A novel about the history of philosophy

Book Cover: Sophie's world by Jostein Gaarder

It is refreshing to find a fictional text that summons reflections between chapters through its array of philosophical and thought provoking topics. I found myself constantly driven to research further beyond the pages, fanning my love for knowledge and history.

Sophie’s World reminds us that we are seekers of meaning.

An incredible amount of research and planning went into writing this book. The story is an introduction to philosophy told through the interactions between a philosopher and a teenage girl called Sophie, from Sophie’s perspective, which makes it a digestible read. It is reminiscent of having a great conversation with a philosophy lecturer or someone passionate for knowledge, with a bit of patience to explain things to the everyday-man who has a yearning to know more. I enjoyed how the book captured the essence of transmission, oral and written. In today’s society of information we turn to internet searches and online forums to find answers to our questions about life, instead of speaking to people face to face. We learn and absorb better when we have real conversations. The style in which the conversations in the book have been written made me feel like I was part of the conversation and I could jump in anytime.

Those people who studied philosophy at university might find this book to be elementary. It is not a handbook and it does not cover all the details of the history of philosophy.

The story uses highlights of the histories to open Sophie’s mind and explore their reflective possibilities.

The narrative in between the philosophical discussions reveals the existential actualization of philosophical theories in Sophie’s life.

Gaarder, the author, brings together famous philosophers with some not so widely known thinkers, to portray his particular view of the history of thought, thus raising the question whether it is possible to be unbiased with theories or philosophy - Gaarder notes that you make philosophy your own.

Alberto, the philosopher character in the story, explains the difference between Sophists and philosophers:

“Sophists…I am referring to all the schoolmasters and self-opinionated know-it-alls who are satisfied with what little they know, or who boast of knowing a whole lot more about subjects they haven’t the fainted notions of… A real philosopher…is the direct opposite, in fact. A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little. That is why he constantly strives to achieve true insight.”

The history of philosophy in this tale covers the classics, the romantics, the scientist and up to recent thought makers. It is amazing to see how humans came to think the way we think and how historical situations have shaped our mindsets. Our thoughts were not always this way and they will continue to change as the world changes around us. From the historical conversations it is also fascinating to read how some trains of thought have gone astray, especially about the role of women in the world, and how we have evolved in other aspects. Towards the end of the story the characters discuss freedom of thought:

“Satre emphasized that man must never disclaim responsibility for his actions. Nor can we avoid the responsibility of making our own choices on the grounds that we ‘must’ go to work, or we ‘must’ live up to certain middle-class expectations regarding how we should live. Those who thus slip into the anonymous masses will never be other than members of the impersonal flock, having fled themselves into self-deception. On the other hand our freedom obliges us to make something of ourselves, to live ‘authentically’ or truly’.”

Sophie’s World is a great introduction for people who want to explore the realm of philosophy without plummeting the depths of the vast dimensions of its subject. The book will entice the reader to find answers to those questions we often relegate to the back of our minds due to the demands of a busy life. Gaarder reminds us that the word “busy” comes from the root meaning “anxious”, and it is therefore important to set aside some time to reflect, to find peace.

Because ultimately, “The path of mystery leads inward.”

After turning the last page I wanted to return to certain aspects of the history of philosophy. Sophie’s World definitely will wet your appetite. It is one of those books that you have to reread because every time it opens your mind up anew to layers of thought. Perfect for someone starting to question the bigger questions of life.

Aliya Tamarin Duncan Poole completed her undergraduate at AFDA Film School and then went on to UCT to receive an Honours postgraduate degree in Scriptwriting. Aliya previously worked in the film industry, currently teaches at a high school and edits films in her spare time. She is a freelance book reviewer and also a co-organiser of the Cape Town Book Club of Life-changing books. 

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