John Locke according to Tristram Shandy

My enjoyment of Tristram Shandy consists largely in Sterne as iconoclast, most notably for me his critique of John Locke’s theory of language and ideas. But more generally I revel in his tongue-in-cheek renditions of the hubris of the Enlightenment!

To wit the following application of Locke’s theory of the relation between words and ideas.(And read below the bar.)

But first, three quotes from Tristram.

“Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? —— Good G—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, —— Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—— Nothing. [Vol. I, Chp 1]

“It was attended but with one misfortune, which, in a great measure, fell upon myself, and the effects of which I fear I shall carry with me to my grave; namely, that, from an unhappy association of ideas which have no connection in nature, it so fell out at length, that my poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,— but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popp’d into her head,—& vice versâ:— which strange combination of ideas, the sagacious Locke, who certainly understood the nature of these things better than most men, affirms to have produced more wry actions than all other sources of prejudice whatsoever.” [Vol. I, Chp 4]

“— What a pudder and racket in COUNCILS about and in the SCHOOLS of the learned about power and about spirit;— about offences, and about quintessences;—— about substances, and about space.—— What confusion in greater THEATRES from words of little meaning, and as indeterminate a sense;— when thou considers this, thou wilt not wonder at my uncle Toby’s perplexities,— thou wilt drop a tear of pity upon his scarp and his counterscarp;— his glacis and his covered-way;— his ravelin and his half-moon: ’twas not by ideas,—— by heaven! his life was put in jeopardy by words.” [Vol. II, Chp 2]


After reading Tristram Shandy I find it difficult to read Locke without reading him as a parody of himself!

Why this imperfection charged upon Words.

  • 21. The great disorder that happens in our Names of Sub-

stances, proceeding for the most part from our want of Knowledge,

and Inability to penetrate into their real Constitutions, it may

probably be wondered, Why I charge this as an Imperfection, rather

upon our Words than Understandings. This Exception, has so much

appearance of Justice, that I think my self obliged to give a Reason,

why I have followed this Method. I must confess then, that when I

first began this Discourse of the Understanding, and a good while

after, I had not the least Thought, that any Consideration of Words

was at all necessary to it. But when having passed over the Original

and Composition of our Ideas, I began to examine the Extent and

Certainty of our Knowledge, I found it had so near a connexion with

Words, that unless their force and manner of Signification were

first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and

pertinently concerning Knowledge: which being conversant about

Truth, had constantly to do with Propositions. And though it

terminated in Things, yet it was for the most part so much by the

intervention of Words, that they seem’d scarce separable from our

general Knowledge. At least they interpose themselves so much

between our Understandings, and the Truth, which it would

contemplate and apprehend, that like the Medium through which

visible Objects pass, their Obscurity and Disorder does not seldom

cast a mist before our Eyes, and impose upon our Understandings.

If we consider, in the Fallacies, Men put upon themselves, as well

as others, and the Mistakes in Men’s Disputes and Notions, how

great a part is owing to Words, and their uncertain or mistaken

— 489 —

Significations, we shall have reason to think this no small obstacle

in the way to Knowledge, which, I conclude we are the more care-

fully to be warned of, because it has been so far from being taken

notice of as an Inconvenience, that the Arts of improving it have

been made the business of Men’s study; and obtained the Repu-

tation of Learning and Subtilty, as we shall see in the following

Chapter. But I am apt to imagine, that were the imperfections

of Language, as the Instrument of Knowledge, more throughly

weighed, a great many of the Controversies that make such a noise

in the World, would of themselves cease; and the way to Know-

ledge, and, perhaps, Peace too, lie a great deal opener than it does.

[John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding]


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