Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy

The author, Jostein Gaarder, totally hooked me with the subtitle. A novel about the history of philosophy? I find philosophy fascinating, and have read a couple books on the subject, but never before a novel!

Set in Norway, in 1990, the main character, Sophie, is introduced to the subject of philosophy when she finds two mysterious questions on a white card in the mailbox: Who are you? Where does the world come from? She ponders these difficult questions, and when more letters start showing up, she eagerly enters into a correspondence course on the history of philosophy. At first her teacher is a mystery—just a shadowy figure that leaves letters in her mailbox; however as the course progresses she learns more about him, discovering where he lives, and getting to know his dog. When Sophie starts receiving birthday postcards addressed to someone else, her philosophy teacher is forced to reveal himself, so that together they can discover who is threatening their world, and how to escape from him.

To enjoy this book, you have to like philosophy. There are long sections describing the philosophers of history, from Socrates to Sartre, and if you don’t like following abstract arguments you will quickly get bored. I had some familiarity with the majority of philosophers discussed, but still, its a dense subject, and at times I gave myself a headache in the effort to understand the arguments. (This was the fault of the author, because he made both the plot and the philosophy very interesting, so I was forcing myself through the philosophy sections quickly, to get back to the story, but still trying to grasp the concepts. When I read it a second time, I’ll go more slowly, and I expect I’ll get more out of it that way.)

The plot itself twists and turns, getting more and more complicated, and by the end of the book I was struggling almost as much to follow the plot as to understand the philosophical theories. You could say that the plot becomes more philosophical as you get further into the book.

Each philosophical system was presented in a positive light, as it came. This was possibly the one thing I appreciated most out of the whole book (although the crazy awesome plot is a close second). While I disagreed with many of the views presented, I was able to understand them better, because the author tried to represent each view as if he believed it, until he got to the next system, which usually disagreed with and tried to disprove the one that came before it. I cannot even attempt to relate my own thoughts on all the philosophical theories that were covered in the book, but I did want to address three:

  1. Christianity is of course the “philosophy” I know most about, though I consider it to be much more than a philosophy. Naturally, I was rather dissatisfied with the explanation about Jesus as a philosopher, and the ideas he is presented as holding. So I know that Gaarder does not have the same view of the Bible as I do, but whether or not he believes in some kind of Deity is more difficult to tell. He at least presents the arguments of such theologians as Augustine and Aquinas very fairly.
  2. Freud, of all the philosophers, is the only one I really can’t stand. Just…be warned. I would not recommend this book for kids, unless their parents feel they are ready to be exposed to Freud’s theories.
  3. Darwin’s theory of evolution is discussed, and the earth being 4.6 billion years old is accepted as fact in the book. However, I was fascinated by the explanation of the Big Bang: there are only two possible theories about the beginning of the universe; either everything came from nothing, or everything has always been there, and the book quite correctly states “both theories are equally inconceivable”.

Since this book was originally written in Norwegian, I read an English translation. This is always a little off-putting, since some aspects of any book do not translate well into another language, and in Sophie’s World I think it made the dialogue feel more choppy. Gaarder is very concerned with environmentalism and the UN, and these topics crop up often through the book. I do plan to re-read Sophie’s World at some point, and I will certainly look up some other titles by this author.

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