Philosophy: Our Story
“Who are you? Where does the world come from?”
To a mere spectator, these are just mere strings of words put together to make the mind go churning. Taken separately, they mean nothing but when used in one sentence, rather question, it brings a mystery that perplexes even the most adept intellect. It is merely an indulgence towards knowledge on one’s personality or of the world. These are questions with deeper implications that thrum up the surface and ripples towards broader subjects.
How would a 14-year-old girl dissect such curiously constructed questions? Will she get to the heart of the question or will she merely dismiss it? Any normal 14-year-old would but Sophie is not your typical teenager. Sophie Amundsen is being singlehandedly raised by her mother in the hinterlands of Norway. The novel started when Sophie received notes with the two cryptic questions in their mailbox. This intrigued her beyond imagination. But the first two notes were just the beginning.
With her birthday drawing closer, Sophie started receiving more letters. The simple questions transitioned into an exploration of the world of philosophy. Through these letters, a correspondence course with the enigmatic Alberto Knox was established. This correspondence slowly evolved into a lesson about the origins and history of philosophy. Beyond the horizon, something is brewing. Something that could knock both Sophie and Alberto off their feet.
“Life is both sad and solemn. We are led into a wonderful world, we meet one another here, greet each other – and wander together for a brief moment. Then we lose each other and disappear as suddenly and unreasonably as we arrived.” ~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
Philosophy is an interesting subject. It is broad and diverse, involving several schools of thoughts with varying interpretation. Beyond its teachings, its take on understanding human nature and behavior remains one of its most interesting and highly debated facets. It doesn’t yearn to give answer to questions like “Who are we?” or “Why are we here?”. Rather it gives alternatives to understanding these complex ideas.
Jostein Gaarder, a former philosophy teacher, incorporates this profound subject into his work. In Sophie’s World, he conjured what could possibly the masterpiece of his literary career. He carefully laid down the blue print for an interesting and thought-provoking read. He had a thought-provoking back story and even more stimulating premise. With all these elements in the mix, what could possibly go wrong?
Sophie’s World is masked with two faces that characterize what the narrative is about. Understanding this early on will enhance once’s appreciation of the books. Its first is that of a novel; the other face is a history, that of philosophy in particular. The story, however, careened more on the latter, Gaarder weaving it into the book to enhance its complexion.
The book’s most interesting facet is its detailed take into the history of philosophy. This aspect of Sophie’s World was its most magnificent and most riveting. Gaarder, through Alberto Knox, was an enthralling teacher. With a proverbial magic wand, he conjured a magical story whilst hitting the right points of philosophy, from the Greeks slowly inching towards the 20th century existentialism. He also took a small dip into the universe.
“Superstitious.” What a strange word. If you believed in Christianity or Islam, it was called “faith”. But if you believed in astrology or Friday the thirteenth it was superstition! Who had the right to call other people’s belief superstition?” ~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
Sophie’s World was primarily about Western philosophy with some sprinkling of how Eastern ideas influenced the Western schools of thoughts. The take on the different philosopher or their particular subject wasn’t too detailed but provided enough details to give the readers iota on any particular aspects of philosophy they might want to pursue further.
The story of philosophy is captivating that the elements that weighed down the book didn’t materialize until it was halfway through the story. Apart from the discourses between Sophie and Alberto on the history of philosophy, nothing significant happens, story-wise. The story of philosophy was riveting, however, that the reader begins to discard the original plot and simply immerse in the story of philosophy.
This small crack exposed the book’s greatest flaw; underneath the solid story of philosophy is a shaky plot. It branched out to more plot holes that impacted the veracity of the story. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of a 14-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man hanging out alone many times a week? The story sailed on smoothly until the lack of conflict gave the story a bland taste. Whilst the book soared as a work of history, it didn’t quite hit the mark as a novel.
“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 about the world. And now comes the important part: it troubled him that he knew so little.” ~ Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
For a story that involved very few characters, Sophie’s under characterization leaves a displeasing after taste; her underdevelopment is ostentatious. The conversations between and amongst the characters were also stilted. The choice of words, at times, were superficial and Sophie’s tone can sometimes be overbearing. Even though the story was to be approached as a light-hearted textbook, the lack of smooth flow and transitions leave so much to be wanted.
Sophie’s World started well, brilliantly even. But its many blunders weighed it down, making it crumble at the seams. The story was too loose and too under edited. The prejudice towards Western philosophy was glaring, impairing one’s appreciation of philosophy and of the novel. Sophie’s under characterization made her fail as a voice for feminism. Suffice it to say that Sophie’s World is ephemeral and does very little to answer the original question it posted. The lesson on philosophy though was masterclass.
I had high expectations of the book. For the most part, it did well but when I started realizing that there was really no story, everything crumbled for me. It is not even worth trying to dissect the way the story concluded, when it slowly evolved into the metaphysical. “Are we someone’s figment of imagination?”. Honestly, I was disappointed because of my expectations. Props for the philosophy class!
Author: Jostein Gaarder
Translator: Paulette Moller
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 507 pages
Genre: Philosophical, Fiction
One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, each with a question: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From this irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through successive letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while also receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning – but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Jostein Gaarder was born on August 8, 1952 in Oslo, Norway. Gaarder studied at the Oslo Cathedral School. He studied Scandinavian languages, Nordic literature, history of ideas and theology at the University of Oslo. Prior to fully devoting his life to a literary career, Gaarder was a high school teacher in Bergen.
His literary career begun gradually. He started as an occasional lecturer, submitting articles and poems to newspapers and coauthoring textbooks. His debut work, a collection of short stories, was published in 1982. He followed it up with another short story collection in 1986. His third and fourth published works are children’s books: Barna fra Sukhavati (The Children from Sukhavati, 1987) and Froskeslottet (The Frog Castle, 1988).
His most renowned work, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (1991) is about the story of philosophy. In spite of the heavy critic on the novel, it was an international bestseller and sensation. His other works include Julemysteriet (The Christmas Mystery, 1992), I et speil, I en gate (Through a Glass, Darkly, 1993), and Slottet I Pyreneene (The Castle in the Pyrenees, 2008).
He is currently residing in Oslo, Norway with his family.