Thursday, November 19, 2009
What is different about Sophie's world? Review of a modern classic.
"Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder
(a novel about the history of philosophy)
There was time when nearly everyone I knew who fancied themselves as a bit of an intellectual wanted to be seen reading this book. Now, over a decade on, the author has produced better novels and other authors have produced arguably better introductions to philosophy. (Without undue modesty, I am planning one myself if I live long enough to retire from full time teaching.) So where does that leave the fictional Sophie and her persistent mentor, Alberto Knox?
The bad news: "Sophie's World" is not as good as past hype might lead you to expect.
The good news: It's still better, in my view, than most of the other over-hyped pop-philosophy blockbusters on the shelves.
'Sophie's World' is at its worst when it pretends to be the sort of novel you would read purely for entertainment. That's because it starts out as quite a good novel but finishes as a very bad one. Early on it catches your interest with an intriguing mystery and efficient narrative. Then, about half way through, the author reveals his hand (rather like a stage magician showing you the hidden compartment in the hat) and ruins the plot. We are left with just another bit of post-modern ironic detachment in which the fate of the characters ceases to matter to us, and as a novel it's all downhill from there on.
The book is at its best when it sticks to what Gaarder does best: lecturing on philosophy. This is where the fictive elements work best - by providing a character to voice the questions in our own heads. The author shows a sound grasp of what will make sense to an uninformed reader, and provides a gentle ramble through a couple of dozen centuries of human thought that will help most people's understanding of the world in which we live.
That is not to say that Gaarder dispatches all periods in history with equal aplomb. His dealing with the metaphysical and ontological abstractions (jargon-free equivalent = world of ideas) of ancient Greece and the middle ages is exemplary. He manages to explain the more-or-less-unexplainable in terms of the easily-understood, in a way that more school texts should copy. Even the prickly thickets of 20th century existentialism yield up some of their unappetizing secrets under his patient hand.
Gaarder is least successful in dealing with creeds that go beyond pure ideas and involve a challenge to behaviour and lifestyle. His treatment of Marxism (which is not so much about ideas as it is about action) is shallow. His survey of Christianity (which is not so much about ideas as it is about relationships) can only be called a caricature. Some vitally important philosophers and their theories are arbitrarily ignored, most likely because their ideas cannot so easily be dramatised as part of the story line.
And this last comment is the key to what makes the book successful: The characters at the top level of Gaarder's story-line are there to enact dramatically some of the questions and answers raised by the various philosophers under consideration. Even the name Sophie is a reference back to spirit of wisdom (Greek sofia) whom the 6th century Roman thinker Boethius used as a speaking character in his essays on the nature of reality. This literary conceit is what makes the book such a success as teaching, but is also the reason for its eventual downfall as a novel. As the philosophical payload of the book begins to enquire more deeply into the nature of reality, the story-line cannot carry such a heavy burden without splitting at the seams and becoming irrational.
So the upshot is that there are better philosophical novels (for a first-class Scandinavian novel of ideas, try "Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow") and better introductions to philosophy (e.g. Alain de Botton's 'Consolations of Philosophy').
In the end, however, "Sophie's World" is surprisingly successful as a hybrid. Provided you are willing to treat the novel as a means to understanding rather than pure entertainment, Gaarder's approach helps to make learning fun and is solidly informative. I still recommend it to prospective students.