The big questions

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Sophie's World, By Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix House Pounds 16.99 1 897580 42 8.

Jack Priestley welcomes a bold attempt to popularise philosophy. Some years ago, I borrowed Whitehead's Adventures of Ideas from the university library. This one slim volume really lived up to its title. With a broad brush Whitehead painted the great sweeps of ideas as they matured through two and a half thousand years of history. The moment I picked up Sophie's World the excitement returned. Here again is a book which covers philosophy from the Sophists to the present day - or at least to the day before yesterday - and is intended for ordinary people to enjoy. For "ordinary people" read "teenagers". Who would have dared to present such a dotty idea to a British publisher, until, that is, it had already become a best seller in Scandinavia, Germany and the United States and was being translated into Chinese and Korean.

In some respects this is a clumsy book. It is presented as "a novel about the history of philosophy", but the story line, especially in the first quarter of the book, is somewhat thin. There are hints of Alice and devices for moving from the outer to the inner world reminiscent of looking glasses or rabbit holes, although here, to begin with, it is only an American-style mail box at the garden gate. Coming home from school one day Sophie finds an envelope containing a simple question, "Who are you?" Another rapidly follows, asking, "Where did the world come from?" and the quest is on.

Larger envelopes follow and then start to appear in Sophie's secret hiding place, mysteriously damp with two small indentations. By this time Sophie is embarked on an extensive distance learning course. The narrrative is simple, fast and lively, but the contents of the envelopes, although basic and elementary, are couched in more complex language. The story line gradually becomes more compelling. It is a golden labrador who slobbers and leaves teeth marks and can be chased deep into the forest in the vain search for the mysterious author, Alberto Knox. There is also a growing sub-plot, with touches of Ursula Le Guin's Ged, as Sophie comes closer and closer to the shadowy Hilde Mollen Knag, to whom some letters are addressed, and who is exactly the same age as Sophie and also has a father working abroad. Is there a connection with Hildegaard of Bingen coming up on screen?

For Alberto Knox uses a multi-media approach. We had, for example, panned round Plato's Athens and zoomed in on the Acropolis while being told that, "words such as politics and democracy, economics and history, biology and physics, mathematics and logic, theology and philosophy, ethics and psychology, theory and method, idea and system all date back to the tiny populace where everyday life centred around this square."

There is much to applaud in this book. I like the fact that Eastern thought is appropriately brought in throughout and that the key ideas of the great religions are counted as philosophy. Dialogue is essentially the philosophic method. Renaissance and Reformation are covered through question and answer and there are plenty of lively, modern exchanges as we move nearer to our own times. Relevance, however, is contained within the unchanging questions of human kind rather than in the candy-floss ephemera of current fashion.

The book ends too soon. It is weak on the 20th century. No Wittgenstein. No Popper, who surely would have enlivened Sophie's science lessons. And to my own chagrin no Whitehead either, a modern Heraclitus for whom "everything flowed". I think Sophie would have delighted in such thoughts as, "knowledge does not keep any better than fish" and would have revelled in the awareness that one of her century's greatest mathematicians had written as his last published words, "Exactness is a fake."

Of course philosophy is for children. Philosophers, after all, are only people who refuse to grow up and go on playing with language, realising that it needs playing with if it is to remain a vehicle of expression and not of oppression. Jostein Gaarder has written a daring, if not perfect book. I hope he will do a sequel - Sophie's Century, perhaps.

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