Jostein Gaarder : Sophie’s World

When I first read this book in 1995 I found nothing better to write about it than “een heel bijzonder boek!” (a very special book!). Having read it a second time I’d definitely stand by that judgement, but I have a lot more to say about it now, and not only because I have more time to write these days. While I’ve always been interested in philosophical questions (even if for a long time I found the answers coming from the east more interesting than those from the west) I don’t think I could really have said in 1995 that I had anything resembling a personal philosophical system. Nowadays I wouldn’t hesitate to assert that I do, and a large part of the interest for me in re-reading this book was to compare the thoughts of the great philosophers of the past to my own thoughts on the same subjects. I’ll get to the results of this comparison later, but to stay with the book itself for a while, it certainly is “een heel bijzonder boek” in more ways than one. First and foremost it’s a very informative introduction to western philosophy for anyone, young or otherwise, who doesn’t know that much about it. I’m sure I know more about it than most people, and I definitely know a lot more now than I did in 1995, but I still found this book very useful, not least for its clear and concise reminders of things I’d read about years ago but not thought much about since. But on the other hand, neither would I claim that this book had nothing new to teach me.

(details below)

Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

As a story it’s amusing, interesting and extremely well thought out. Not only is it a book within a book, but the various relationships between the writers of both books, their characters and the reader are thoroughly explored and very cleverly related to some of the philosophical ideas presented. The book centres around George Berkeley, who was basically the first to put subjective experience at the centre of existence, and who thought of our lives as thoughts in the mind of God, just as the lives of Sophie and Alberto Knox are thoughts in the mind of Hilde’s father Albert Knag. At a certain point Sophie and Alberto talk about the possibility that Hilde and her father are also just thoughts in the mind of someone at an even higher level – a fact which we, reading this book, know to be true, and which leads us to the obvious implication that both we the readers and Jostein Gaarder the writer could just as easily be thoughts in the mind of someone at a yet higher level: God, for instance, or maybe just other beings in another dimension. Definitely not just a very good read, but a book to make you think…

The book goes through the history of philosophy chronologically, and the notes I made while reading it (constantly looking out for philosophers who have something in common with my way of seeing things) also follow the same chronological order. I can’t think of any better approach now than to go through my notes, giving brief comments on those philosophers and philosophies which grabbed my attention, either positively or negatively…

The first philosopher of whom I got the impression that he might have looked at the world in a similar way to myself was Heraclitus, in the section ‘All Things Flow’ (p.28). He concentrates on the fact that everything is constantly changing, including ourselves (‘you cannot step twice into the same river’). I would add: anything which seems permanent, e.g. a ‘river’ which can have a name and can have bridges built across it, or a particular human personality, is in fact a mental or social construction: very useful, but ultimately non-existent anywhere outside of our minds.

I was always a bit of a Socrates fan, and became even more so after reading the chapter devoted to him in this book (pp.45-55). With his idea that ‘The right insight leads to the right action’ (pp.54-55) he reminded me very much of the Dalai Lama: people want to be happy, right actions are those which lead to happiness, he who knows what is right will do right – because why would anyone choose to be unhappy? Being good and being happy are very much interconnected. As Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov:

[…] men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, “I am doing God’s will on earth.”

This part of the book gives a good picture of what philosophy is all about and contains a good definition of what makes a philosopher:

Mankind is faced with a number of difficult questions that we have no satisfactory answers to. So now two possibilities present themselves: We can either fool ourselves and the rest of the world by pretending that we know all there is to know, or we can shut our eyes to the central issues once and for all and abandon all progress. […] People are, generally speaking, either dead certain or totally indifferent. (p.54,2)
A philosopher is […] someone who recognizes that there is a lot he does not understand, and is troubled by it. (p.53,8)

I’m much less of a Plato fan, but it’s interesting to compare his dualistic vision of a world of Forms and a ‘real’ world (the world of Forms being for him the more real of the two, and what we call the ‘real’ world only a pale imitation), with my ideas on objectivity and subjectivity. I’d totally agree with him regarding mathematical ideas and the universality of reason, but aren’t most of his ‘Forms’ actually man-made, constructed from what our senses tell us about the physical world? Aristotle came up with the same objection to Plato, so I’m in good company! In practice the Forms do change over time, as the reach of our senses improves via technology. Plato believed that courage should be developed and appetite should be curbed: undoubtedly a useful philosophy for a nation struggling to survive, where courage is necessary, but is courage generally such a good thing? He saw appetite, the abdomen, as being analogous to the ‘labourers’ in a state; these days the word ‘consumers’ would fit even better. But do these people have to be curbed !? One final very interesting point: Plato’s eternal ‘soul’ exists before taking human form, unlike the Christian ‘soul’ which suddenly comes into being out of thin air and continues for the rest of eternity. I find Plato’s idea much more logical, and much more intuitively satisfying – how did the Christians ever manage to lose it?

Gaarder devotes a chapter to mysticism, which he describes as ‘losing oneself’: the individual consciousness ‘dissolves’ into something much bigger, the part rejoins the whole from which it was never really separated, the illusion of separateness is ended. In the western monotheistic tradition the mystic experience is interpreted as meeting a personal God, which is still one step away from the ultimate goal: if there’s still an individual consciousness there to experience God, then it hasn’t yet dissolved, and there must be a further level where God and this individual consciousness both lose themselves and become one. This typifies the difference between eastern and western religions. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said “Love thy neighbour as thyself because you are your neighbour. It is illusion that makes you think that your neighbour is someone other than yourself.” The Christian equivalent would be something along the lines of: “Love thy neighbour as thyself because it will make Jesus happy”, or even “because that’s what God wants and you’ll be punished otherwise”.

He then devotes a long chapter to monotheistic religion, and in my opinion such a detailed and uncritical account of Judaism and the birth of Christianity can only be the work of a Christian. Back at the time of the natural philosophers, on page 26, he talked about how “philosophy gradually liberated itself from religion” when people looked for a better way to explain the world than by using myths, but he fails to recognise any affinity between the old myths rejected by the Greek philosophers and these newer myths. Reason had been ‘discovered’ by the Greeks, but lost ground in the middle ages with the advance of religion. On page 138, during their discussion in the church about the middle ages, Sophie comes out with some very relevant objections, but Albert the philosophy teacher just sidesteps them and continues going on about St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. She shouldn’t have let him off so easily!

David Hume (pp.206-216) was the philosopher with whose ideas I could most agree so far, and his empiricism (the idea that we can only really know that which we experience) very much appealed to me. Towards the end of the chapter (p.215 onwards), however, there was much talk about ethics being a matter of sentiment rather than reason. I wasn’t at all sure whether all this referred to Hume’s ideas about how things are, or how they should be, but some further research produced the quote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” (Wikipedia), which seems to settle the matter. Gaarder writes: “If you decide to help someone in need, you do so because of your feelings, not your reason”. A big mistake here, as far as I’m concerned, by Hume and/or Gaarder. Following some very dodgy examples of the principle that you can’t draw a normative conclusion from a descriptive statement, he goes further and drags up the example of the Nazis: they were rational and reasonable, and yet so very evil. Albert asks Sophie “Would you say there was something wrong with the Nazis’ reason, or would you say there was something wrong with their emotional life?” with the clear implication that it must be the latter. I would say: both, but the first was the most serious. I would also say: what the Nazis did can only be regarded as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in relation to what we as the human race are trying to achieve. If we want to create a world full of misery and suffering then they were going about it the right way and did an excellent job. If we want to live in a peaceful world where people can be happy, then killing millions of people isn’t such a good idea. I’m surprised at someone as apparently intelligent as Jostein Gaarder coming out with this old and ridiculous argument against reason and for sentiment; but maybe it’s really inherent in what Hume said. Some more research on Hume revealed that he was, like me, a compatibilist as far as free will and determinism are concerned, but that he was an adherent of moral sense theory (or sentimentalism), i.e. he believed that morality is something objectively inherent in nature, and that human beings have a ‘moral sense’ which allows them to see what is right and wrong; this would be analogous to an ‘aesthetic sense’ which allows people to see what is beautiful. A totally ridiculous idea, as far as I’m concerned (regarding both morals and aesthetics!), which seemingly puts me in the camp of moral scepticism, expressivism, or even moral nihilism (extreme as that last one may sound). I find it amazing that there are well-known and well-respected philosophers in the past, and even (strange but true) in the present who quite seriously believe(d) that any sort of morality or moral laws could possibly exist independently of human thought…

Which brings us to Kant (pp.249-259) with his categorical imperative. Just like the Christian precept ‘do unto others…’ it depends on seeing other peoples’ interests as equal in importance to one’s own, which I would say is equivalent to seeing things from a higher level. Kant may have revolutionised the way we see the relationship between subject and object, between the observer and the world he observes, i.e. he saw much as being relative, but for some reason he still needed to make his moral law absolute, and as a result his views on ethics, conscience, duty and free will become totally ridiculous (pp.258-259). His ethics depend on belief, i.e. his ‘practical postulates’, which he himself described as being based on ‘faith’ (p.255,8). Just like the Christians, Kant made the mistake of believing that a religious view of life was a necessary prerequisite to any moral sense: “He believed that it is essential for morality to presuppose that man has an immortal soul, that God exists, and that man has a free will.” (p.255,7). “‘It is a moral necessity to assume the existence of God’, he said” (p.255,9). But surely, even the ancient Greek philosophers realised that it’s a mistake to go around assuming things! But on the other hand, am I really sure that a ‘practical postulate’ that each apparently individual consciousness is actually part of something bigger, or that all these consciousnesses are of equal value, isn’t a necessary prerequisite for my sort of ethics?

Romanticism, as far as I can see, was a falling away from what I would call real philosophy, just as Christianity was. It was important as a social, artistic, and political movement, but not really to be taken seriously as philosophy. Hegel’s ‘world spirit’ reminded me of the mystical visions of Plotinus, but it also represented a further approach toward relativity (literally: everything is relative!), and so perhaps isn’t that far removed from my own views.

On pages 287-290 Sophie receives a visit from Alice in Wonderland, and drinks from the two bottles. Her experience, especially with the blue bottle, could come straight out of an LSD trip! This was a reference by Lewis Carroll to the way drugs change subjective reality, but was it also a very subtle and careful reference by Jostein Gaarder to the same thing? A bit too subtle and careful if you ask me, letting Lewis Carroll do all the work for him, but there again this book is intended for teenagers and it’s just not done these days to go around telling teenagers about how interesting drugs can be!

The last of the great philosophers to grab my attention as I read this book was Kierkegaard, who said

Science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way. Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject. (Wikipedia)

Kierkegaard seems to have always believed unquestioningly in the existence of God – not a very good start for a philosopher. He was undoubtedly influenced by his father, his strict upbringing and subsequent frustrations to become a religious maniac. But why on earth is he taken so seriously as a philosopher? Right at the start of philosophy

[…] the pre-Socratics looked for natural explanations of the processes of nature. […] they had to distance themselves from the ancient mythological explanations […]” (p.312,2)

That was the start (at least as far as we now know) of a process which has gone on ever since, but in the manner of ‘three steps forward, two steps back’. The ancient Greek philosophers started to think for themselves, and to reject easy, made-up answers to all those difficult questions. As we read earlier on,

Mankind is faced with a number of difficult questions that we have no satisfactory answers to. So now two possibilities present themselves: We can either fool ourselves and the rest of the world by pretending that we know all there is to know, or we can shut our eyes to the central issues once and for all and abandon all progress. […] People are, generally speaking, either dead certain or totally indifferent. (p.54,2)

There’s no problem with postulating possible answers: the scientific method involves the invention of theories, possible ways of seeing the universe, which can then be discussed, tested and perhaps rejected. There’s a gigantic difference between that and belief. Many of Plato’s ideas seem far from reasonable now, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that for him these ideas were postulates, theories and thought-experiments rather than what he believed to be the objective nature of the universe. The Christians who followed on in the middle ages represent a big step backwards for mankind, which explains why as late as the mid-19th. century Darwin had to fight such a battle to get his ideas accepted – while he was really only saying what he’d observed and applying normal logic to those observations. While Hume, Kant and Hegel had their good and bad points, Kierkegaard strikes me as a very big step backwards. For instance I find his ideas on the motivation for morality extremely dubious:

One doesn’t love the crowd but does love their neighbour, who is a single individual. He says, “never have I read in the Holy Scriptures this command: You shall love the crowd”. (Wikipedia)

Here we see two big problems with Christianity. Firstly, the idea that one should do good to a (known) individual rather than to an anonymous person or group, means reliance on sentiment rather than reason as the motivation for doing good (much like Hume’s ideas, in fact). As far as I’m concerned that’s doing the right thing for the wrong reason, which can be temporarily useful but is always dangerous in the long term. As soon as we lose direct contact with the individual (as is the case in any modern society) the motivation for treating that individual well disappears. This is an argument for charity (with special TV evenings showing us the children in Africa, to bring us back into something resembling direct contact with the individual), and against the setting up of rational systems to collect tax money and use it anonymously and unsentimentally for good purposes. If you wanted to be difficult you could even reverse the argument and use it as a justification for modern, anonymous methods of warfare, doing harm to an anonymous person or group being less evil than harming a known individual! My second objection is that Kierkegaard tries to justify his opinion by reference to ‘the Holy Scriptures’. OK, a large part of the world’s population thinks that way, unfortunately, but it’s not the sort of thought process I expect from anyone who calls themselves a philosopher. Kierkegaard argued in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments that “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity” (Wikipedia). He says some things I would entirely agree with, even if the conclusions he draws from those statements would be diametrically opposed to mine:

Kierkegaard primarily discusses subjectivity with regard to religious matters. […] he argues that doubt is an element of faith and that it is impossible to gain any objective certainty about religious doctrines such as the existence of God or the life of Christ. The most one could hope for would be the conclusion that it is probable that the Christian doctrines are true, but if a person were to believe such doctrines only to the degree they seemed likely to be true, he or she would not be genuinely religious at all. Faith consists in a subjective relation of absolute commitment to these doctrines. (Wikipedia)

His conclusion: one must have faith. My conclusion: what he says about Christianity could also be said of astrology: there is no objective, scientific proof for it, but it may be true on a subjective level.

Christian truth is not and cannot be the subject of science, for it is not objective, but purely subjective. He does not deny the value of objective science; he admits its use and necessity in a real world, but he utterly discards any claims it may lay to the spiritual relations of the Christian – relations which are and can be only subjective, personal, and individual. Defined, his perception is this, ‘Subjectivity is the truth’ (Wikipedia, quoting The Concise Dictionary of Religious Knowledge and Gazetteer 1889).

Interesting: Kierkegaard was honest enough to admit something which few Christians would, namely that Christianity is only true on a subjective level. But then he raises the status of that ‘subjective level’ to make it more important than objectivity.

This book is filled with wonderful quotations. Just to give two examples:

[…] philosophy is not a harmless party game. It’s about who we are and where we come from. (p.147,5)
One of the main concerns of philosophy is to warn people against jumping to conclusions. (p.214,9)

Much of it doesn’t directly concern philosophy as such, but science, religion, art, politics, history, economics, etc., etc.: all ways of interpreting the world and society, and/or discussing how we ought to live. In other words you can’t talk about philosophy without taking all these into consideration. Or, in yet other words, there is an interactive relationship between philosophy and the time, place and society in which it is situated.

A couple of final comments… The scene at the reunion of Hilde and her father very much reminded me of Sartre’s play Les jeux sont faits, where the spirits of the dead walk invisibly among the living, just as here the characters in a book are invisibly present in the lives of characters in another book which exists at a higher level of reality. And I very much liked the moment when Sophie discovers the importance of history:

She herself was just an ordinary person. But if she knew her historical roots, she would be a little less ordinary. She would not be living on this planet for more than a few years. But if the history of mankind was her own history, in a way she was thousands of years old. (p.127,4)

I was immediately reminded of how, in La Possibilité d’une île, the process of studying and commenting on a journal offered a form of immortality. But on a slightly less artistic and more realistic level it could certainly be said that the study of history, just like the study of other cultures and languages than one’s own, increases one’s connection with the rest of humanity, thereby helping to destroy ‘the illusion of separateness’.



author Jostein Gaarder
title Sophie’s World
first published 1991
language English
original language norsk
translator Paulette Møller
read 02/02/2012 – 18/02/2012


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