Sophie, the heroine, finds her life taken over by a man - Alberto Knox - who is driven by an inexplicable desire to make her learn philosophy. He employs devious and fantastic means and, indeed, Sophie's own story turns out to be tied in Lewis Carroll-like knots, involving mirrors, talking animals and parallel worlds.
But all that apart, Knox gives it to his pupil straight. His coverage of the history of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre, is easy reading but undiluted and unadorned. Leave out the whimsy and what is left is a lucid and, until it g
ets to the 20th century, reasonably comprehensive philosophy novel.
The book is also a pro-philosophy polemic. It opens with a culturally bracing quotation from Goethe - "He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth" - and, throughout, Alberto Knox insists that the subject he is teaching her isthe best the human race has done and that to think philosophically is the highest calling of all. He even offers it to her as a kind of secular immortality.
"She would not be living on this planet for more than a few years. But if the history of mankind was her own history, in a way she was thousands of years old."
A white rabbit is the slightly clumsy, Carrollian image used to make the point that philosophers are the highest and the best. Existence is this rabbit, plucked from a conjurer's hat. We are born poised on the outer tips of its fur, staring outwards at the wonder of creation. But as we age, we turn away and creep down into the rabbit's coat, forgetting our sense of wonder. Philosophers, however, stay balanced on the hair tips The polemic is reinforced by Sophie's constant complaint that she is not taught anything like this at school. The dull routine of her schoolwork is contrasted with the wonders Knox has to impart. At the most elementary level this book was clearly written as a tract in favour of teaching philosophy to children. And, indeed, as partof the publicity effort for British publication, a conference is to be held at Kent University in January to show how philosophy can be taught at nursery, primary and secondary schools.
The success of the novel is, at first sight, an odd, almost startling phenomenon. Philosophy in this century has neither been wildly popular, nor has it beeen seen as a great and glorious adventure. Rather, it has been regarded as the obscure preserve ofa few sad devotees, stricken with an onanistic passion for futile game-playing, donnish nit-picking and endlessly circular word play.
Philosophers have not quite been pigeon-holed with trainspotters but they haven't been many pigeon holes away. The simple truth is that, with the one brief exception of post-war Paris, philosophy has not been hip.
Latterly it has also suffered from being a spectacularly politically incorrect activity. More than any other discipline, philosophy is founded on an endless vista of Dead White European Males - the earliest of whom were slave-owners - imperialistically enunciating their racist, phallocentric laws. Few traditions could be more calculated to outrage the caring, globally conscious student. Indeed, this week it emerged that Yale University cannot bring itself to spend a $10m endowment because it was intended to "further the study of Western civilisation''.One Yale philosophy student was quoted as saying, with superb pretension, that she had had her fill of Plato and Kant.
Sophie's World ingeniously navigates around both these objections. For a start, Gaarder's history of Western philosophy is about as politically correct as it is possible to be without actually claiming that Aristotle was black.
Alberto Knox apologises interminably to Sophie for the complete lack of women in his history, explaining how oppressed they have been down the years. Furthermore, there is a strange sub-plot about the United Nations which seems to bear the sentimentally correct message that a philosophical world government will be the answer to all our problems. Finally, modern environmentalism is treated very much as a new and distinct philosophical development. The males may still be dead, white and European, but the
Gaarder message has a virtuous Scandinavian glow.
There remains the problem of the philosopher as trainspotter. The reason for this image problem is that 20th-century philosophy seems to have abandoned the big questions. Instead of wondering about the meaning of life and the nature of virtue, modern ph i losophers appear, to laymen, to be lost in arcane technicalities. Philosophy books seem to be either indistinguishable from maths books or so mired in verbal analysis as to defy comprehension. Worst of all, philosophers appear to have succumbed to a kind of futile, inane playfulness, continually dancing away from the possibility of saying anything useful or meaningful. The supercilious, complacent television performances of the late A J Ayer must have destroyed the subject for an entire generation. (Im
yself acquired an early prejudice against the subject when I watched a philosophy undergraduate sitting paralysed on a staircase for days because his tutor had asked him to define the word "the".)
This is an unfair picture but it carries just enough truth to convince most people that philosophy is no longer what you want it to be - thrilling and accessible. And it may well be that this is why nobody seriously considers teaching philosophy to schoolchildren - the fear is that, once enmeshed in this nightmarish and trivial procedure, their entire intellects might seize up.
Gaarder's approach, however, is to insist that philosophy is indeed about the big issues. His philosophical history is all about what Douglas Adams called questions of life, the universe and everything. His philosophers are not trainspotters, they are c r aggy, windswept visionaries.
In order to preserve this image he is obliged to distort things rather when he gets to the 20th century. Sartre is the only modern philosopher dealt with at length, Heidegger and Russell get one mention each and Wittgenstein is not mentioned at all. Gaarder thus skirts round all the really deep contemporary waters and simply allows his history to peter out into a general warm glow of environmentalism and political hope.
For his purposes this does not matter. He simply wants to enthuse people; once inspired they can pick up where he leaves off. And clearly it has worked. The success of the novel indicates a hunger for big ideas in acceptable packages. People want to takethe pill of philosophy as long as it is lightly sugared and seems relevant or, at least, exciting.
And this, I think, is where Gaarder is on to something. Big ideas are in the air as never before. I know of at least four ambitious, pan-European magazines being planned with the intention of rising above politics into the clear air of pure thought. Conferences are staged to investigate the meaning of life. The transformation of intellectual and spiritual paradigms is earnestly discussed. A new age is at hand, and so on.
I suspect this is happening because people are both bored and anxious. The boredom stems from the fact that, after the Cold War, few big life-threatening thoughts seem to be coming out of politics. All that is left is managerial tinkering. History may not be at an end, but it certainly seems to be slumbering. Now that the Soviet tanks aren't coming, the life of the European bourgeoisie seems too secure, too predictable, too assured.
The anxiety arises from a fear of discontinuity. Technological and cultural change is rapid and total. The past is being obliterated. It becomes increasingly difficult to adopt any coherent view of the world, indeed the very idea of such a view seems offensively naive. Life may be comfortable, but it doesn't make sense.
Then Gaarder appears with his strange novel offering big things to think about and the warm, agreeable assertion that the past is alive and well. Sophie's world is better than ours. It makes sense, it fills your mind. It is all, in spite of the shortcomings of the book, a rather heartening phenomenon.
"Sophie's World'' by Jostein Gaarder is published by Phoenix House at £16.99 on 12 January.Reuse content