Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sophie’s [Nihilist] World

Sophie’s World
Jostein Gaarder

When Sophie’s World was published in the 1990s it was hyped in the media as a beginner’s guide to philosophy, and millions of philosophy-starved readers picked it up. The book became a runaway bestseller.

Alas, the book does not offer any practical tips on how to go about a philosophical quest. It is nothing more than a cookie-cutter tract on some kind of pseudo-religion—it dishes out a nihilist view of the universe. It projects the idea that the reality is a figment of imagination, and the person who is imagining the reality is also an imagination.

Sophie Amundsen, the novel’s eponymous heroine, is a 14-year-old schoolgirl living with her mother in a Norwegian suburb. Her father is away from home most of the time. One day Sophie receives an anonymous letter with a rather philosophical question: “Who are you?” Thereafter she receives another anonymous letter asking: "Where did the world come from?"

While she is still pondering over these questions, she receives an anonymous three-page typewritten letter which turns out to be the first lecture in a course on the history of philosophy. This is followed by a series of further lectures that get delivered by a dog.

Then a videotape arrives in which the mysterious teacher who has been sending the lectures reveals himself. His name is Albert Knox—he tells Sophie that the quest for philosophical truth is like a “detective story.” Along with studying the works of the philosophers, the philosophical detectives must also take an introspective dive into their own self.

Knox becomes Sophie’s philosophical guide. He narrates to her a tour of the Acropolis in Athens. Like a magic carpet, the videotape transports Sophie to the Acropolis in 402 B.C., where Plato introduces himself to her.

Sophie manages to find where Albert Knox lived and through a hole in the wall they step into his apartment, and then begins her journey through the important pages of history.

During her lectures the who’s who of philosophy that Sophie interacts with include the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Berkeley, Darwin, Freud, Sartre, and few others. She meets legends like Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Robespierre—she witnesses the historical events like the French and the Russian revolutions.

But her philosophical learning is rather superficial in nature. It is inexplicable that Jostein Gaarder takes his protagonist on a tour of more than two-millennia of history only to give her summaries of what seems like the Wikipedia version of philosophy.

Meanwhile there is another front in which Sophie needs play the detective. She needs to find out who is she. Is she real? Is she a figment of her own or someone else’s imagination? From time to time she receives letters that are intended for another 14-year-old, Hilde Moller Knag. Why is Hilde’s mail being addressed to Sophie? Sophie soon finds out that her and Hilde’s birthday are on the same date, and that Hilde too had an absentee father.

The novel delves into a strange amalgamation of realty and illusion that is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. There is uncertainty about Sophie’s metaphysical status. She can’t deny the possibility that the world that she regards as material might be immaterial. She frantically tries to discover the truth about her metaphysical status and the nature of reality.

The answers that Sophie is seeking involves several aspects that are cartoonish in nature. There is a magic mirror and a talking dog. A world of illusion is equated with reality. Free will is equated with predetermination. Towards the climax, Sophie realizes that she is a character within a novel, and that the world is a novel within a novel, within a novel, going on to an infinite number of novels.

But she is able to think for herself, and that leads to the possibility that somehow she has become independent of the mind of her creator who is the writer of the novel in which she is the character. She struggles to find out the extent to which she is free. She agonizes about what the limits to her free will are. She is confused about her identity and consciousness.

Jostein Gaarder is a high school philosophy teacher—he purportedly wrote the book to inspire his young students with a taste for philosophy. There is no doubt that Sophie’s World led to many young readers developing a taste for philosophy, but did the book guide them towards right kind of philosophical ideas? A nihilist denial of reality can create confusion in the minds of the readers about what the purpose of philosophy is.

One of the core objectives of philosophical study is to develop the ability to judge philosophical ideas. There are so many philosophers out there—how do we know whose ideas are good for humanity and whose are bad? How do we analyze and evaluate the ideas? Sophie’s World sees no difference between Plato and Aristotle. It puts Locke on the same pedestal with Hume and Kant.  It does not inform the readers that all philosophical ideas are not necessarily good.

Trying to learn philosophy from a book like Sophie’s World is as futile as trying to master astronomy through a study of astrology. In my view, the readers would do better to try a book like Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy for having a concise account of the lives and ideas of the major philosophers in history.

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