Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, trans. by Paulette Møller

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by Walter Cummins

Although Sophie’s World was first published in Norwegian more than thirty years ago and since then has been translated into close to sixty languages and sold forty million copies, I had never heard of this young adult novel until a friend decided to use it as a text in an undergraduate introduction to philosophy course. He wondered if his colleagues would mock him for this choice. If any did, it’s unlikely they had read the book. I did, one more of the many millions.

After introductory sections on the difference between myth and philosophy, Jostein Gaarder offers a sequential survey of the Western world’s most significant thinkers from the pre-Socratics to Jean Paul Sartre. In addition to explaining the essence of their theories, he links them consequentially through a pattern of relationships, demonstrating how each approach addressed certain essential options like rationalism, empiricism, and idealism and clarifying how each philosophical system grew out of its predecessors through development or disagreement.

For example, although Aristotle was Plato’s pupil for many years, his basic beliefs were very different. He refuted Plato’s theory of ideas: “The highest degree of reality, in Plato’s theory, was that which we think with our reason. It was equally apparent to Aristotle that the highest degree of reality is that which we perceive with our senses.”

By revealing the dynamic growth of philosophic theories from over more than two thousand years Gaarder makes a case for the crucial importance of philosophy for humanity to comprehend its place in the universe, fundamentally to grasp the nature of the reality we exist in.

That’s where the fictional aspect of Sophie’s World comes in. The title character, Sophie Amundsen, living in a Norwegian village on the cusp of her fifteenth birthday, begins receiving a series of mysterious messages urging her to ponder a series of basic philosophic questions. And that she does, engrossed in each packet of explanation she receives, seeking the answers to conundrums such as Who are you? Where does the world come from? How ought we to live?

Eventually, Gaarder becomes playful, gradually revealing answers to initial plot mysteries like the sender of the messages to Sophie, a man identified as a philosopher named Antonio Knox, and his means of delivery, a dog named Hermes. Such information stays within the bounds of literary realism. But soon Gaarder turns to metawriting, questioning the source of the novel Sophie and the rest of us are reading.

Both Sophie and Antonio turn out to have doppelgangers. In Sophie’s case, it’s a young woman named Hilde Møller Knag, also about to turn fifteen, and Sophie often receives duplicates of the same mail Hilde’s father sends to her from Lebanon, where he is stationed as an officer in the UN military. That man, Major Albert Knag, is Antonio’s physical double and rival for control of the situation. Is Knag the real author of this novel, and are both Sophie and Antonio his fictional creations? Their quest becomes finding strategies to escape his domination and exist in their own realities. These become stranger and stranger, with visits from creatures like Little Red Ridinghood, Winnie the Pooh, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Mickey Mouse. Sophie and Antonio find themselves immersed in a world of make believe.

Some readers may be disappointed by Gaarder abandoning philosophical concerns for an escape into a game of invention in which anything goes. One explanation for his method is that he chooses to amuse his target audience of young adults. Another may be that he finds a philosophic source in inventing a playful takeoff on the ideas of George Berkeley. That link is established by two pictures hanging adjacent on a wall—one of Berkeley and one of Bjerkely, Major Knag’s home. The place name serves as the philosopher’s doppelganger.

How does all this fit together? Sophie is certainly confused: “Sophie rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She tried to remember what had happened the night before. But it was all like jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. One of the pieces was Alberto, another was Hilde and the major. A third was Berkeley, a fourth Bjerkely.”

Berkeley, an eighteenth-century contemporary of Locke and Hume with a very different perception of reality, denied the existence of a material world beyond the human mind.

For him all seemingly physical creation existed only in God’s mind, which is why Alberto wonders if Major Knag is God.

In his section on the Baroque period, Gaarder cites Shakespeare’s plays that posit the world is just a stage and we merely players. He also includes this well-known puzzle: “The old Chinese sage Chuang-tzu, for example, said: ‘Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I no longer know whether I am Chuang-tzu, who dreamed I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-tzu.’”

In the spirit of Berkeley, are Sophie and Antonio dreams of Major Knag? For that matter, is Major Knag a dream of Jostein Gaarder?

A basic question about the novel’s plot is why of all the philosophers and theories Gaarder has explored he has given prevalence to Berkeley, whose beliefs are far different from most of the others? And why did he choose to ignore Samuel Johnson’s dramatic dismissal, as James Boswell reports in his Life: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’”

Ultimately, Sophie’s World may be considered two books merged into one. My friend, I believe, has made a wise decision is choosing it to introduce his students to the history of philosophy because the explanations are so clear. Those students, if they care, can follow the ins and outs of the Bjerkely game.