Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Knowledge

By Laurence Sterne


What do we know, how do we know it, and how do we know that we know it? The big word for that is "epistemology," and Tristram Shandy is getting down with all the epistemological questions. At some points, Tristram Shandy seems to be suggesting that knowledge is ultimately hopeless—that the more we try to understand, the more confused we'll be, and that other people are doomed to be eternally mysterious. But it's clear that Tristram knows a lot. He throws around references and quotations like so many Lady Gaga lyrics. What's clear is that pursuing knowledge is a tricky business—you're always one reference away from absurdity.

Questions About Knowledge

  1. Much of Tristram Shandy is a response to John Locke, whose major point is that people learn through the experience of the senses. How do people acquire knowledge in Tristram Shandy? What counts as knowledge?
  2. Are there any points in the novel when it seems like knowledge is a good thing? Does it ever help anyone?
  3. The book is interested in two types of knowledge: knowledge of things, like obstetrics, fortifications, and logic; and knowledge of the human heart. What's the difference between the way that people can acquire these types of knowledge?

Chew on This

Tristram Shandy suggests that true knowledge comes from experience, not from books.

Tristram Shandy suggests that people need a combination of book-learning and life experience to make their way through the world successfully.

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