[Vision2020] Sophie Prize Established by Jostein Gaarder, Author of "Sophie's World, " A "Children's" Novel on Philosophy

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Thu Sep 9 10:50:49 PDT 2010

Info on author Jostein Gaarder at website below:


"Sophie's World" website by the author's son:


A review of "Sophie's World" from website below:


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.


Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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