Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cogito Ergo Sum, and Then Some

Does a novel about philosophy sound like fun? To me it does, and that's what made me first pick up a copy of Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World years ago. It took me about a month to read it back then. I recently picked it up again and have been reading a little bit of it each day. I was curious to revisit the book in the light of my more recent studies in philosophy to see how it would strike me this time. It's as much fun as I remember, but I still find it's best taken in small doses. Long passages of the book consist of lectures on the great Western philosophers given by a professor to a 15-year-old girl. While entertaining, it's still a lot to digest.

The structure of the story is ingenious. A young woman begins getting mysterious notes from an unknown person asking her questions like "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" The notes are followed by letters expounding on those questions and explaining what the great thinkers of each age have made of them. The notes and letters turn out to be the products of a professor named Alberto Knox, who has unaccountably taken an interest in Sophie's philosophical education.

At the same time, Sophie begins getting cards addressed to another 15-year-old girl named Hilde, whose father, stationed with a UN battalion in Lebanon, has for some strange reason decided to send his communications to his own daughter through Sophie. The philosophical quandaries addressed by everyone from Plato to Freud take on a life of their own as Sophie and Alberto slowly come to grips with the problems of their own existence and the nature of their own reality.

A talking dog, storybook characters met in the woods, a magic mirror, and questions about free will, God, parallel existences, and just whose story it is anyway are all mixed up in this adventure. It wouldn't work as well as it does if the author didn't have such a good sense of humor and the ability to carry off a lot of philosophizing with a light and easy touch.

One thing that's always amazed me about philosophy is the way any given philosophical stance can come across as absolutely convincing on its own terms -- until you read the next philosopher, who refutes the argument you just bought and makes just as convincing a case for his own point of view. Gaarder plays with this cumulative nature of philosophy, having Sophie fall in with the arguments of each new thinker Alberto introduces her to until the next one in line neatly overturns his predecessor. Sophie and Alberto's conversations are not unlike Socratic dialogues, although Sophie, a pretty sharp thinker herself, sometimes anticipates the weaknesses in arguments and is always willing to express her own spirited viewpoint.

One good thing about waiting so long to re-read a book like this is that you forget exactly how it ends. I remember the finale has a twist and a flourish, but I don't remember what form that takes, so I'm looking forward to the last chapter. Right now, I've got a little over a hundred pages (a sixth of the book) to go. I don't anticipate ever writing a novel about the history of philosophy, but if I did, I would hope it's as lively as this one.

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