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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 2 November 2013

"Sophie's world" by Jostein Gaarder

Fourteen year old Sophie Amundsen begins receiving mysterious messages from Alberto Knox, a philosopher. He begins to teach her philosophy, starting with the pre-Socratics and ending with Sartre. As they learn, mysterious things begin to happen.

Um. 

I suppose this is designed as a course in Philosophy for children. Much of it is very well explained, although it skims the surface, and I found it hard to really understand the difficult philosophers such as Kant and Hegel. 

I suppose that the dialogue format mimics the Socratic method. Certainly Alberto Knox is a somewhat pompous teacher, rather like the portrayal of Socrates (yes, I know Plato says that Socrates is a wonderfully odd and modest man but that is not how he appears in the Dialogues) and Sophie is often reduced to a mere cypher, much like the poor people portrayed by Plato as the stooges of Socrates. Thus Sophie's contribution is often limited to "Why was that?"; "Go on."; "I can't disagree with that."; "That was a very complicated statement."; "I think I see what you mean." to take just five consecutive examples from pages 378 to 379. 

Partly as a result of this it becomes extremely difficult to suspend disbelief and see Sophie as a real person. It's hard to do this anyway: Sophie at fourteen becomes hooked on philosophy and is allowed by her mum to be in and out of the house at all times, going to spend time with an old bloke who is slightly creepy. Childcare is a lot more relaxed in Norway! (It gets stranger: when a fifteen year old and her first boyfriend roll around in the bushes at a party all the people at the party watch, including her mum and dad!)

So the story didn't really work for me. I suspect it was intended to dilute the difficult philosophy but in some ways it just made the whole book longer.

I wasn't particularly hooked by the twist near the end which is designed on a philosophical problem but seemed to hijack the book, in some ways suggesting that this is the only philosophical problem.

I did learn some things or new ways of seeing things:

  • Indo-European religions emphasise the visual: they make pictures of Gods. Semitic religions emphasise the aural: they forbid 'graven images'. Christianity is a hybrid of Indo-European (the Platonic tradition) and Jewish; whilst Roman Catholicism wallows in images, Greek Orthodox forbids them.
  • Aquinas believed that universal truths could be reached both through faith and through reason and that therefore there was no conflict between Christianity and Aristotelianism.
  • Spinoza defined freedom as having the ability to develop to one's full potential.
  • Hume denied we had a single personality. He pointed out that all we know of ourselves are snapshots like the individual frames in a film and therefore we had no underlying identity.
  • Hume suggested that we cannot experience cause and effect. We can only develop a habit of expecting that an effect will always follow a cause. Therefore the laws of nature lie within ourselves.
  • Deists believe that God created everything and then left us to it: we can only experience him today through the natural laws that he set up.
  • Kant suggested that laws of nature were always interpreted through perception and thus that the world as experienced by a cat or by a child or by an adult are different worlds.
  • Kant also believed that it was necessary to believe in God to have a morality.
  • Bohr once said "there are two kinds of truth. There are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right." (p306) such as life is long; life is short.
  • In order for complex molecules like DNA to develop there must be no oxygen in the atmosphere because oxygen is very reactive and would prevent the development of complex molecules.
  • When a man said to an angel that he must be very insubstantial because he walked through rocks, the angel pointed out that both the angel and the man could walk through mist, 


But he gets some things wrong. He suggests that the moon stays in orbit because there are two forces on it: those of gravity and inertia. The inertia is the force that once threw the moon out of the Earth and "will remain in effect forever because it moves in a vacuum without resistance". This is dreadfully wrong. Inertia is not a force. There is a single force acting on the moon and that is why it is in orbit.

On the whole there is a lot of good in this book but... I'm not the target market but I thought I preferred Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy

November 2013; 427 pages

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