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  • Archit Pandey

Sophie's World - Jostein Gaarder

This is a bipartite review. In the first part I have tried to narrate why and how I have got to this book (I am not trying to sound cliché); while in the second, I have written my opinions on it.


Getting oneself to study Philosophy is almost always an accidental affair. What is even more accidental is to understand it profoundly on a foundational level. Why on a foundational level? This is because Philosophy, as a subject, is like a chain which has a beginning, although unclear, but no end. Once we are introduced into the discipline effectively, we efficiently start to explore the links attached to the chain further. But as pointed out earlier, this gateway entry requires efforts, which is somewhat heavy, on the part of the recipient. While initially trying to explore this hitherto unchartered discipline, one has two choices for the time being: one, try to get a knack of the discipline yourself by taking classes and reading relevant writings only if you are mentally tough; and two, come out of this tiring exercise as nothing was supposed to go wrong if one had not undertaken this abstract but important and thought-provoking discipline. For most, this second path becomes the inevitable choice.


I myself was introduced to this discipline accidently when I decided to pursue my graduation in Arts after completing my secondary education in Science. Remember, every accident is divinely ordained and, in that sense, nothing actually is accidental but I am using the term accident and its derivatives only to make things not much complicated and readable. I decided to take Philosophy as one of my subjects in graduation on the advice of one of my well-wishers. The two choices of whether to continue with the discipline or not came in front of me after some time in a very dichotomous manner. Let us see, how!


In my first year, we were made to study two papers under this one subject called Philosophy. The two papers were, namely, Indian Philosophy and Modern Western Philosophy. I was very well able to understand and develop interest in the first paper but was continuously uncomfortable with the second one. The beginning of the second paper, however, was on the smoother side when we were actually being introduced to the subject-matter of the Western Philosophy. I was easily able to comprehend the beginning of Western Philosophy which is owed to the Philosophy of Thales of Miletus. The journey was smooth thereon, covering different schools of Philosophy and Philosophers upto the period of Renaissance. This transient period of Renaissance, which marked the transition of Philosophy from the Dark Ages to the Modern one, created a problem for me. Also, what compounded the problem was that whatever I had been studying till then was least associated with the syllabus as is clearly reflected by the title of the paper itself – Modern Western Philosophy. The essential subject-matter of the paper was to contain Modern developments in the field of Western Philosophy. Ancient-Greek Philosophy and the Philosophy of the Middle-Ages simply acted as the precursor to the syllabus so as to maintain the chain which I had talked of earlier. This was taught only to maintain the continuity of the discipline so as to sustain the generated interest of the readers. However, how long this interest was going to be sustained soon became questionable to my mind after I encountered the main body of the syllabus which was the Philosophy of the Modern Western World (to make clear, both Westernization and Modernization are synonymous). Thus, I was left with two choices, as mentioned above, with a dilemma intact to it. I was feeling reluctant to read the Rationalist-Empiricist divide of the Modern Western Philosophy which was later on reconciled by Immanuel Kant. Also, leaving the discipline completely was not an option because of my heavily generated interest in Indian Philosophy. Both, attraction and repulsion existed simultaneously. The causes of repulsion were many, primarily being the lack to find a good introductory book on Modern Western Philosophy. Sir, who used to teach me the paper was excellent, but that simply formed the one side of the story. I was not able to consolidate all that was being taught in the class by revising the content from a prescribed book. All recommended books were dry and unappealing for a novice in Philosophy like me. The dilemma usurped all the remaining time and I was through the examination scoring below decent marks in the Modern Western Philosophy paper (courtesy to the page-filling examination process, which I am fairly good at). This, however, was not a full-stop for me and my expedition to disentangle the web of Western Philosophy (mostly its modern part) actually began from here. The dilemma, fortunately, was over and the choice before me was but one i.e. to go ahead with the discipline. Barring the two new papers that I had to study in my second year, I made a firm and resolute decision that I will anyway understand, atleast the basics of, the Modern Western Philosophy. It was here when my bibliophilic inclination came to play. I had gone through multiple books till then on Western Philosophy by the time I am writing this review, only to mention the last book which I have read, the review of which I am writing, acted like a saviour to me. Also, let me mention that presently I am in the third year of my graduation and am happily pursuing Philosophy. Thus, this has been quite a long expedition for me. I had been through Frank Thilly, Yakub Masih, Roger Scruton, Anthony Kenny, Frederick Copleston, Walter Terence Stace, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Gottlieb, James Garvey & Jeremy Stangroom and also through many handbooks published by Oxford and Routledge publications. But all these extensive and sometimes brain-freezing efforts went in vain. “Day comes after night.”, the divine law says clearly.


Some months back, my father told me about a book named Sophie’s World written by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian author who specialises in writing fiction. He told me that he saw this book accidently while scrolling his WhatsApp messages.


“I don’t like fiction.”, I told him guessing what a fictional author can write.


“But it’s an introduction to Western Philosophy.”, he said.


“How a fictional author can introduce us a non-fictional discipline?”, I asked genuinely.


“Maybe he must have clubbed these two aspects of writings.”, he answered logically.


By the time, I had been through so many unlikable books on Western Philosophy, as the list above already makes it clear, that I was completely into the impression that this very book was only going to be another addition in the list.


“The image of this book has been posted by a serious member of the group, quite interestingly amidst the junk.”, he added while checking the sender of the post.


I was least bothered but somehow decided to check the book on Amazon. Some of its initial pages were also available for a go through. I found that interesting, prima facie. Also, the book was in its 20th Anniversary Edition and was among the bestsellers. I ordered the book with no hope as I had been though the same feelings before while ordering books on Western Philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb and James Garvey & Jeremy Stangroom. The book arrived on the stipulated day. Opening a new book is always a kind of ritual for a bibliophilic person. I opened it, gone through the contents, saw the number of pages and put it back on my bookshelf. This I generally do with all my newly purchased books. Couple of days went by when suddenly I got the sight of this book while I was there in my study room. I picked up the book, and this time I was little excited. Suddenness always carries a bit of excitedness with itself. 427 pages, 2 days (leave the hours) and the book was gulped.


“Wonders happen accidently but they are anyways divine”, this thought is what I will carry with me for life since this fortunate event took place.


A little (very little) now on the content of this book.


The entire fictional part of the book revolves around a fourteen-year-old girl Sophie Amundsen. She receives anonymous letters from a person who teaches her lessons in Philosophy through them. This baffles her mind. Who is this anonymous person? Why is he teaching her Philosophy? Does she have any connection with this person? What unfolds later? For that you need to read the book. Sophie after reading several lessons in Philosophy behaves somewhat uncommonly, not expected of a fourteen-year-old child. Her mother is quite sceptical of her changed behaviour. This is the case with her friend Joanna as well; even she is not able to figure out what is wrong with Sophie. Every suspense unfolds page by page and chapter by chapter and this is what makes you twig to the book.


As far as the non-fictional aspect of this book is concerned, one can grasp the lucidity of the content just by going through the long note written above. I would not have heavily appreciated this book, just out of haste, if I have not enjoyed reading even a single line of it. This is what I have actually been looking for in the past two years or so. If appreciation would have been my sole task, I could have appreciated any of the book by any other writer mentioned above in one of the paras. My pain can easily be deciphered of not finding an apt book which can introduce me to Western Philosophy in a strong but eloquent fashion from above paras. Each and every chapter of the book is written in a way, as one can imagine, to enable a high-school child to understand the basics of Western Philosophy. I am in my twenties with a not-so good background in English (now I am somewhat better) and even poor record in finding a good book on the subject of Western Philosophy. But still I am taking efforts to display my happiness which I have experienced while reading this book. This much must act like a clear sign that how much I am indebted to this book. Also, I bet, given heavy focus on English education these days (which, although, I completely condemn), that even an eighth standard child can understand the content of this book with ease. This is perhaps, in my opinion, the best introductory book to the History of Western Philosophy. The book not only covers the period before the Ancient Greece eulogized by the myths of Thor, not to mention the periods after it upto the modern era, but it also introduces the reader to some of the important contemporary themes in Philosophy such as Romanticism, Idealism, Existentialism, Marxism, Social Evolutionism and Psychoanalysis. Some of these contemporary themes can be traced down to the ancient or medieval period but these are also analysed with modern contemporary perspective. The author, by the end of the book, seems sensitive enough to make us also realize the present environmental crisis which the humanity is facing.


I will recommend this book not only to those who are deciding to take or have taken up Philosophy as a discipline of study or are tangled like me as I was before but also to all those who really think that they are thinking beings. I promise that every single moment of time and every single penny of money spent would be worth on this book. This is a very easy, adhesive and captivating read.


Disclaimer: If you are not of any use to this book i.e. if you have exhausted your thinking ability then I must say, alas! sadly, that even this book may not be of any use to you.


P.S.: I used to have this feeling of exhaustion in my days of expedition which I have talked above about but I carried on and soon an intervention, which was divine, was to take place which enabled me to tap the riches of Western Philosophy.


P.P.S.: Persistence is the key. Divine intrusion will unfold, sooner or later, but always.