Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

5 October 1994

Sophie's World:

A Novel About the History of Philosophy

By Jostein Gaarder

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19

It's tempting to get all warm and gloopy over this well-intentioned response by a Norwegian writer and former philosophy teacher to the New Age "pornography" he fears may replace the Western philosophical canon. Sophie's World has rapidly become an international literary phenom. A genre-crossing European best-seller (file under fiction, philosophy, and young adulthood) with nearly a million copies sold to date, Jostein Gaarder's novel, at 400 pages, is a concise, clearly written corrective to philosophic obscurantism.

The foil for Gaarder's pedagogic fantasy is Sophie Amundsen, a spunky 14-year-old whose philosophic journey begins when a pair of timeless ontological posers--"Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?"

--appear mysteriously in her mailbox. A follow-up envelope containing typewritten pages titled "What Is Philosophy?" (11) orient her on a correspondence course in the history of philosophy that eventually turns into a Socratic tutorial. Sophie's enthusiasm shocks her mother, who attributes her newfound interest in the mysteries of life to the influence of drugs.

Nothing could be further from the truth (at least until the Kierkegaard chapter, when things do get a trifle psychedelic). Although Sophie's tutor, Alberto Knox, grounds the philosopher's project in maintaining a sense of wonder, his disquisition is clean and sober indeed. What keeps the novel moving are the tricks Gaarder plays with what we used to call the old r. and i.--reality and illusion. Sophie begins receiving postcards addressed from a United Nations observer in Lebanon to his own 15-year-old daughter, Hilde. As Sophie gradually becomes aware of her existence within a book (within a book (within a book)), the philosophical question gradually take on an existential tinge, embracing problems of determinacy and free will. While not nearly as highfalutin as such would-be popularizers as Umberto Eco, Susan Sontag, or Stephen Hawkins, it's loads of fun in a cool, Scandinavian Alice-in-Wonderland fashion.

The book is for children of all ages, remember, so don't expect detailed synopses of the world's major philosophers, systems, or contexts. The risks Gaarder takes in the interests of simplicity and clarity definitely pay off, however. These include the translation of nearly all technical terms, the omission of the hundreds of titles that would otherwise clutter the book, and his emphasis on the echoing persistence of philosophical themes from the pre-Socratics (whose modernism is conveyed elegantly) to the existentialists Gaarder nutshells right before dropping a few gee-whiz notions about ecophilosophy and how star gazing constitutes a cosmic journey into the past ("Yes, we too are stardust" (392), croons Alberto).

Sophie's World is a model of classic pedagogical technique packaged in most tasteful modernism. From the Socratic dialogues up to and including Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's ultimate collaboration (the perfect companion volume, their What Is Philosophy? tastefully packages chaos as classicism), philosophy has been intertwined with friendship, sharing, and equality. While on the one hand Sophie (and Hilde and every kid who receives this book as the gift of a concerned adult) serves as the willing receptacle of Alberto's wisdom (perform your own deconstruction here), Gaarder has her question frequently the absence of women in philosophy. The only women thinkers accorded a paragraph or two here are beheaded French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges and Simone de Beauvoir. Sophie, nevertheless, seems more than willing to, well, man the barricades in their name.

Ongoing advertisements for environmental activism and world federalism via the United the Nations add to the novel's liberal agenda--which is about where my enthusiasm ends. Gaarder's well-measured conciliatory tone masks the rhetorical (and physical) violence philosophic discourse has generated over the past few thousand years, so don't expect to find Foucault, Deleuze/Guattari, or Derrida--even Heidegger and Nietzsche earn s little as a paragraph each. As noted above, Gaarder holds no truck with the outlaw alternatives sold under the New Age and mysticism rubrics. "The difference between real philosophy and these books," grumps Alberto, "is more or less the same as the difference between real love and pornography" (357). Do we detect an old-fashioned moralist in this dismissal? Gaarder, having stripped down the canon's arguments to their leanest Western cuts, thereby ignoring Muslim or pagan can't or won't see philosophy's manfully conceptualized recourses to faith, transcendence, and immanence as actually forming much of the spiritual bedrock for crystal worship or ufology.

At worst, Gaarder's book is a philosophical Ikea, whose clean lines and slick marketing offer a one-size-fits-all coziness masking the bitter ideological rivalries and utter radicalism characterizes so much of the field's history. On the other hand, any Sophie's World reader inspired to further investigation will collide with all that soon enough, which suggests an even more provocative sequel.