A Novel About the History of Philosophy
“First, think of a beginner’s guide to philosophy, written by a schoolteacher ... Next, imagine a
fantasy novel— something like a modern-day version of Through the Looking Glass. Meld these
disparate genres, and what do you get? Well, what you get is an improbable international
bestseller ... a runaway hit... [a] tour deforce.”
Sophie Amundsen (Sofie Amundsen in the Norwegian version) is a fourteen year old girl living in Norway in 1990. She lives with her cat Sherekan and her mother. Her father is a captain of an oil tanker, and is away for most of the year. He does not appear in the book.
Sophie's life is rattled as the book begins, when she receives two anonymous messages in her mailbox (Who are you? Where does the world come from?), as well as a post card addressed to 'Hilde Møller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen'. Shortly afterwards she receives a packet of papers, part of a correspondence course in philosophy.
With these mysterious communications, Sophie becomes the student of a fifty-year-old philosopher, Alberto Knox. He starts out as totally anonymous, but as the story unfolds he reveals more and more about himself. The papers and the packet both turn out to be from him, although the post card is not; it is addressed from someone called Albert Knag, who is in a United Nations peacekeeping unit stationed in Lebanon.
Alberto teaches her about the history of philosophy. She gets a substantive and understandable review from the Pre-Socratic Greeks through Jean-Paul Sartre. Along with the philosophy lessons, Sophie and Alberto try and outwit the mysterious Albert Knag, who appears to have God-like powers, which Alberto finds quite troubling.
Sophie learns about medieval philosophy while being lectured by Alberto, dressed as a monk, in an ancient church, and she learns about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in a French café. Various philosophical questions and methods of reasoning are put before Sophie, as she attempts to work them out on her own. Many of Knox's philosophic packets to her are preluded by more short questions, such as "Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?".
Alberto takes Sophie from Hellenism to the rise of Christianity and its interaction with Greek thought and on into the Middle Ages. Over the course of the book, he covers the Renaissance, Baroque, Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and the philosophies that stemmed from them.
Mixed in with the philosophy lessons is a plot rather more akin to normal teenage novels, in which Sophie interacts with her mother and her friends. This is not the focus of the story, however; it simply serves to move the plot along. As Albert Knag continues to meddle with Sophie's life, Alberto helps her fight back by teaching her everything he knows about philosophy. This, he explains, is the only way to understand her world.
This is laced with events which appear scientifically impossible, such as Sophie seeing her reflection in a mirror wink with both eyes, or actually seeing Socrates and Plato. Being a book based on philosophy, however, it promises—and delivers—an explanation for everything in the end, when Sophie and Alberto Knox escape from Albert Knag.
The explanation is that the aforementioned Hilde has been given a book titled Sophie's World as a birthday gift. Sophie and Alberto are merely characters existing within the world of the gift book. Utilizing the newfound philosophy of the book, Sophie and Alberto are able to transcend their own reality to that of the "author", Albert Knag and his daughter, Hilde. This is a perfect example of both metafiction and an unreliable narrator.
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