An obstacle race with Hegel

Gabriel Josipovici wonders how a new philosophical tome became a bestse ller
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The Independent Culture
Sophie's World Jostein Gaarder Tr. Paulette Moller Phoenix House £16.99

Jostein Gaarder has been watching a lot of television. In particular those worthy series of which Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" was I suppose the first, in which the medium pays its dues to culture while keeping an eye on the ratings by flying an "expert" to exotic locations on which the camera can linger when the director feels the lessons are getting too difficult or too boring. Recently, the presenters of such series have taken to dressing up in the clothes of the period or place they are meant to be dealing with, strolling in a jellaba through an Arab souk or putting on Rembrandt's hat to lead you through the Rijkmuseum. I'm not sure what the idea is meant to be, since no-one is taken in by this and I would have thought it would be rather distracting, but perhaps distraction is just what the director is after.

Whatever the reason, Sophie's World works on the same principles. Sophie's philosophical mentor, Alberto Knox, starts by simply writing to her with provocative questions such as "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?", in order to show, I suppose, that philosophy is all about the questions we always ask ourselves; but when it comes to expounding the thoughts of the great philosophers he is not above showing her a video of Athens in the time of Socrates or greeting her dressed in "white hose, red knee-breeches, and a yellow jacket with padded shoulders", while he explains to her that "By the Renaissance we mean the rich cultural development that began in the late 14th century. It started in Northern Italy and spread rapidly northwards during the 15th and 16th centuries."

For this is not just a book about the history of philosophy in the strict sense of the term. After all, to understand Descartes you have to know something about the rise of science, to make sense of Marx you have to be aware of the social implications ofthe Industrial Revolution; so the book becomes not just a potted history of the "thoughts" of the "great philosophers" but in effect a potted history of (mainly Western) culture and society from Homer to Sartre. The main emphasis though is on philosophyand here Gaarder seems to belong to the "obstacle-race" school of pedagogy which the young Stephen Spender found such a turn-off when he went up to Oxford to study philosophy. What he meant by this was that your tutor expounded the thought of Plato or Locke and then explained what was wrong with it and why Aristotle or Hume reacted to it as they did. Then Aristotle and Hume are subjected to the same treatment.

Thus, here: "Hume's scepticism with regard to what reason and the senses can tell us forced Kant to think through many of life's important questions again." And: "This was what made Kierkegaard so indignant. He thought that both the idealism of the Romantics and Hegel's `historicism' had obscured the individual's responsibility."

Aware, like your TV producer of "Civilisation" or "The Crusades" that too much of this sort of thing might lead to flagging interest, Gaarder beefs it up with a rather heavy-handed post-modern Alice's Adventures-in-Wonderlandish plot in which Sophie and her mentor turn out to be being written by someone else and "read"' by that person's 14-year-old daughter. In the final chapters the two strands cross over and infinite perspectives are opened up as the reader tries to work out who is "real" and who is "merely a story". At least that is the intention, but it is so predictable and the characters are all so lacking in life that this reader at any rate did not give a damn.

The real mystery is not "life" but why a book like this should have become an international bestseller. No doubt there is and always will be a hunger for knowledge, and especially for attractively packaged knowledge. That is what sells encyclopedias. ButI cannot believe that many 14-year-olds are devouring this book or even that their parents are. Why then are they buying it? Because it's a bestseller? But how did it become that in the first place? Perhaps you need to be a philsopher to answer that one.

It has always seemed to me that the true model of what will make the difficult subjects of art or philosophy or science not just accessible to those who might have felt deprived but stir in them a real sense of what these subjects are about, are the famous lectures given by the stuttering Wendell Kretschmar in Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus. Few people, the narrator tells us, bothered to attend the lecture in the draughty church hall on why Beethoven never wrote a third movement to his piano sonata, opus 111, but those who did were never the same again. They were made to enter the world of musical composition and the complex tensions between tradition and the individual talent which are in play whenever an artefact is created.

And I recall a talk given many years ago by the musicologist and populariser Anthony Hopkins on Bartok's Second Piano Concerto which suddenly made me feel that music was not just beautiful and pleasant to listen to, but that it was important to me. I doubt if any reader of this dull tome will come away feeling they know what philosophy is about, what it is to do philosophy. They may have learned, in a rather over-simplified way, what the great philosophers of the West said and wrote, but tha t is not atall the same thing. If you have a curious 14-year-old, forget Gaarder and go out and buy Plato's Apology or Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. They are a much better read.