succession of ideas, which follow each other" (p. 225). He is famously upstaged, however, in this linear rationalism by the "hobby-horse" of his brother Toby, whose zeal for reconstructing military events brings a quirky and fanatic line of interpretation to every aspect of his experience, and by the novel's reader, whose preference for sexual innuendo is assumed and fostered as a crooked reading of every tale the book offers. In these terms, Tristram's attempt as a narrator to account for himself causally in terms of which his father would approve enacts the fallibility of reason which prevents philosophy from applying to life. While Walter's reckonings are disrupted by Toby's sentiments and fanaticism, by the drawn-out and misbegotten occurrence of events, and by the reader's willful arena of misinterpretation, Tristram's own description of Walter and Toby is distracted by the "scampering of discourse from one thing to another" for which he is so well-known as a narrator (p. 222). Despite being a self-proclaimed attempt to take the invectives of empiricism to heart, what Tristram Shandy actually illustrates is that "our preconceptions have . . . (you know) as great a power over the sounds of words as the shapes of things" (p. 717).

The well-known scene in which Uncle Toby arrives, ripe with the discovery that he is in love, to pay court to Mrs. Wadman makes it clear that communication will always have to contend with association. In this scene, the lusty Mrs. Wadman asks the question about Toby's war wound that has gone conspicuously unasked for eight books of the novel: "And whereabouts, dear Sir, quoth Mrs. Wadman, a little categorically, did you receive this sad blow?" "In asking the question," Tristram tells us, "Mrs. Wadman gave a slight glance towards the waistband of my uncle Toby's red plush breeches, expecting naturally, as the shortest reply to it, that my uncle Toby would lay his fore-finger upon the place" (p. [End Page 100] 514). But instead, Toby answers by asking Trim to fetch the map of the area where he was fighting at the time of his injury—and on which he plans to point out to Mrs. Wadman the exact "whereabouts" of his wound. Here, both Toby and Mrs. Wadman serve as cautionary examples in subjective association: Toby in his dogged innocence reads "whereabouts" too literally, while Mrs. Wadman, in her lust, expects an answer focused on Toby's potency.

These fields of miscommunication become inevitable in the novel, and Sterne does not suggest that any practice of Lockean self-observation will overcome them. Instead, he offers two modes of conspicuously nonrational understanding as possible rejoinders to this failure of understanding. One is the intersubjective mode of sentiment, so often activated by Sterne as a tenderness which characters within the novel share with the reader for Uncle Toby. Defying blunders in rational communication, sentiment enfolds the reader in a mode of collective experience even as it cultivates his or her apparently untoward state of feeling. The other is the intrasubjective mode of reflection, which Sterne uses to expose the fictional and constructed nature of his autobiography and to encourage the reader to approach it in an explicitly aesthetic mood of appreciation. Tristram asks the reader to engage with the constructed nature of the work, leaving him or her with few possibilities of reading it credulously—for instance, as a life story. But in stressing the autonomy of his literary product from history, Sterne asks that his novel be encountered and judged as an object of quality rather than of truth. His deference to the reader's process of discernment is not just incidental, signaling quixotic confusion, but fundamental to his emphasis on the intersubjective life of his text: invoking the modes of appreciation and pleasure which accrue to the reader of literature, Sterne ousts rationality and recasts the search for an empirically verifiable world as the search for a common life of wit, taste, and aesthetic appreciation.

Here we arrive at the basis of the comparison between Sterne and David Hume. It is this turn against Locke, made through an overextension of empiricist psychology rather than a clean turn against it, which has led to readings that emphasize the skeptical gestures of Hume's philosophy and the moral and aesthetic aspects of his social theory. 4 In setting out to demarcate the legitimate realm of human knowledge, Hume's Treatise takes up many of the lines of rational investigation for which Locke's Essay was canonized. But where as Locke had stressed the capacity of consciousness to keep track of the life of which it was [End Page 101] conscious—largely by bracketing out and warning against the vagaries of wit, association, and passion—Hume situated these anomalies at the core of intellectual life. Bringing causality and extension under a level of intense scrutiny—by observing, for instance, the measure of assumption involved in listening to a door open and connecting it to the immanent arrival of a body in the room—Hume could conclude that the very categories by which we make sense of events rely on what Doherty (p. 85), likening Hume to Sterne, describes as an "empire of the irrational and inconvenient, but natural and unavoidable" that comes to power in the interstices of empirical certitude.

"When we say," observes Hume, "that one object is connected with another, we mean only that they have acquired a connection in our thoughts." 5 Granted that my perception of this table refers to an impression which I have as I look at it now, there is no rational way to explain how this impression is related to the impression I will have when I come into this room and see—or think I see—this same table. In the case of causality, there is, similarly, no reason to think that this table, moving when I push against it, does so because of my effort, except that experience leads us to believe in this connection between the application of force and the table's shift in position. In Hume's terms, "all our reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded on a species of Analogy, which leads us to expect from any cause the same events, which we have observed to result from similar causes" (I, p. 139). In the course of Hume's philosophical reasoning, experience, custom, association, and fiction—the very categories which earlier empirical investigation had tried to bracket out of the science of perception—take center stage in his explanation, not of what it means to reason, but of what it means practically to make one's way in the world. Those instances of experience which reason can verify remain isolated moments, far out, as Sterne would have it, "of the highway of thinking" (p. 170) and reliant on the fictional but necessary work of association, which makes the disjointed and unreliable impressions of a table into something we can work on, sit around, buy, sell, and communicate.

In this way, the terrain of Hume's naturalism, like Sterne's experiment in taking Locke literally, manages at its most extreme to banish reason to the unserviceable extremities of intellection: we have no logical assurance that the table will move when we push it, but we must nevertheless assume that it will. As the case of Walter seems to show, being "master of one of the finest chains of reasoning" (p. 172) and "a philosopher in grain" in no way gets you out of the bind which the [End Page 102] unreasonable nature of life and family puts you in, and in the context of which reasoning itself can emerge as just one of the quiddities of human belief. This provocative blow to logic, which the portrait of Walter and the arguments of Hume inflict with respective flourish, has its balm, though, in the advantage of bringing the associative and aesthetic realms of nonrational jurisdiction legitimately to the philosopher's attention. Hume's antimetaphysical conclusion is that "the natural result of the Pyrrhonian doubts and scruples . . . is the limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding" (I, p. 192). With this turn, the failure of reason produces a kind of doubling in which the skeptic—and here we can begin to think of the overlap between Hume and Sterne as promoting respective realms of moral, political, and aesthetic security in the wake of metaphysical uncertainty—pursuing and defending logic as far as it will go, finally draws on another realm of importance in which intuition and felt response rise up in defense of sensory evidence. In Traugott's terms: "Sterne developed the forlorn frustrations implicit in Locke's theory, and back into the resultant void marched the passions" (pp. 81-82).

In swiveling away from metaphysical certainty towards the realm of the social, the polite, and the economic in his later writings, Hume makes it clear that his project is not to lay reason aside altogether, but to produce another realm of jurisdiction. In his own words, this is the "vulgar" realm of everyday experience: "when I view this table nothing is presented to me but particular perceptions, which are of a like nature with all other perceptions. This is the doctrine of philosophers. But this table, which is present to me . . . may and does exist separately. This is the doctrine of the vulgar, and implies no contradiction." 6 While Hume's claim brings the subjective nature of experience to our attention, it sets out to legitimate belief as an alternative to metaphysics. In Sterne's terms, in the final reckoning, skepticism will always be subject to the retort, not quite to the point, but successful enough in achieving a practical register of truth, that "the philosopher (need) use no other argument to the skeptic who disputed with him about the reality of motion, save that of rising upon his legs and walking across the room" (p. 87). The point at which walking becomes an adequate response to the dispute over motion is analogous to that "awakening" to which, according to Hume, a Pyrrhonist is inevitably subject as his reflections are pressed back into the service of everyday life: "When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against [End Page 103] himself, and to confess that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe" (I, p. 191).

This willing concession to the intersection of "vulgar" experience and philosophical evidence, which licenses emotion and belief as valid realms of philosophical attention, has been the basis for what has become more or less the critical consensus that Hume serves better than Locke as Sterne's philosophical counterpart. Like Hume, Sterne lets the flood of doubt rise high. The sermon which Trim reads to Walter, Toby, and Dr. Slop in the second volume of the novel seriously refutes the possibility of self-knowledge. Depicting man as "a bubble to himself," Sterne demonstrates that passion and prejudice interfere with conscience as a reliable measure of truth. But the state of insecurity which the sermon temporarily invites in its audience is quickly resolved as a question of belief—its radical suspension of self-knowledge bounded by "a theological conservatism all too aware of the implications of an experientially defined sense of self." 7

In thus upsetting the possibilities of knowledge, Sterne might be accused of conservatism. His challenge to the Enlightenment conspires in many ways with his role as a member of the Anglican clergy, since it sustains the most intimate realms of life and belief as bastions against empirical inquiry. Yet, insofar as Sterne took his spirit of deconstructive play in radical and sexually suggestive directions—to the extent, in fact, that his ministry was publicly questioned—his conservatism can also be explained as less a matter of the case he made than of the space he made it in. Sterne used the genre of the novel, with all the possibilities of secular and pleasurable pastime it suggested to the eighteenth-century reader, to contain the political and religious implications of his philosophical conclusions. Carol Kay stresses this playful space of Tristram Shandy as an inaugural one for the political musculature of fiction, arguing that Sterne cultivates the world of his text as an apolitical eddy in the relatively established mainstream of political life. The "antididactic aesthetic" which Kay finds in Sterne is based on a sense of social stability being vested elsewhere: "the scene of play in Sterne is so free because we are constantly reassured that someone else somewhere else . . . is taking care of things, looking after the state" (p. 222). Here, the reading of the sermon which takes place within the novel is, for instance, defined by the fact that the Jacobite uprising to which it refers had died down into relative stability for the Church of England. [End Page 104]

In this sense, like many of the critics mentioned, Kay works with the principle that literature serves as a response to the demands of a more abstract philosophical question, suggesting the historical moment at which Sterne's aesthetic appeared as an alternative to interested, partisan perspectives: "Sterne seems to approach a notion of the literary as a practice or realm that is autonomous, free from social intent or social influence. So foreign is this idea of the literary to Sterne's culture that it takes his massive ingenuity to create an art that seems autonomous, or at least an art that is gratuitous, noninstrumental. We could say that this effort is the occasion, if not the goal, of Sterne's originality" (p. 205). Kay's approach differs from many other attempts to find philosophical traces in Sterne's work in that she posits a role for literature itself in Sterne's transformations of self-government, authority, and epistemology, which Tristram Shandy works with at the level of political philosophy. Stressing the conservative eschatological backdrop that enables Sterne to develop this axis of play, Kay is, of all the critics mentioned so far, the least prone to celebrate Sterne's philosophical project as the radical precursor of modernism. As literature, Sterne's epistemological risk-taking is underscored by its liminal relation to other arenas of certainty.


So far, then, we can see Hume's philosophical and Sterne's literary projects as united because both entertain the possibility of radical uncertainty in a context which offers the reader something to fall back on. In Sterne's case, this buffer consists largely of the encouragement to see that epistemological uncertainty is risked in an explicitly fictional, as opposed to historical or true, document. Sterne exposes what Hume would call the "secondary" nature of language: he demonstrates that literature's quality and meaning lies in our reading of it rather than in any primary status it has as an object, but he celebrates this as the play inherent to his novel. For Hume, acknowledging literature's distinctly subjective status also offers the reader an important form of security. In Hume's project, however, secondary impressions (those, like literature, determined by the experiences of passion, emotion, and sympathy they arouse rather than anything primary in the object itself) are not bracketed out as a safe space in the same way. Rather, they make their comeback as the only realm of verifiable inter-subjective experience once metaphysical inquiry has been laid to rest. Following the Treatise's [End Page 105] initial skeptical investigations, secondary impressions claim an original existence in newly socialized terms. Refuting that we can ever know primary impressions enables Hume to claim that we can know the world of secondary impressions that arise from human contact, morality, and taste.

In this strategy of reassurance, the Treatise lays the experiences of logical impenetrability and the warmth of society out along an axis of resolution. Not only does Hume's mood and focus change over the course of his argument, but his attitude towards words changes with the stages of his narrator's transformation. Rather than leaving language the sign of irreducible doubleness which it remains for Tristram, Hume converts it into a site of agreement. In the first book of the Treatise, the idea that the reasonings so far have been inadequate to experience is expressed as the realization that the debate has become "merely verbal" (p. 262). Ostensibly frustrated with his own speculations concerning identity, Hume announces that "all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties" (p. 262). This sense of his own isolation in language prompts rather than preempts the mood of melancholy which overtakes him. And yet it holds out, in that moment before the brief crisis, the perspective which will dispel this despair: if reason is "merely verbal," then it is pointless and unproductive, but also contained. Although skepticism proves to be a purely grammatical, or verbal, world this very sense of its occupant straining at language seems to suggest a subjectivity independent enough of language to reflect on it as a problem. The separation of language from reason becomes for Hume a symptom of the possibility that the "merely verbal" may come into view from another angle.

The fact remains, of course, that Hume has expressed his frustration with language from within his career as a man of letters—an important sign that language will not be left behind in his philosophical "closet" but will now accompany him as he makes the transition into the world of conversation. Although the break is expressed as an exchange of linguistic abstraction for a rounder definition of social experience, this is not reflected in any shift Hume makes from the language of philosophical speculation to the language of conversation—in the absence of other certainties, the language of his discussion becomes all the more evident as the one thing which does follow us in and out of the argument's moods without shifts in diction or style. Unlike Sterne's words, Hume's argument is not in danger of breaking down into the [End Page 106] silence of a blank page or encountering an emotion that it cannot express. Rather than being an agent in the breakdown of meaning, style in its "merely verbal" guise is reworked by Hume at the level of argument.

The terms "grammatical" and "verbal" serve Hume as important decoys, drawing attention to language as an abstraction to be cast aside, when it is really the attribute "merely" that is at stake in his argument. For it is not language as an entity that is "mere" in the first book of the Treatise; rather, its life as an object of taste has been unrealized in isolation. Once he leaves behind the world of the understanding and begins the second book of the Treatise, On Passions, it becomes clear that Hume has less to fear from the aberrant relation between impressions and the ideas they arouse than he initially claimed. The impossibility of proving their rational correspondence clears the way for Hume to focus on a second kind of truth: the conformity of ideas, understood as such, to an inter-subjective existence. Under the terms of this new investigation, that which was "mere" in the isolated world of reason—i.e., that which was known to be subjective perception—has the highest chance of becoming substantial in social terms. Once synchronized with the subjective experiences of others, the "mereness" of the subjective undergoes what Hume explicitly describes as a conversion of sentiment into evidence: "In sympathy there is an evident conversion of an idea into an impression" (p. 320).

In his essay "Of the Standard of Taste," Hume illustrates how much this conversion to the social promises literary language. Early on in the essay, Hume rearticulates the danger that his Treatise has spelled out—that abandoning impressions as the measure of ideas will produce absolute relativism: "All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever man is conscious of it." 8 And yet the contention of the essay is that a standard of taste is nevertheless possible: "Though it be certain that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external, it must be allowed that there are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings" (p. 240). This argument assumes the entirely felt nature of language. In other words, it is because objects of taste provoke sentimental responses that fictions can be reclaimed as real events. Many of Hume's examples in the essay are literary ones: "whoever would assert," he argues, "an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, [End Page 107] would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean" (p. 235). However obvious these literary markers appear in his argument, Hume does not doubt that our discernment of them is a measure of the society which trains and regulates our tastes; that is, the main problem with preferring Bunyan to Addison is that such an opinion can only attract social derision. The hermetic circle within which pleasure and art are genuinely mutual determinants is thus anchored objectively, not by a literary object which stands outside this circle but by the operations of society, which determines what enters the circle in the first place.

The fate of language in the Treatise, then, depends on the possibility that the responses that seem at first especially subjective—passions, pleasure, sympathy, taste—can be recast as the junctures where social standards emerge. The skeptical arguments that have left Hume bereft of society may in these terms redeem him once they are understood as style, viewed not as content but as the form by which Hume affects his own rescue. Here much hinges on the turn from the "merely" verbal to the satisfying vision of social verbal exchange as a field of meaning. What has been perplexing and counterintuitive in isolation is rendered natural and customary in shared experience. The problems of empirical uncertainty expressed in Hume's Treatise do not ever extend fully to the language that expresses them, because Hume's purpose, on the whole, is to demonstrate that language can serve as the answer to the problems of reasoning. 9

Ultimately, the profound sense of closure that this sequence promises is what allows Hume to dismiss the problems of epistemology in favor of social theory. This movement from doubt to social inclusion, so crucial to the theater of the Treatise, is markedly absent from the narrative of Tristram Shandy. For Sterne, the fate of language remains positively undecided: "whereabouts" promises the possibility of collusion and deep understanding as it performs its literary joke, but it remains, nevertheless, a genuine sign of miscommunication, under which impression and idea invariably part ways in the act of reading the word. Even as Sterne suggests the possibility of collaboration in a playful world where good readers become insiders and where misreadings are comfortably anticipated by the author, he also marks words as sites of contingency which can escape the author's control. Consensus about the most important concepts and desires depends in the novel largely on the unsaid—the emphasis on sexual desire that [End Page 108] holds Tristram Shandy together continues, for instance, until the last chapter, "to be conveyed to a cleanly mind by no language, translation, or periphrasis whatever" (p. 806)—while any act of enunciation continues to risk discrepancy. Despite Tristram's "beseaching [his] readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds" than those he puts into his definition, when it comes to the phallic word "Nose," to the interpretation of the Sermon which appears within his novel, or to the popularity of the novel itself, Sterne's infinitely reflected prose nevertheless genuinely relies on the contingency inherent in its being interpreted (p. 258). Here the liability of language is not just a problem but heralds its particular suitability as an object of subjective judgment. The realm of good-humored sympathy is always an option for Sterne, but never the total one it becomes for Hume: words will always pop up again as sites of potential misunderstanding, even when we concede their secondary nature. Tristram Shandy gives Yorick his infamous last lines without resolving the tension between language as infinitely plural and the impulse driving us all, even Mrs. Shandy, to pin down its meaning: "L—-d! said my mother, what is this story about?—A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard" (p. 809). The impenetrability that Sterne underscores in his more serious moments—"but mark, Madam, we live amongst riddles and mysteries . . . the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into" (p. 350)—remains present and puzzling to the reader of Tristram Shandy even as its conclusion urges us to accept the lighthearted sociability of the novel as a legitimate response to the failure of rational comprehension.

While Hume's drama of despair and redemption reclaims the "mereness" of language as a form of social materiality in chronologically divided scenes, Sterne's strategy is to render language "mere" and material at once. Sterne is fascinated with the idea that the linear movement forwards, so strongly connected with the allure of reading fiction, can be replaced with a more complex process of narration in which the constitutive power of language clashes with the digressive tale it tells. His practical resistance to the idea of narrative sequence finds echoes in Tristram's resistance to Locke's theory that the mind acquires knowledge in an orderly and progressive way, as well as in his resistance to a developmental theory of history—a view Tristram smartly satirizes in [End Page 109] his description of that "great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes" whose "slow steps of causal increase" can only forecast a circular return to our beginning prelinguistic (p. 72). Sterne's alternative to these jettisoned models of linearity is "the machinery of [his] work," where "two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other" (p. 81).

Tristram's plainest example of this dialectical mechanism is his attempt to introduce Uncle Toby. Although he never gets to the introduction and veers off instead into a discussion about his aunt Dinah, he points out that he nevertheless continues to inform the reader about Uncle Toby. But Tristram offers many more general examples of a progressive-digressive movement that is captured in writing, perhaps parabolically the example of his own work, which connects digression from life and the production of words in a single movement. As autobiography, Tristram Shandy is a grand digression from the life it tells, but it also stands, in all its abundance, for this life. Tristram engages, in other words, with the explicit and often comically paradoxical fact that while reading and writing are by nature secondary to the lives they refer to (they are, in Hume's terms, "merely verbal"), they are, at the same time, activities which take up time and space in these lives. This is analogous to Hume's insight that "secondary impressions," which may seem at early points of the Treatise to serve as poor compensation for knowledge of primary impressions, turn out to be the most real of all our experiences. Yet while Hume "converts" the work of Addison and Defoe into evidence, Sterne illustrates a permanent form of circularity by which the "secondary" world of language will always be both lagging behind the world and partaking in the life which it ostensibly represents.

As a subject who has been shaped by his father's textual, rather than literal, attention to his existence, Tristram himself is the best example of this hermeneutic circle. Although the impression of life racing ahead of Tristram's pen is a strong line of comedy in the novel, Tristram's own existence demonstrates that writing is a substantial activity which produces physical impressions. While Tristram must face up to the fact that his representations always arrive at the scene of history too late to coincide with it, as a writer of fiction Sterne can be sure of his words having a primacy of their own as impressions—but this primacy, a sign in Hume's terms of the belief which fictional impressions muster, is then also a sign that literature will participate in the essentially unpredictable and ontologically remote world of causes. [End Page 110]

Even in the case of single words, we have already seen this form of oscillation between the primacy of words as causes and their secondary nature as representation. Language is a bridge and a barrier to communication between Toby and Walter, a realm where words as signs which have lost any strict connectedness to their meaning render shared intellection impossible. The world in which the brothers continue to exist in remarkable intimacy is nevertheless a highly verbal one, and one to which Tristram has access because of the effective way in which his own history has been passed down to him by Toby. This is the structure by which Tristram's own writing affects the "merely" social experience of communication between reader and writer while simultaneously laying bare the reality of fiction as an event. Because, for Sterne, language is always primary and secondary at once, its secondary or social constitution as an idea can make it knowable while its primacy as an impression anchors it in the contingent and unknowable world of impressions. Even as the sociability of Tristram Shandy soothes down and compensates for many forms of empirical doubt, it also produces a new object—the reality of fiction—that remains subject to all the problems of experience. The concrete nature of words continues to generate the problem of subjective response which Hume has contained by thoroughly and chronologically subsuming language under the aegis of socially defined tastes and passions and by suggesting a settled relation between a preexisting republic of readers and their objects of taste. While Hume's emphasis on rhetorical presentation works as the answer to his own skeptical doubts, effecting this resolution within a space which we recognize as "philosophy," Sterne's emphasis on the figurative and interpretive freedoms that come with language aggravates these problems dialectically, albeit in a movement which will be institutionalized as a playful mode called "literature."

Within this space, Sterne gives literature a dialectical constitution, making it possible that, at the level of content, it digresses from its own path, disputes its own authority, and demonstrates the inevitability of subjective associations while, at the level of form, it pursues its task of gathering approval for the literary object. As the ostensible story, or the real nature of characters, seems to slide out of reach, the material trace of their inaccessibility remains behind as the substance of Tristram Shandy. Tristram famously uses his own attempt as a writer to catch up to his ever-unfolding life as an example of this dynamic: "write as I will, and rush as I may into the middle of things, as Horace advises, I shall never overtake myself—whipp'd and driven to the last pinch, at the [End Page 111] worst I shall have one day on the start of my pen" (p. 342). Yet doomed as this chase of narrator after his narrative is to incessant failure, it is precisely in this lost space that Tristram Shandy is born. Tristram is, he is quite happy to admit, better associated with the life of his text-as-text than with either the subject or object self it refers to: in the ninth volume, Sterne dramatizes Tristram's flight from death as a pursuit in which "life follows the pen" (p. 754). In contrast to the many examples of eighteenth-century sentimental epistolary novels where the pen, falling at crucial moments from Evelina's, Pamela's, or Werther's hands, forces a break in the first-person narrative and thus suggests the priority of immediate sensual experience over written record, Tristram's report on his experience as a writer lends itself unbroken and unexhausted to the page. In a literal sense, his failure to catch up with event offers material evidence of life passing in a way which life itself could not provide. We can think, for instance, of Pamela's closet where, in contrast to Tristram's, life is always breaking in upon her otherwise relatively orderly narrative.

Epistemologically, then, Sterne's approach to writing models the possibility of an object constituted through a familiarity with its own failure to be known: how else to imagine the autobiography of a character who quite literally fails to conceive of himself? Hume's table cannot speak to us of its existence outside our perception of it. But this is precisely what Sterne seems best able to do. Through Tristram's self-familiarity, he shows the instability of objects, even while producing Tristram squarely within the realm of material evidence. This achievement has much to do with the way in which literary forms of inclusion—wit, innuendo, satire—can avoid the rigors of ratiocination and yet remain in view within horizons of familiarity. However, it also involves the specificity of literary language. In its aesthetic dimension, literature makes something tactile out of words, even words like Sterne's, which express doubt about tactility. As James Swearingen writes, in Tristram Shandy "language does not just facilitate communication: it establishes the phenomenal horizon in which speakers and things spoken about are constituted." 10

In other words, rather than having consciousness attempt to verify the object to which it refers (which becomes Locke's model of the self) or to give up on this project and show that the conceptual life can say nothing definitive about identity or causation (which would be one description of Hume's project), in Sterne's terms, consciousness can give up on knowing its object in direct proportion to the way in which [End Page 112] it becomes an object itself. This is a formulation that defies the relation of doubt and reassurance that at first promises to make Hume so applicable as the philosophical "key" to Tristram Shandy. Even in the thick of Sterne's most skeptical reflections on rationality, where language becomes most ludicrously linked to pun and innuendo, something concrete emerges. Thick and out there in the realm of tables, as literature, Sterne's exercise in humor and style partakes in and of the phenomenological horizon that Swearingen describes. If Sterne's novel shows language at its most figurative, it also, quite literally, puts words together as a novel which claims the reader's understanding. With this mechanism of literalism and figuration, contained in the specific identity of text-as-literature, the dialectical materiality of Tristram Shandy replaces the chronological division of skepticism and belief which Hume orchestrates. In suggesting this, I do not want to relieve Sterne from any of the charges of conservatism which are laid against him as a protractor of Hume's skepticism. In contrast to the many who celebrate the freedoms of Tristram Shandy, my sense is that the forms of "unity," binding object and subject by intertwining figuration and literalism can be read as a conservative unity, designed to intercept the experience of doubt at its origin, as much as they can be read as a sign of the literary object's traditional autonomy.

But what I do want to stress is that Sterne's containment of skepticism avoids the process of resolution which takes place over the course of Hume's Treatise. Instead of moving from the problem of epistemology to its solution, Tristram Shandy makes the articulation of the problem part of the solution. While Tristram announces his forthright doubt about the possibilities of empirical certainty, Sterne produces one of the literary objects which most fully united London's eighteenth-century readers. He openly creates the consensus of taste which Hume tends rather to "discover" or to assume in the society he addresses. Making this distinction, I return to the claim that Tristram Shandy configures the epistemological quandary differently from Hume—while both Hume and Sterne respond to skepticism with literature and letters, wit and taste, Sterne uses this forum to stage a "safe" but dialectical version of the skeptic's debate. Here, as a work of fiction, Tristram Shandy denies knowledge both of the status of a problem at all and the possibility of resolution. Because the materiality of language—the very thing which occupies and interests Sterne as a way to attract the reader's aesthetic agreement—is also a sign of its liability to interpretation, Sterne's demonstration of the impossibility of empirical certainty [End Page 113] is dynamic and ongoing. In contrast to Hume, who arrives at naturalism as a point of closure, Sterne's self-conscious aesthetic practice simultaneously and inextricably secures agreement and acknowledges contingency.


Rutgers University


1. Max Byrd has described this as the "Tristram Shandy as philosophic text" trend of the twentieth century in Tristram Shandy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1985), p. 146. See John Traugott's Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophic Rhetoric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954); Helen Moglen, The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975), James Swearingen, Reflexivity in Tristram Shandy: An Essay in Phenomenological Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). See also Francis Doherty, "Sterne and Hume: A Bicentenary Essay" in Essays and Studies 22 (1969) which argues the case for Hume over Locke as Sterne's "key." Here Marshall Brown's encouragement in Preromanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) to take Tristram's problem of disorganization seriously as one that Sterne set out to solve by way of an economy of narrative is in this sense a new articulation of an old critical formulation.

2. In its relation to Locke, Tristram Shandy sits well alongside Voltaire's Candide, where the generalized optimism of Leibniz, taken literally in the realm of fiction, disintegrates as absurd in the particular. The same model of literature as a critical articulation of philosophy was used by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, each of whom turned somewhat reluctantly to fiction in order to exemplify what was wrong with the political system they had spent their careers criticizing.

3. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Melvyn and Joan New, vols. 1-3, Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1976-1984), p. 98; hereafter TS.

4. In two relatively recent examples of this comparison, Jonathan Lamb introduces Sterne's Fiction and the Double Principle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) with a reference to Hume's essay, "The Skeptic" and draws heavily on the relationship between the two authors; Wolfgang Iser, Sterne's Tristram Shandy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) argues that Sterne shares with Hume an appreciation of the difference between norm and reality, pp. 15-19.

5. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Anthony Flew (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1988), p. 115; hereafter I.

6. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2d ed., ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 634; hereafter T.

7. Elizabeth Kraft, Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), p. 105. See also Carol Kay, Political Constructions: Defoe, [End Page 114] Richardson and Sterne in Relation to Hobbes, Hume and Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

8. David Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste," in Selected Essays, ed. Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 234; hereafter ST.

9. John Richetti, Philosophical Writing: Locke, Berkeley, Hume (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983) and Jerome Christensen, Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) among others have focused on the edifice of Hume's literary practice shutting down the contradictions which his arguments open up: a "literary control," as Christensen puts it, fixes the contradictions in his system before they can take effect, a position reinforced by Richetti's reading of Augustan Rhetoric as invoking "a tradition and an inevitability whereby the self is limited to certain roles and rhetoric expresses a cultural and moral order" (p. 29).

10. Swearingen, p. 177. See also Kraft's argument with Swearingen, p. 106.

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