Some Notes on Sophie’s World

by Ritwik on July 13, 2011

Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy [Written by: Jostein Gaarder]

I had planned to read this book for the longest time. Happily some recent circumstances have dictated that I not only go through it, but even make lots of notes along the way.

The premise is very interesting. It tells us about a teenager called Sophie living in Norway, who almost involuntarily gets sucked into an in-depth course in (Western) philosophy taught by a mysterious philosopher.

Gaarder, who has taught philosophy to school students for many years, has managed to provide his readers a bird’s eye view of the entire history of Western Philosophy- from the early natural philosophers all the way to the mid 20th century, covering along the way classical philosophy, the middle ages, the Renaissance, rationalism, empiricism, the enlightenment, romanticism, nihilism and communism.

The story is well crafted (with an interesting if slightly predictable twist in the middle) and ensures that even casual readers will continue reading on just for the resolution (at least until Kant)

The writing is crisp and the language lucid. The aforementioned twist is also important for the way it illustrates certain philosophical ideas, especially of Spinoza and Berkeley, but I shall say no more on this.

One major quarrel I have with the book is its euro-centricism. There are sporadic attempts to talk about Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese philosophy, but these are nothing but minor asides in the narrative.

I can understand that the author is ill-equipped to talk on this matter, but then he should desist from presenting many important ideas, inventions and discoveries as Europe’s gift to mankind when so-called oriental systems had already grappled with the same centuries earlier.

That aside, Sophie’s World can confidently be recommended to all, even if you don’t have any particular interest in philosophy – the story is rich enough, the writing engaging – and you’ll probably learn much along the way.

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