Paradox of Tristram Shandy

What is the Paradox of Tristram Shandy?

The Paradox of Tristram Shandy is like a brain teaser that gets you to think about some really strange ideas involving time and tasks that never end. To give you a detailed but simple definition, it could be seen in two ways:

Firstly, imagine having a book you’re writing about your life, but for every single day’s events that unfold, it somehow takes you a whole year to jot down. Sounds wild, right? Now, if you could live forever and keep writing, theoretically, you would be able to write about every day, because there will never be a ‘last’ day in your life. But here’s the twist: every time you write about just one day, life continues and adds more days for you to write about, so you never really catch up. Tricky, isn’t it?

Secondly, this whole scenario shakes up our normal ideas about finishing things. If you think about it, we’re used to the idea that if we just keep at something, eventually, we’ll get it done. But according to this paradox, even if you had forever to do something — in this case, write about your life — you still wouldn’t finish. It’s because even though you have limitless time, your writing speed can’t keep up with the speed of life happening. This makes us scratch our heads and wonder about how infinite time and never-ending tasks work.

Key Arguments

  • Infinite Time Argument: Given infinite time, which means having as much time as you could possibly imagine and more, our friend Tristram Shandy should be able to write down everything about his life, because he can keep going and will have a year to write about every single day.
  • Task Completion Argument: Despite having all the time in the universe, because Tristram takes much longer to write about a day than to live it, he will continually fall behind. So, the end of his writing always moves further away, meaning he’ll never catch up and finish his autobiography.
  • Intuition vs Logic Argument: Our gut feeling tells us Tristram can’t finish his autobiography, but when we use our brains to think about the problem, it looks like he should be able to, since in an infinite amount of time, he would cover each day. It’s like our feelings and brains are in a tug-of-war over what’s true.

Examples and Explanations

  • Writing a Diary: If you tried to write down every single moment of your day, from waking up to going back to sleep, it would take much longer than a day. And while you’re writing what happened, new things are happening. This is similar to Tristram’s situation because the more you try to write, the more you have to write about, so you can’t ever catch up.

    This example shows the paradox because it highlights the impossible situation of recording every detail of a continually unfolding life, just like Tristram Shandy’s issue.

  • Counting Grains of Sand: Imagine counting every grain of sand on a beach, but as you count, more sand keeps appearing. You could count forever, but there’d always be more to count.

    This helps us understand the paradox by likening it to a task that’s always expanding, never letting you finish, akin to writing an autobiography that can’t be concluded.

  • Painting a Bridge: Think about painting a long bridge that takes so long to paint, by the time you reach the end, the start needs painting again. So, you keep painting the bridge over and over without ever finishing.

    Why it’s an example: It shows a task that’s in a constant loop, similar to the never-ending autobiography in Tristram Shandy’s paradox.

Related Topics

  • Zeno’s Paradoxes: These paradoxes, like Tristram Shandy’s, deal with infinity and motion. For instance, one of Zeno’s paradoxes suggests that to reach a destination, you must first get halfway there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on, meaning you should never actually arrive. However, we know that’s not how things work in real life.
  • The Infinite Monkey Theorem: This is the idea that a monkey hitting keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually type a complete work of Shakespeare. Like Tristram Shandy’s paradox, it plays with the idea of infinity and the completion of a massive task, questioning random chance versus structured effort.
  • Multiverse Theory: Just as the paradox has us consider an infinite amount of time, the multiverse theory in physics suggests that there could be an infinite number of universes. Both concepts push us to broaden our thinking about what ‘infinite’ really means and the endless possibilities it presents.


In conclusion, the Paradox of Tristram Shandy is more than a confusing riddle. It opens our eyes to the peculiarities of infinity and time. It tells us that some things in life, like finishing Tristram’s autobiography, might seem doable in your head but turn out to be quite the opposite when you actually think about it or try to do it.

The paradox isn’t just a quirky idea from an old novel; it’s a tool to expand our minds and question how we look at never-ending tasks and the time we have. For anyone, not just philosophers or mathematicians, it’s a reminder that life has a lot of puzzles, and thinking about them can be both fun and enlightening. As we keep learning and growing, the Paradox of Tristram Shandy stands out as an everlasting challenge to our understanding of infinity, time, and life’s work.