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The Shandyan dilemma

Last updated on 19 Jan 2012

Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe detective series among many others, has died. This is a partial post I started some time back, so I thought I’d post it as is.

In Recalled to Life, Reginald Hill has one of his two protagonists, Pascoe, interview an ex-nanny who is cleared of murder after 30 years in prison.

Pascoe … had anticipated a frosty welcome from the ex-nanny but instead found himself drinking Earl Grey and listening to nursery reminiscences which stretch forever like childhood summers. At one point without interrupting her flow she had arisen, gone over to an ornate escritoire which looked like it would fetch a bob or two at Southeby’s, and taken from a drawer a well-filled photograph album. Thereafter her lecture was illustrated, and for the first time Pascoe truly appreciated the Shandyan[1] dilemma that present becomes past at a rate faster than past can be retrieved into the present. [p83]

The aphorism is not in Tristam Shandy itself, so far as I can tell, but it refers to the curious structure of that classic novel, in which the attempt to give an autobiography has to take so many detours through the past before the eponymous author’s birth that it never actually manages to do much by way of autobiographising.

In my species book, I wrote this:

Generally, scientists have a “rolling wall of fog” that trails behind them at various distances for different disciplines, above which only the peaks of mountains of the Greats can be seen. In medical biology, for instance, this wall is about five years behind the present. Little is cited before that, and those works that are, are cited by nearly everyone. So there is a tendency for what Kuhn called “textbook history” to become the common property of all members of the discipline. [p ix]

Generally what happened in the past is something that slowly disappears as evidence and recollections fade or become fixed into clear and distinct narratives. An example is David Hull’s book Science as a Process, which (among many other things) gives the narrative of the birth of cladistics (phylogenetic systematics). I have spoken to several of the key players, from different sides of the debate. One thing they all agree on is that Hull got the events wrong. What they all disagree on is what he got wrong.

History of science – indeed all history – is like a traffic accident. Every witness remembers things differently, and so the process of doing the history of science is a matter of taking more or less objective facts – usually documentary evidence – and trying to construct a narrative free of the individual narratives reconstructed by the actors and those who have loyalties or hatreds for the actors. But textbook history is hard to overcome. As Dennis Des Chene notes at the excellent philosophy blog NewAPPS:

The philosophy of science directs its attention mostly to successful science—to Darwin, not to Lamarck or Driesch—and even when it turns to theories that have proved false, it tends to study only the “honorable” failures.  It avoids the Helmonts and Fouriers, the Fechners and Josephsons—those who have sinned (or so it thinks) against reason, and given too free a rein to imagination. After all, if your aim is to understand how reason works, how knowledge is most efficiently attained, you will want the best specimens; the ill-formed, the dubious, the fake, you leave aside.

Why is history so hard to do? Why do we construct these narratives from partial data? In science (and I firmly believe history is a science, not an art, except in the sense that all sciences are art as well) this would be confirmation bias and subjectivity; why not in history?

Well it is, at least in the theoretical sense taught in many history classes (but not all – I leave to one side the so-called postmodern approach to history in which narratives are constructed from whole cloth). We call this sort of interpretation of data to fit a narrative the Whig Interpretation, or presentism, or progressivism.

Add to this that it takes longer to relate the narrative than the events related actually took to occur if there is any degree of depth (the Shandyan dilemma) and the fact that even this depends on what information is available, and history becomes a very hard thing to do, let alone justify.

Consider this: to find out a fact, one has to go digging, metaphorically or literally, through archives, books, artefacts and interviews. This takes time. There is some kind of relation between the age of the fact, and the time it takes to find and verify the fact. The older the event, the longer it takes to find the fact and the greater the likelihood that history has erased the facts by overwriting, deleting and modifying the evidence.

A friend, who is a medievalist (and physicist) wrote:

Consider the Battle of Hastings.  We have six (or was it eight) more or less contemporary sources for the battle.  They agree that the battle started around 9 in the morning.  And they agree that Harold lost.

They disagree on everything else.

In spite of six (or was it eight) more or less contemporary (and detailed) sources, we may never know what happened at Hastings.

It’s not that we lack evidence. It’s that the evidence is not constraining possible past states. And as history marches on, all we can do is narrow down the past states from an unmanageable number to a hopefully manageable number. We know Caesar never crossed the Amazon. We know he crossed the Rubicon. Why, how, exactly when, with exactly how many soldiers, and so forth, may be lost to us. What he ate that morning is certainly lost to us.

I continued in my book:

Doing this kind of history is rather like trying to work out the past from a series of old photographs in a box in the attic you got from your grandparents. Faces appear in various guises, resemblances recur, and it is almost impossible to identify exactly who is whose child, friend or mere passers-by. Nevertheless, having that box of snapshots, one is richer for it in understanding both the past and the present.

The history of science is so often triumphalist, presentist and Whiggist that it displays a major failure to appreciate the Shandyan dilemma. Copernicus, Einstein and Darwin are treated as necessary waypoints on the ineluctable path to our present science so often that philosophers, freethinkers and erstwhile skeptics sometimes act as if it is only a matter of time that rationality is universal and religion and superstition abandoned, as if species developed and matured the way individual organisms are sometimes held to. But information is lost over time, so advances will reach a point at which the transmission of them to the future balances the information lost, and so there may be a point at which the Shandyan dilemma leaves us unable to progress any farther.

[1] Some editions (I think the American) have “Shandean”. I wonder which was original?


  1. Brian Brian

    You mean to say we don’t know that old Jules said: ‘Alea iecta est’? What did he say then? ‘futue et caballum tuum’?
    Regarding your final point…do you think it’s likely that forgetting what Caesar or Newton said or thought will cause us to stop advancing or transmitting Math or science. I look at sites like arxiv and it seems that lots of stuff and information is multiplying. Maybe that’s not progress but a sign of decline. Would others agree? To quote Twain ‘I reckon they would. I dunno’.
    Or the more colloquial…yeah, nah.

  2. Brian Brian

    And whilst you and Thony and the cognoscenti rightly will attack my comment for being nought more than Whiggish twaddle, it still has the singular merit in my eyes of putting the timeless words ‘fuck you and your horse’ in Ceasar’s mouth and harnesses the wonderful Strine phrase ‘yeah, nah’ . That is nothing, if not progress.
    Feel free to fling poo, if you have it! 🙂

    • I don’t recognise either of those phrases as Strine. One is USAian, and the other Southpommish. Even when not in Latin.

      • Brian Brian

        ‘yeah, nah’ isn’t Strine? I never heard that one whilst in London, and I did associate with locals, and not a mob of displaced Aussies whilst working. The other, of course is USian, I never said it wasn’t, rendered in Latin or not. Oh well, just trying to have fun. Sorry.

        • Brian Brian

          You didn’t reply and perhaps it didn’t’t deserve a reply. But anyway, I apologize for wasting your time. I typed a longer reply,but apple software lost it all and spared you a pathetic sob story. I will endevour not to waste your ( plural) time again. As I typed in my first attempt, I would like to partake in a conversation over beers with you John, but my limited ability to put myself in others shoes suggests to me that it would be not worth the beer you’d drink.

  3. “an ornate excritoire”

    Is that really what Hill wrote / meant?

    Although I can see an excritoire being a whole lot more useful than your average writing desk , for the writing of particularly nasty letters …

    • I swear it was excritoire when I typed it, but it has now reverted to escritoire. Dang. I’ll correct it.

  4. I don’t see much difference between history and historical sciences like evolutionary biology, paleontology and the like. The important point of advancing a narrative, if it’s to be scientific, is that it must be testable somehow. For example, when Duhen tested the narrative that Medieval and Rennaissance science were discontinuous with each other, he found evidence to the contrary and advanced a continuous narrative as the alternative. Ain’t that scientific? A narrative that hinges on details that cannot be tested, like the words of Caesar at breakfast, is of course not scientific.

  5. Hamish Reid Hamish Reid

    It was most definitely “Shandean” when I lived in London; hence, I suspect The Shandean

  6. Jeb Jeb

    “A narrative that hinges on details that cannot be tested, like the words of Caesar at breakfast, is of course not scientific.”

    It can be utterly scientific as it points to the possibility of understanding context and the organic nature of the Historical record. Often such details are vital, they are not going to tell you anything about Caesar in context but may well eradicate the potential pitfalls in reaching that point.

    People on the whole do not let imagination run wild when constructing fake and dubious history or even eye witness contemporary accounts, they have specific motives which are highly context sensitive.

    I want to understand something about 7th to 10th century Scottish culture. I am dependant on looking at a handful of sources.

    The accounts I am using have a number of scribe’s hands all over the page. The source’s are 16th century in final composition, I can start to identify further “improving” scribes amending and re-ordering material in the 15th, 14th, 12th, 1oth, 8th century. If I am lucky I end with an authentic 7th century core.

    I need to understand each scribe in his own full historical context, know his motives and then move back.

    I need to understand the full evolutionary history of my text in as much working knowledge of each individual context as the archive will allow to work successfully.

    • I see what you mean, ro so I think. But your evidence is not an untestable statement of Ceasar or some Scottish gentry, but a historical record of a scribe putting somethin into the mouth of the latter. That’s hard evidence and you compare it with what other scribed recorded and with contextual evidence. That’s entirely different from Brian’s “Fuck you and your horse” joke.

  7. About the “I firmly believe history is a science, not an art” bit: one (this one, for example) may dutifully agree that historians must always stick as best they can to the facts and yet deny that history is about reporting facts. It seems to me that factual accuracy is a formal requirement of the game but not its object. What makes a historian a historian is selection. Historians can, do, and should fight over what actually happened; but the central debate is properly about what is relevant in the collective memory.

    • Jim Harrison said: “historians must always stick as best they can to the facts and yet deny that history is about reporting facts.”

      That’s true for science as well. In his famous ‘Nothing in biology makes sense…’ essay, Dobzansky saidd: “A theory can be verified by a mass of facts, but it becomes a proven t heory, not a fact.” In so far as science is all about advancing and testing theories, or hypotheses derived from theories, it can hardly be limited to reporting facts.

      In fact, mere reporters of facts are often derogated as stamp collectors by ‘proper scientists’.

  8. Norman Paskin Norman Paskin

    John, you said “The aphorism is not in Tristam Shandy itself, so far as I can tell”…
    I think it is this passage: “I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my third volume (According to the preceding Editions.)—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this—And why not?—and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description—And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write—It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write—and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.”
    (Tristram Shandy vol II chapter XVLIII)

  9. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    Several years ago, I wondered why Dalziel was pronounced Dee-el and then- t.o. poster Tom Marlowe was kind enough to enlighten me. I saved his emails.

    “In the 12–14th centuries, possibly later, many dialects of English, especially
    northern and Scots dialects, used a character “yogh”, written like z or 3,
    which was variously pronounced (depending on context) like a “gh” (think a
    voiced “ch” as in “loch”) or a strongly accented “y”. Where this survived
    late, it is now mostly written as “z”. Thus, Dal-yell and eventually Dee-el.

    Unfortunately, to quote my 14th-century-lit professor [the second
    hyphen is critical there!] there is also a variant of “z” written like 3,
    that also shows up in northern dialects. telling the two apart is very
    complicated for new students, and may even sometimes be confusing to
    experts (if both interpretations of “3” make sense).

    Continuing, the confusion between the “3” as “yogh” and the “3” as “z” is the
    reason for the bizarreness in the Seton Hall University motto, “Hazard Zet
    Forward”–a strong “y” was taken as a “z”.

  10. Deb Deb


    Way to make my day, John! No more Fat Bastard?? I am crushed.

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