Sophie’s World – H3a Reading Group Review, 4 April 2012

Sophie’s World
By Jostein GaarderHerodotus “the world’s first reporter”

At first sight, a translation from Norwegian of a novel about characters in a book about philosophy seems an unlikely candidate for stimulating one of the liveliest discussions of the year for our reading group. However this is exactly what happened when we discussed Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. At times some members had to battle repeated interruptions in order to be heard.

“An Alice in Wonderland for the 90s … this is simply a wonderful, irresistible book.”
Daily Telegraph

“All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.”
 Neil Gaiman

On more mature reflection, however, perhaps it should not have been so surprising that a best-selling book (30 million copies worldwide) on the history of philosophy would reawaken our “faculty of wonder.”  As Sophie’s mentor Alberto Knox advises his student, “A faculty of wonder is the only thing we require to become good philosophers.” As for our animated discussion, perhaps we should heed the inscription written on back of the package Sophie received early in the book: “Course in Philosophy – Handle with Care.”

Published in Norwegian in 1991 and translated into English in 1995, Sophie’s World is, at one level, a lively canter through 2,500 years of Western Philosophy. In the beginning we are led to believe that we are reading the story of young Sophie[1], a lively, intelligent 14-year-old going on 15, and Alberto, a mysterious stranger who challenges her, in true Socratic style, with seemingly innocent questions before embarking on a full-blown course in Western Philosophy.

However, half way through and rather neatly fitting in with the philosophical views of 17th century Rationalist Bishop Berkeley, we realise that in fact we are reading a story over the shoulder of Hilde, the daughter of a major serving with the UN in Lebanon who has invented it to teach his daughter philosophy.

By this time, if we have been paying attention, we have been shaken out of our run-of-the-mill, day-to-day thinking. By now we should be alert to expecting the unexpected, since we should have come to realise that, when it comes to philosophy, very little is quite as it seems.  At all costs, as Alberto repeatedly warns Sophie, we must never jump to conclusions.


Gaarder, a former teacher of philosophy himself, takes a chronological approach to the history of his subject. This may seem obvious and logical, but the experience of one former student of philosophy in the group suggested it has not necessarily been the way in universities. At his Welsh university the planners of the course seemed to imagine Philosophy as a large tree with distinct branches – Epistemology, Moral Philosophy, Greek Philosophy, Logic, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Religion, and so on. Since all subjects were taught alongside each other, for him it was not so much a case of not seeing the wood for the trees; rather he could not see the tree for the branches. When he first read Sophie’s World, the tree and its growth suddenly became clear.

For him, and for many in our group, Sophie’s World gave a clear and elegant account of the linear development of western philosophical thought.

  • As an alternative to the myths and legends of prehistory, the story of philosophy begins with the 6th to 3rd century BCE Pre-Socratic Natural philosophers leading to the three giants of early classical western philosophy, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
  • The early centuries of the First Millennium were famous for the Roman era philosophers such as Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
  • (Although not covered in the book), the period 800 CE through to 1200 CE was dominated by Islamic and Jewish philosophy[2].
  • Then followed the great medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon, followed by the early modern philosophers Desiderius Erasmus, Niccolò Machiavelli, Copernicus, and Martin Luther.
  • The 17th and early 18th centuries witnessed two conflicting great philosophical movements: the Rationalism of René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibnitz on the one hand; and the Empiricism of John Locke, Bishop Berkeley, and David Hume on the other.
  • As the Enlightenment took hold, some of the great names in modern philosophy such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, came to prominence.
  • The first half of the 19th century gave rise to G W F Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard and, although not strictly a philosopher, Charles Darwin of course.
  •  Among the philosophers (and major thinkers) of the second half of the 19th century, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Friedrich Nietzsche are most prominent.
  • In the 20th century, come Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Given this vast cast of characters, some of us felt that one reading of the book was not enough. Philosophy is not the most easily accessible subject; there are simply too many ideas and too many people to try to follow, understand, and remember at one time. The “novel within the novel,” the so-called meta-novel, was a clever device, but it carried the risk of confusing us still further.

As some members noted, it is the skill of Alberto (the philosopher invented by Hilde’s father) as a teacher that moves the book forward. In the early stages, he was careful to adopt what many would say is standard good practice in teaching anything, viz: (a) arousing interest by asking questions and saying what he was going to teach, then (b) teaching it, and (c) evaluating whether the student has learnt it. It was this approach that so effectively aroused and sustained Sophie’s interest and simultaneously hooked and retained the interest of most of the readers in our reading group.

The character of Sophie was, many felt, almost alarmingly precocious. No sooner had she heard a line of thinking from this philosopher or that, than she was developing the idea and feeding it back to her teacher. It was her sense of excitement that encouraged us in turn to keep turning the pages. This, and of course the mystery of the postcards, Hilde, and the UN major in Lebanon.

Using a young girl as the “vehicle” for teaching a complicated and perhaps daunting subject such as philosophy reminded one member of Muriel Barbery’s book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which employs similar techniques.

One member mentioned how interesting it was that so many of the early philosophers came from our region of the world. There are the trio of Thales, Anaximenes and Anaximander from Miletus, Heraclitus from Ephesus, and many more from the wider region of the Aegean. If we widen our view to include non-philosophers, we can include Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, from just across the water in Kos, and Bodrum’s own Father of History, Herodotus, of course.

Reflecting on the early development of philosophy in the Eastern Mediterranean , one member imagined how exciting it must have been to live in a much smaller communities, where someone could come up with an exciting new idea and ordinary citizens could be energised and discuss and develop the ideas together.  He felt that something extraordinary happens when people are energised. Developing this idea, he gave the example of the Sermon on the Mount, following which the Bible tells us Jesus miraculously fed 500 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. One way of accounting for it is simply to accept that this was a miracle. The other is to say that when a group of people is inspired or excited, it involves a reaching out to others and, in this case, a sharing of food which hitherto had been reserved for their own consumption.

A modern day equivalent is the cooperation currently taking place on the world’s largest telescope that when completed in 2024 will gather in one day more data than currently exists on the entire internet. (See )

Another member noted how extraordinary it is that this level of development can be traced back to a small square in Athens in 4th century BCE.

One of our members said she was particularly struck with two passages in the book:

A Russian astronaut and a Russian brain surgeon were once discussing religion. The brain surgeon was Christian but the astronaut was not. The astronaut said, “I’ve been out in space many times but I’ve never seen God or angels.” And the brain surgeon said, “I’ve operated on many clever brains but I’ve never seen a single thought.”

The second concerned the example of how a cat will chase a ball instinctively, but a human, on seeing a ball roll into a room will, unlike the cat, always seek out the cause of the ball coming into the room because the law of causality (according to Kant) is in one’s nature.


Perhaps inevitably, the book prompted us to move on from the novel itself, into a discussion of some of the main areas of philosophy raised in the book.

Early in the meeting we got involved in discussing religion, the nature of the soul, and life after death.

On religion, Alberto asks Sophie to imagine a mighty river (Greek Philosophy) being divided into three steams. The rise of Western and Eastern Christianity and Islam, Alberto argues, can be traced back to the division of the Roman Empire. In Western Europe we had a Latinised Christian culture with Rome as its capital. In Eastern Europe we had a Greek Christian culture based on Constantinople or Byzantium. After the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 CE, the Middle East, North Africa and later Spain were won over to Islam.

It is interesting to note that much of our knowledge of classical times, the writings of Aristotle for example, came to us via Islam. Much of the original material was lost during the 4th crusade when western nations sacked Constantinople. However, the old Hellenistic city of Alexandria was also the repository of many ancient scripts. This ensured the supremacy of the Arabic culture in the Middle Ages. and our knowledge of ancient philosophers is largely traceable back to the Middle East.

Our discussion of the nature of the soul asked the questions that go back to the ancient Greeks:  Is the soul separate from the body, does it out last the body, how does it affect the body?

For some, eternal life turned around the fact that our late nearest and dearest live on in our minds and our memories. Many of us who have lost parents talked of them still being present in our lives, in our memories, even as passwords on our computers.

On the existence of God, some took a relativist position, namely that if we believe there is a God, then God exists for us.

We got into a discussion on various systems of organising a state and the dangers of each system: a monarchy which can degenerate into tyranny, an aristocracy that can degenerate into an oligarchy and democracy (that Aristotle called polity) which can degenerate into mob rule. Someone recalled Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy made in a speech to the House of Commons:

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

The discussion included thoughts about the current plans for the reform of the British House of Lords, on which views were divided. However, one point upon which all agreed was the need for an educated free electorate.

One member wondered whether Faith and Heart had a place in philosophy; another observed that if something spoke to her heart it was true for her. This led another to introduce the notions of Fate and Destiny (kismet and kader), both strong influences in the lives of her Turkish parents-in-law.

We wondered if philosophy should be taught in schools. A member observed that philosophy is not something one learns; rather it is something one does. Philosophy was contrasted with religion: religion teaches us not to question, philosophy does the opposite. Philosophy was a way of teaching us to think and to question.

One member did not like the author’s depiction of adult women, or of the relationships between men and women in the book.

  • She felt the mothers did nothing but work and sleep, which made them uninteresting.
  • When Sophie asked her mother whether she had a boyfriend, we learned nothing of the emotional impact of this question for either the 15 year-old daughter, or her mother – a disappointing omission.
  • In the first serious encounter of the young girl and boy at the party we learned nothing of what it might have meant to either party.
  • When the UN husband returned home, we learned nothing of what his reunion with his wife meant to him emotionally.
  • These relationships, taken together, show an absence of feeling and connectivity, which was disappointing and in some way false to what the reality would have been for the characters.

Still on the subject of women, another member recalled a quote from Plato:

A state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm.

This quotation is one of many that Alberto (and therefore the author) uses to show the varying attitudes towards women adopted by philosophers. There are times too when Alberto/Gaarder seems genuinely disappointed that rights of women have been exploited and often ignored down the ages. For example, when they were discussing the role of women in the French revolution and the writings of the enlightenment philosopher Condorcet, Sophie asks whether women got equal rights (after the revolution). Alberto replies:

No. Just as on so many subsequent occasions, the question of women’s rights was exploited in the heat of the struggle, but as soon as things fell into place in a new regime, the old male dominated society was reintroduced.

 It is ironic that, having tried so hard to convince us of his pro-women’s rights credentials, Gaarder gives many of the female characters in the book such a raw deal.

Some members of the group found the end of the novel somewhat unsatisfying even though they understood why it was necessary. The notion of Alberto and Sophie escaping from the novel into a strange “other” realm, populated by characters from fiction, was rather a disappointment. For one member in particular,

the characters such as Alice, the Emperor with no clothes, and particularly Winnie-the-Pooh, treasured from (her) childhood, were keeping dodgy company.

For others it fitted well with one of the themes of the book (not to mention the main theme of Bishop Berkeley), that reality is only as real as our senses allow it to be!

Perhaps it is permissible to end with two quotations from Spark Notes[3] on this book. They highlight how anyone who engages in philosophical debate  ̶ including the debate our group undertook having read Sophie’s World   ̶ becomes part of one of the longest conversations in human history:

In the novel, Alberto makes the point:

Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.

The authors of Spark Notes write:

In the first letter that Alberto sends to Sophie, he explains that philosophy is very simple. There are not all that many philosophical questions for us to ask. The point, then, is not simply asking the questions but rather coming up with some sort of a solution for them. And that solution will not be easy. People have been trying to answer some of the questions for thousands of years and we can take into consideration what they already said, but in the end the answer must satisfy us personally. Also the role of historical context becomes important. Freedom in ancient Athens meant something different from what it means now simply because slavery was an accepted part of life back then. There are aspects of every historical period that by current standards are judged wrong, and this means that we too will someday be looked upon as unjust or immoral in certain ways. Philosophy moves with human history.

In the novel, Alberto says:

A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little. That is why he constantly strives to achieve true insight. Socrates was one of these rare people. He knew that he knew nothing about life and the world. And now comes the important part: it troubled him that he knew so little.

Spark Notes again:

One of the most important philosophical truths is the one that Socrates was famous for. Alberto tells Sophie about it early on in their correspondence. Socrates started from the fact that he knew nothing. Descartes likewise built up the first great modern system by systematically doubting all of his knowledge. In both cases there is a striking conclusion. Socrates does know something, and that is that he knows nothing. The statement is paradoxical, but also very powerful. It allowed him to use his ignorance as a tool. If one knows nothing then one can ask questions about anything. Not knowing anything is the first step on the path to philosophical wisdom, and Gaarder continually warns us against assuming knowledge of anything. Descartes doubted everything, and finally the one thing he knew was that he doubted. From that doubt he went on to create a grand philosophy. The point is that in order to actually learn something it is better to strip ourselves of what we think we know or what others have told us. Certain knowledge of our ignorance is preferable to uncertain knowledge. Above all else, Gaarder wants us to think about what we know and believe.

After these weighty issues, the meeting concluded on a light note with the following recitation, courtesy of our Facilitator, who acknowledged the writers of Monty Python as the source.

The Philosopher’s Song (Monty Python)

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant[4]

Who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar

Who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel,

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine

Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.
There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’

Bout the raising of the wrist.


John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,

On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away;

Half a crate of whisky every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,

Hobbes was fond of his dram,

And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;

A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!

For those wishing to see this performed, please see:

Whilst you are there, you may care to take a look at the Monty Python Philosophers’ Football Match:

[1] This is a clever choice of name, since – as  Alberto points out to our heroine – her name means “Wisdom.” The word philosophy itself shares the root: philo sophia or love of wisdom. The name also occurs in Istanbul’s famous “Hagia Sophia” or “Ayasofya,” the full name of which was “The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God.”

[2] One member commented on the Eurocentric nature of the book but was interested to read some of the Scandinavian myths .

[3] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Sophie’s World.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>