A 1994 novel by Jostein Gaarder, this interesting story teaches you the history of Western philosophy whilst telling you a story within a story.

A great way to pick up the basics of philosophy without it seeming like studying.

The main character, Sophie, learns philosophy from Alberto Knox and, in so doing, finds that the end to her adventure is far from what she had originally expected.

Sophie's World has been a huge success in the Nordic Countries, with good reviews and massive sales. However, I suspect that the majority of the sold books were given to kids by parents who hoped it would magically make their children smarter.

Personally, I found the book rather dull. The fiction part progresses very slowly for 400 pages, then something briefly happens, and then the 100 remaining pages carry on in the same slow pace. The fact part is generic history of philosophy, and it does not benefit from being written in dialogue form.

Besides (spoiler), the "Omigod, we're really just characters in a book"-concept seems logically absurd. In another book that would be no big deal, but in a book about philosophy...

I think those parents would have been better of if they had paired a normal philosophy textbook with a normal work of fiction. (Or perhaps Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which tries the same trick of mixing philosophy with a narrative, but succeeds splendidly).

I read this book (in its English translation) for IB ToK 2 years ago. My teacher used this book as an introduction to philosophy for us, and it worked fairly well.

The fact side did a better job than a textbook would have at conveying information, albeit with less predictability as to what stayed in memory and what didn't. At times this part was tedious, but rarely to the extent that I put the book down to do something else.

The story certainly has its weak spots, but provided a sufficient background for and relief from the philosophy lessons. The characters in the book within the book serve a larger purpose than merely providing most of the plot of the story. They are rather an attempt to prove that a thought can be sentient. This is directly analogous to making an AI-complete artificial intelligence. If a thought or other internal construct can be sentient, then, in theory, an AI-complete artificial intelligence can be created. If a thought cannot be sentient, then AI-complete is impossible. Although I can't think of a reason why a sufficiently complex thought can't be sentient, there's probably objections that can be raised to this (first among them: how do we define sentience?).

As for parents thinking this book would make their kids magically smarter, that's just absurd. The kids would either understand it or wouldn't (and no, that's a continuum, not a boolean). Psychologists have found that intelligence stays pretty consistent within a given individual throughout their lifetime, so the most the book could do is make the kids that understand it use more of their brains (and perhaps discover the fun of making that gray matter push its limits). Chances are, for those that didn't understand it, it would only confuse them and possibly contribute to an inferiority complex.

pfft: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance did seem to do a better job of it from what I read (we had to read that later on in the class, but I only got about 100 pages into it thanks to an early case of senioritis).

Sophie's World, subtitled A Novel About the History of Philosophy, is at first glance the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie who gets involved in a mysterious correspondence course in the history of Western philosophy. At the same time Sophie begins receiving letters from her philosophy teacher, however, she also gets mail intended for a total stranger, fourteen-year-old Hilde Møller Knag, and this second unexpected development in Sophie's otherwise uncomplicated life turns out to be of crucial importance as well. To say much more about the story would be to reveal too much about the plot, so I'll discuss some other philosophical aspects of the book instead.

I read Sophie's World because I remembered a friend of mine telling me that it was a good story, but in many ways totally predictable, because he'd had so many philosophy classes. Since I have only ever taken one philosophy class (which didn't involve much history, and I didn't enjoy it much anyway), I figured that wouldn't be a problem for me. However, it turns out I knew more about philosophy than I realized, and I definitely knew enough about the history of human approaches to knowledge, and science in particular, to be a little bored during the sections on models of the solar system, not to mention Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. I felt vaguely ashamed, like I was turning into one of the people who complain that the philosophy in The Matrix isn't deep enough for them. In many ways, it's much more difficult to write an entertaining introductory-level text (and yes, film is text) that's approachable and understandable to anyone interested in the material than it is to spout arcane discussion that presumes your audience knows what you're talking about. Both The Matrix and Sophie's World are good examples of the former, which can still be enjoyed by audiences who know a bit about philosophy, and that's high praise indeed.

Jostein Gaarder, the author of Sophie's World, has also written a collection of short stories and another novel, The Solitaire Mystery, but before Sophie's World became an international bestseller, he taught philosophy for eleven years in Norway. In Sophie's World, he clearly has an axe to grind about the importance of philosophy to a general education, and he argues it persuasively and well. Better still, by including a concise and well-written history of philosophy interwoven with his argument, he helps make it moot, which I thought was particularly cunning.

Another fun aspect of Sophie's World is the title character's repeated queries about the role of women in the history of philosophy. For her benefit, her teacher ends up taking the piss with respect to the ideas of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and their intellectual descendants regarding women, which I found particularly gratifying. Similarly, I enjoyed the author's repeated shameless plugs advocating environmentalism and some kind of world government, perhaps through the United Nations. Finally, reading Sophie's World came with a kickin' soundtrack, for me at least. From the chapter on Plato onwards, the voices in my head sang "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at least until the chapter on David Hume, when they gave in and switched to the Monty Python "Philosophers Song". Good times, I tell you, good times.

Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie's World. New York: Berkley Books. Translated from the original Norwegian by Paulette Møller. Translation copyright 1994 by Paulette Møller. Originally published in Norwegian under the title Sofies Verden copyright 1991 by H. Ashehoug & Co., Oslo. ISBN 0-425-15225-1

2009.12.16 at 00:00 Cool Man Eddie says Hey, sweet! Someone likes your writeup titled "Sophie's World!"-->

Sophie's World is a popular book. I was surprised to find that its English translation is only twelve years old, it seems to have become somewhat omnipresent in certain circles since then. For the many English majors or other people with liberal arts degrees who haven't studied the technical field of philosophy in great detail, this book is kind of a way to catch up with the basic trends of Western Thought without having to read the five to ten thousand pages of Western philosophical work. In other words, this book was a Philosophy for Dummies book before its time. It is also, in addition to that, a pretty interesting book, with its framing plot about young Sophie and the intrigue that surrounds her letters. Although tastes differ on the literary merits of the framing story, it seems to be at least interesting enough to propel people through the book.

The problem with the book, from my viewpoint, is that the framing story attempts to relate itself to the history of Western philosophy. In the framing story, in which a girl named Sophie receives a letter claiming that the world is a magic trick which people must attempt to resolve by "climb up...to stare right into the magicians eyes"; and then, over the course of the book, and over Sophie's education, she learned more about the history of Western philosophy, and also about a mysterious conspiracy hovering around her. At the end of the book, she learns that life is just a dream, and that she is actually a fictional character. The framing story seems to be a retelling of the gnostic story of Sophia.

The problem, as I see it, is while the wonder of Sophie in the framing story; and the beginning of Western Philosophy amongst the presocratics in the textbook section may be comparable, as the book progresses through the history of Western thought, it pulls away from the type of mystical riddle that Sophie's understanding of unreality reveals. Modern philosophy is, in the mainstream, not the project of uncovering a spritual mystery, or even of engaging people's wonder at being; but rather of applying reason and discourse to politics and society. The last three thinkers deal with are Darwin, Marx and Freud- thinkers whose thought doesn't seem to be that applicable to the mounting surreal conspiracy that surrounds Sophie.

It could be that the author of the book wanted to write a textbook on philosophy, and whipped up the framing story without a care that it would, at the end, not really have much to do with the subject matter. It also could be that he is making a purposeful contrast between the early wonder that sparked philosophy, and the gradual retreat into materialism and technicalities of modern, "professional" philosophy. He could also be making references to something so arcane and esoteric that it has escaped my notice. In any case, from a literary standpoint, the disassociation between the framing story and textbook near the end of the book is a bit disappointing.

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