Laurence Sterne introduces a class of hypothesis in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which he calls the “Shandean hypothesis” (2.XIX.118). The origin of this type of hypothesis comes in conjunction with what Tristram describes as his father’s “Shandean system” (1.XXI.55), a proof of Walter Shandy’s conviction that Christian names account for a substantial portion of a person’s character. This is an absurd notion, but indicative of the qualities inherent to these hypotheses. The Shandean hypothesis is a whimsical misapplication of logic to observable phenomena parodying systems of philosophy and scientific study popular at the time. Sterne wrote during an era of enlightenment, an Age of Reason, and by parodying his contemporaries’ obsession with analysis and explanation, he turned the lens of skepticism on the skeptics themselves. The article I Guess That's That also delves into the novel's revolt against rationalism, pointing out the cyclical nature of revolution. Similarly, the humor in a Shandean hypothesis is somewhat cyclical in nature, it parodies reason yet the reader's ability to reason is what reveals the absurd reasoning of Walter Shandy.
Within the work, Tristram describes several of his father’s hypotheses as Shandean, though the same principles also apply to some of Tristram’s suppositions. There are three Shandean hypotheses from Walter Shandy that cause significant plot events.
- A person’s Christian name determines much of that person’s character.
- The Soul resides in the medulla oblongata.
- Men of greatness have large noses.
To understand a Shandean hypothesis, one must begin with a survey of the source. Walter Shandy considers himself a philosopher, intellectual and objective study of the world, as such he seems to consider it his duty to draw as many conclusions about the world as possible. While Walter is exceedingly well read, his skills tend toward the rhetorical aspect of argumentation rather than the accurate application of thought. Sterne contrasts Walter with his brother Toby, who lacks linguistic prowess but has Occam’s acumen in the field of practical philosophy. The brothers take issue over the Shandean system due to Walter’s choice of proof, their relation Dinah. Where Walter sees Dinah’s “backsliding” (1.XXI.55) as evidence of his theory, Toby points out that publicly shaming a family member does more to injure their shared last name more than it does to prove his point.
Toby’s objection acts to elucidate a commonality between Shandean hypotheses, they have a tendency when put into hypothetical, or actual practice to create more problems than they solve. Walter’s assertion that the soul resides in the medulla oblongata—a conclusion he reaches by committing the logical fallacy of finding a middle ground and presuming it to be the truth–because it satisfies both the opinion that the soul is in the heart and that the soul is in the brain. The medulla is the part of the brain that controls the heart. This leads him to a wholehearted distaste for the “nonsensical method of bringing us into the world by that part foremost” (2.XIX.118). Of course, at that time there were not many other options safe for the mother and Walter’s suggestion of a Caesarian section would have been equivalent to a death sentence for his wife Elizabeth. Regardless of whether or not Walter is correct about the soul residing in the medulla, his proposed application of that supposition is both outlandish and dangerous.
The drastic errors Walter Shandy makes in carrying out his theories is directly related to the way he gathers data to test his ideas. As stated in 01. The Architecture of Theory: Fallacies and Foundations, a hypothesis should be formed from the observation of inexplicable phenomena and then tested by forming an experiment that isolates aspects of the proposed solution for verification. Walter’s inexplicable phenomena are the actions of people and the nature of human souls, a data pool so vast that boiling it down to one cause is inherently absurd. On top of this, Walter’s way of testing and verifying his hypothesis violates multiple logical fallacies. He cherry-picks evidence from personal anecdotes that happen to match up with his claims and then applies those isolated incidents to all of humanity. The Shandean system itself is an obvious example because Walter uses his extended family member Dinah’s mistakes to solidify his theory.
By parodying his contemporaries’ arguably most powerful device—the hypothesis, an application of reason by a well-read individual—Sterne turns skepticism on the skeptics. Within the story, Walter Shandy dominates intellectual discussion with absolute nonsense, begging the reader to reassess the Enlightenment ideal of the circumscribed individual. Sterne provides a strong and humorous counterpoint to Robinson Crusoe and 02. Circumscribed, But Not Circumspect.
After breaking down the method of Sterne’s joking reason to the point where these absurd notions are no longer funny, more qualities of the Shandean supposition become apparent. The attributes that link Walter’s hypotheses together within the story are:
- All were conceived in an effort to control aspects of Tristram’s birth and life.
- The spectacular and crushing failure of any effort to apply these theories to Tristram’s life, often caused by the unintended consequences of another one of the hypotheses.
- Each becomes a kind of framing device for a lengthy digression—or several lengthy digressions—on Tristram’s part.
Much as Tristram’s father fails to control any part of his child’s birth and life, Tristram fails to control his narrative. It simply gets away from him. Despite all of his theorizing about the course a story should take, Tristram cannot steer it in any predictable path. Where novels like Robinson Crusoe create a plot out of the unpredicted movement of characters from one place to another–there is a strong analysis of this narrative technique in 03: The Interface of Novels and Maps--Sterne's novel deals with a narrator that throws the reader from one narrative to another. Sterne attempts to make writing a novel and mapping a narrative as uncertain and exciting as exploring the world and following a character. Thus, the catastrophic effects of the Shandean hypothesis on Sterne's characters and narrative achieves what Shandean hypotheses themselves do not by providing a working model for understanding the humorous accidents that make up a life.
Laurence Sterne’s parody of the logic and conventions of his contemporaries is not an isolated phenomenon. Many great works of fiction both before and after The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman utilize this device. Sterne nods to works that inform his humorous attitudes, like Don Quixote—Tristram describes the horse Parson Yorick rides as a “full brother to Rosinante” (1.X). Rosinante being the horse that Don Quixote rides, an ill-tempered nag. While this Enlightenment era name drop is not a specific reference to a style or mode of thought that Cervantes mimicked, it does have interesting implications. Parson Yorick is the character closest to the real life Laurence Sterne within Tristram Shandy. Yorick’s sermon is almost word for word one of Sterne’s own and he not only has authorial honor of speaking the last words in the final volume, he received his own spinoff, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Thus, when Sterne places Parson Yorick on Don Quixote’s horse, he puts himself on Cervantes’ comical equine invention, acknowledging his own absurdity and his intention to walk in Cervantes’ hoof prints.
Since Sterne’s death there have been many instances in fiction and other media of logical devices in the same vein as the Shandean hypothesis. Some notable examples are:
- Joseph Heller’s paradoxical reasoning in his novel Catch-22, especially its eponymous syllogism.
- Thomas Pychon’s The Crying of Lot 49, specifically the experiments of John Nefastis who tries to create a perpetual motion machine via a thought experiment.
- David Foster Wallace’s character Father in Infinite Jest creates some similarly absurd conventions for raising his sons.
- James Joyce’s Ulysses contains parodies of a huge range of literary styles and modes of thought.
- Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays with absurdist logic that can be traced to the reasoning used by Walter Shandy additionally, it is adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a text from which Sterne’s character Yorick draws on directly.