Sophie's World

Aug. 5, 2011

Sophie's World is, according to the front cover, a "novel about the history of philosophy." A 14-year-old Norwegian girl, Sophie Amundsen, begins to find mysterious essays in her mailbox. They are addressed to her and take the form of a correspondence course on the history of philosophy, beginning with the pre-Socratics. After meeting her philosophy teacher, annoying her mother with philosophical questions, and continuing her journey into the mental life, even more strange things begin to occur, including mysterious birthday messages to another 14-year-old girl named Hilde.

I don't want to give any twists away, but I can say fictional characters shouldn't think too hard about metaphysics.

It is hard to call this a novel as 2/3 of the text is a primer on the history of philosophy. All the major historical figures are given their due, with a special focus on the English empiricists Berkeley and Hume. Overall the history comes across as Hegelian, with each philosophical conflict eventually resolved into a synthesis and then a new opposition to that synthesis creating a new philosophical conflict. There isn't any material you wouldn't find in an introduction to philosophy course, but the material is well-presented, sometimes in the form of a dialogue, and the author does a great job of making the ideas seem relevant and dramatic. If you always find yourself "converted" to each philosopher's line of thinking as you read, you know the presentation is effective.

As for the novel proper, the many twists are playful and interesting, but aside from Sophie and her teacher the characters are flat and poorly-developed. Sophie becomes more alienated from her mother and friends as she becomes more enamored with the intellectual life, which matches the experience of many precocious teenagers. Sophie's World is a nice alternative to an introduction to philosophy course or simply reading a philosophy textbook, but as a novel it isn't particularly exciting.

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