bagels and bagatelles

philosophyImmanuel Kant was a real pissant, he was very rarely stable.

Once upon a time even a moderately well-read person could quote Spinoza at length and any self-respecting college student had a well-thumbed copy of “Being and Nothingness”  always close at hand. People no longer really study philosophy,  or if they do they limit their attention to those wisdom pearls that drop so abundantly from such learned teachers as Oprah and Deepak Chopra.  I don’t know why this is, other than that the study of classical philosophy is not generally financially rewarding, it can be intellectually  rigorous, and well…our attention spans just aren’t what they used to be.  Young people aren’t encouraged to “waste time” on things that don’t lead directly to a good job.  Learning simply for the sake of learning, for being a well-rounded and well-read individual with a solid grounding in both the arts and the sciences, isn’t valued.  Plus, it really cuts down on your Xbox 360 playtime.

So, what’s an author who thinks young people should get their understanding of the human condition from something other than All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Starcraft II to do?   Well if he’s Jostein Gaarder he writes a small book called Sophie’s World, a Novel About the History of Philosophy and then watches it sell more than 30 million copies and get translated into 53 languages.  For a book about philosophy?  What gives?

As it turns out, it’s not a bad book.  It’s not a great book but if you keep in mind that it is meant for young teenagers (and not for snarky postmodern scholars), it actually accomplishes something fairly difficult–it makes philosophy interesting.  The plot simply follows the development of philosophical thinking as it follows the development of Sophie’s understanding of her world and her place in it.  One day Sophie, who is fourteen-going-on-fifteen finds an envelope in her mailbox.  The letter inside says merely “Who are you?”   It is unsigned and the next day she receives another, this one asking, “Where did the world come from?”  The letters were sent by Alberto Knox, a middle-aged man who for reasons unexplained until well into the book takes it on himself to educate this normal Norwegian teenage girl about the development of Western philosophical thought.   At first the instruction takes place via mail but Alberto soon has his dog delivering the letters and eventually the two hold their lessons in person in a variety of places, including an abandoned cabin and Alberto’s apartment.  Alberto even takes to dressing up like whatever profound thinker they are discussing that week.   (I suppose it’s a reflection of these modern times that I kept expecting this relationship to get…weird.  It doesn’t.)

Shortly after Sophie begins her tutelage with Alberto she begins to get mail addressed to another 14-almost-15 year old girl named Hilde.  Sophie has no idea who Hilde is or why her mail is coming to her and the mystery only deepens as the mail begins to include references to Sophie’s own life and her lessons with  Alberto and as events from Hilde’s life intrude on Sophie’s (or is it vice versa?).   Eventually we learn that Sophie and Alberto are characters in a book about the history of philosophy that Hilde’s father, a Major serving with the U.N. in Lebanon, is writing for her 15th birthday.  Sophie and Alberto also discover this and the book becomes occasionally surreal as the Major sends them reminders of his control over them and Sophie and Albert plot to escape the confines of the story.

Drawbacks to the book are numerous.  Either the writing or the translation is cludgy.  I don’t know which it is because I can’t read it in the original  Norwegian, but I doubt that even in Norway 15 year old girls speak or behave the way Sophie does.   When the book discusses philosophy it limits itself almost entirely to the Western canon and tastefully glides past some of the more confrontational modern avenues of thought (Derrida, anyone?).   Although the author’s obvious ideological bent is entirely in line with my own inclinations, his admiration for environmentalism and the U.N. often seemed jarring and out of place in the narrative, as if he were trying to place these perspectives squarely within the purview of his philosophers.  The story occasionally bogs down a bit and more than once I had to set it aside and read something else for awhile.  It might be fair to say that stretches of it are boring.

That said though, for the most part the book is an interesting read.  Occasionally it is very good.  It is best when it is talking philosophy and philosophers and as a brief synopsis of most of the major Western philosophies it is quite engaging.  The development of major schools of thought and how they grew from and expanded human understanding is well written and I gained more understanding from reading this book than from the Philosophy 101 class I suffered through in college.   There isn’t any reason that philosophy should be boring but it is often taught like it is (and let’s face it, some of the source materials are a little stodgy), but this book is really about the growth of humanity from something just above the animals to something just below the gods (so to speak).  The enveloping story of Sophie and her understanding of her world parallels the various schools of philosophy she is discovering and although this device falters now and then (and is sometimes just silly) by the end of the book you are rooting for Sophie and Alberto to put one over on God (the Major) and self-actualize.   Clearly, it’s “Philosophy Lite”, but I’m not sure there is a more readable summary of nearly 3,000 years of thought.

Unless of course it was written by the Pythonian school.

Socrates, himself, is particularly missed; A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed.

Score:  Meh.


~ by gun street girl on September 13, 2010.

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