Book Review: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

If you’re new to philosophy, here’s a book that can bend your mind in unimaginable ways.

Sophie’s World is a novel about the history of Western philosophy.

The Plot

The plot basically goes like this: Sophie Amundsen is a 14-year old school girl. One day, she discovers a mysterious letter in her mailbox. The letter is short and contains two enigmatic questions:

Who are you?
Where does the world come from?

She learns later that the author of the letter is actually a philosopher named Alberto Knox. He is inviting her to take a short course in the history of Western philosophy. She is intrigued as well as fascinated, so she accepts the invitation. In the next several days and weeks, Alberto writes her more letters, introducing her to the study of philosophy, and taking her on a tour through the history of ideas.

With each letter, Alberto explains to Sophie each of the major philosophies and philophers in the history of philosophy. He starts from the pre-Socratic philosophers and moves down to the contemporary philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre and Existentialism.

Sophie explores philosophy with the guidance of Alberto and eventually the two of them meet up in person.

A shocking thing happens half-way through the book. Sophie and Alberto learns that the two of them are actually just figments of some author’s imagination! They discover, to their horror, that the world in which they live in and all the people in it, including Sophie’s mom and friends, are just products of another person’s mind! They find out that they are actually characters in a novel called “Sophie’s World”! This book was written by a father to his daughter for her fifteenth birthday. The girl’s name is Hilde Knag and the father’s name is Albert Knag.

Sophie and Alberto were indignant. They wanted to get back at the author because they felt robbed of their dignity as persons. Now, they realize that they’re not really persons because they don’t have free will (since their every thought and action is determined by the author’s imagination). They wanted to get out of the book and find the author and his daughter in order to confront them.

Somehow, they succeeded in jumping into the real world. But because they’re just fictional characters in a novel, they become invisible.

I won’t divulge how the story ends, though…

A rough sketch of the history of philosophy

Here’s a rough sketch of what Alberto taught Sophie:

The history of philosophy can be divided into four periods: Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Philosophy.

In Ancient Philosophy, you will find the pre-Socratics (the Greek philosophers who came before Socrates), the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic philosphers (the philosophers who lived during the time of the Greco-Roman empire).

In Medieval Philosophy, you will find two of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

In Modern Philosophy, you will find the Rationalist philosophers (such as Descartes, Liebniz and Spinoza), the Empiricsts (such as Locke, Hume and Berkeley), the French Enlightenment philosophers (such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau), Kant, the Romantic philosophers (such as Schelling), Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, among others.

In Contemporary Philosophy, you will find Sartre and the other Existentialist philosophers, and the other kinds of philosophies like neo-Thomism and neo-Darwinism.

Before the time of Ancient philosophy, people used myths to make sense of their surroundings. For example, in the Nordic countries, people believed in deities like Thor, Loki, and Freyja. They can’t explain calamities like droughts and earthquakes in natural terms because they didn’t have the means of explaining these phenomena in natural terms. So they resorted to myths. Another example is Greece during the time of Homer. They believed in Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, etc., to make sense of the harsh realities of war, believing that gods and goddesses are somehow responsible for causing the conflict between nations.

Then came Ancient philosophy. At this point in time, men began to question the validity of myths to explain natural phenomena. They wanted to make sense of their surroundings without resorting to myths and legends. They saw that deities, like Zeus and Athena for example, are suspiciously so alike human beings that they seem to simply be the projections of their makers.

Philosophy thus emerged out of the need to explain natural phenomena in natural terms.

Therefore, the very first philosophers, the pre-Socratics, are also called the Natural philosphers. Their whole “philosophical project” centered on the natural world (meaning, these philosophers concerned themselves mainly with questions like, “What is the world made of? What is its nature? What is its essence? Is there one essence or many? Is everything in a state of change or is everything unchanging?” Etc.)

Then came Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle is Plato’s pupil. Aristotle, in turn, is Socrates’ pupil. These three men are the greatest Greek philosophers in the Ancient period. Socrates’ main “philosophical project” was about man and his place in society (for example, how should an individual live his life in order to be happy?). Plato was also concerned about man and his place in society. Aristotle was concerned with a lot of things, but mainly logic and the study of the natural world.

Then came the Medieval period, the time of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Their “philosophical project” centered on the study of God and man’s relationship with Him. They also were concerned with the topic of faith and reason.

After the Medieval period came the Renaissance. The Renaissance was the age in which Europe experienced a sort of “cultural and philosophical awakening”.

The Baroque period followed the Renaissance, and around this time Descartes was born. Modern philosophy started with Descartes. His main “philosophical project” was about knowledge. He was basically interested in questions like, “What do we know for certain? How do we know what we know? What can’t we know for certain? Etc.” He was a mathematician. He wanted to develop a method in philosophy that will enable him to know certain things with absolute certainty, such as whether the outside world exists, whether God exists, etc. He was also a Christian.

Descartes was one of the three greatest Rationalist philosophers. The other two are Liebniz and Spinoza. They are called “Rationalist philosophers” because they thought that human reason is the primary source of knolwedge, as opposed to the senses.

The opposite of Rationalism is Empiricism, and the latter followed the former in the history of philosophy.

The three greatest Empiricists were Locke, Hume, and Berkeley. For these guys, the five senses are the primary source of human knowledge, as opposed to human reason.

As you can see, the “philosophical project” of the Rationalists and the Empiricists centered on the question of “knowledge”.

After Empiricism came the Enlightenment movement. Then came the German philospher Kant. Kant’s philosophy was influenced by both the Rationalists and the Empiricists. He thought that the views of both movements are not necessarily mutually exclusive. He believed that there’s some truth to Rationalism as there is also some truth to Empiricism. He sought to synthesize both philosophies.

Then came Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, and Freud.

Contemporary philosophy started with the French philosopher Sartre. His “philosophical project” focused on man and his existence in the world. Basically, he believed that human life has no objective meaning. Therefore, he thought, life is basically absurd. But we need not become nihilists (people who believe that all hope is lost and that therefore nothing in life matters and everything is permissible). We ought, instead, to face the absurdity of life with courage and create our own subjective meanings. His famous quote is, “Existence precedes essence.” Meaning, man has no objective “essence” or meaning. He must create his own subjective “essence”.

To summarize, all of the philosophers, from the pre-Socratics to Sartre, had different “philosophical projects”. They focused on different topics. Some were interested in the nature of the natural world (What is the world made of? Where did it come from?), others in the issue of man and his place in society (How should we live? How should we behave?). Still others, in the question of God’s existence and nature and how man should relate with Him (Does God exist? What is He like? How should we relate to Him?). And still others, in the question of human knowledge (How do we come to a knowledge of certain things in the world? How do we know what we know? Do we really know what we claim to know?).

These “projects”, concerns, topics, questions, or issues, actually correspond to the four branches of philosophy: Metaphysics (the study of what is ultimate reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics (the study of morality) and logic (the study of right thinking).

The topics and questions dealt with in philosophy are actually the deepest questions we human beings ask in our lives. Does God exist? Where did the world come from? What is the world made of? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of life? What is the right thing to do? What is good and evil? Etc.

Personal thoughts

I kind of enjoyed the novel. The plot is quite interesting. There’s mystery and suspense as the plot unfolds. Who is this Alberto Knox guy? What is he up to, sending Sophie these letters? Who is Hilde? Who is Albert Knag? How will the story end?

But I didn’t like certain parts of the story. It didn’t seem believable that a 14-year old would be able to grasp all those abstract concepts in philosophy. Also, there were a few things in the novel that I think aren’t possible. For example, fictional characters don’t have their own “minds” or “free will”. They can’t make free decisions on their own. Sophie and Alberto wanted to free themselves from the fictional world of “Sophie’s World”. But they can’t really do that because, well, they’re simply the products of the author’s imagination. They are not entities that possess traits that belong to persons, therefore it’s impossible for them to escape their fictional world.

But I truly appreciate this novel because it has introduced me to the history of philosophy. It has given me a basic knowledge of the history of philosophy and the great philosophers who shaped it.

My Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.
Date Read: Sometime in 2010


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