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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 98-115

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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...


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