A world of wonder, thought and mystery


Sophie's World: An Adventure in Philosophy
By Jostein Gaarder
Phoenix House, 1995. Distributed by Allen & Unwin
394 pp., $19.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Arun Pradhan

Who are you? Where does the world come from? From questions like these Sophie, a schoolgirl in Norway, begins her adventure into a different world.

It is a world which people have tried to observe, understand and occasionally change for thousands of years. It is the world of philosophy and an adventure that brushes over the thoughts and lives of people such as Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Marx and Freud, to name but a few.

With each philosopher comes a description of their context. We are given a glimpse into the world as they saw it, and an insight into the reasons behind their thoughts. So in discussing Socrates we are encouraged to picture life in 450 BC Athens. From here the book spans over antiquity and the rise of Christianity, through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and beyond.

Jostein Gaarder taught philosophy to high school students for 11 years in Norway. His experience was put to good use in taking on what is an often intimidating subject. In Sophie's World he has written an introduction to the history of Western philosophy that not only aims to communicate philosophies that could each fill volumes of books, but also seems determined to make the whole experience interesting!

Gaarder links the "lesson in philosophy" to the story of Sophie as she tries to unravel a series of mysteries. For me this story was at first a distraction from the informational side of the book, but as I read it became more compelling until I found myself rushing through descriptions of Hume and Berkeley to find out what happened next to Sophie.

The story complements the philosophy well. At its most bizarre, and most effective, we come across Winnie the Pooh delivering additional information about the thoughts of Immanuel Kant. An unlikely meeting between Dickens' Scrooge and a match girl from the tales of Hans Christian Andersen introduces the chapter on Marx.

Any attempt to cover so much will suffer omissions, and Gaarder has been criticised for not including philosophers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Indeed, 20th century philosophers are rushed through, with only a fleeting description of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Gaarder has managed to put together a wealth of information and present it remarkably accessibly. Although in part targeted at teenagers, Sophie's World is already appealing to a much wider audience. The outlook throughout the book is one of optimism and wonder. (Unfortunately, the optimism seems to dwell quite superficially on the potential role of the United Nations.) The character of Sophie also ensures that the attitude towards and role of women is not ignored, and as the story approaches the 20th century, nor is the environmental crisis.

As a lesson in philosophy Sophie's World will be invaluable for both those with little background knowledge and those who have read in more depth. As a story it is at times ingenious but in the end unsatisfying, but it is a serious argument for encouraging children (and adults) to think and understand, rather than just rote learn. It encourages a knowledge of what has gone before and the critical reasoning to deal with what is to come.