Volume 16 Number 3
The Thrill of the Big Picture
01 June 2003

Even the most pragmatic students become philosophers after reading Sophie's World, discovers Marta Sañudo.

Ask a young person whether they are interested in philosophy and they may well reply that they do not know what philosophy is. Ask any of my students the same question and 99 per cent would answer that they find philosophy not only interesting but thrilling. This is not so much a testament to my teaching skills as to the effect of using Jostein Gaarder's novel, Sophie's World, as a textbook in my Introduction to Philosophy course.

The course-at the University of Monterrey in northern Mexico-is open to students majoring in any subject. It's an example of the new plurality in university curricula around the world. This beautiful ideal materializes in my class in the interaction between students of Medicine, Engineering, Literature, Accountancy, Law, Administration....

Gaarder presents the splendour of philosophy in a rather colloquial tale. Sophie's World is the story of a girl who, a few months before her 15th birthday, receives a mysterious letter which asks: 'Who are you?' As Sophie begins to muse on this, the reader also begins to ask questions: 'What makes me into me? Who am I after all?'

When I arrive for the second class-by which the students have to have read the first 50 pages of the book-I walk into a room of convinced philosophers. A discussion commences about whether we have lost our innate sense of wonder and this soon develops into discerning the ways in which our society makes us comply with its rules, and limits our inquiring minds. Philosophy has a revolutionary quality.

However, it is not sufficient to rebel. It is much more complex than that. The history of philosophy reveals that one must first consider the big picture-what is the overall meaning of life? what are the deepest human desires? what end should society serve?-before doing away with the established 'good life' that our society offers us. Philosophers call this larger picture 'metaphysics'. In Sophie's World, Gaarder introduces this by considering whether there is an overall plan for our lives (call it Providence or destiny), and whether reality is as it appears or hides within a labyrinth of logical deductions and mystical experiences. This exhilarating quest gives my students headaches of delight.

This is just the first 50 pages-and the Spanish translation of the book has 632, which no student, so far, has complained about reading in full. The rest of Gaarder's book, ranging from the ancient Greeks through to the 20th century, is a smooth and enrapturing read-because Gaarder has already lured the students into a philosophical quest. In the first few pages, he masterfully conveys the thing that professional philosophers find so hard to get across to non-philosophers-the kick we obtain from realizing that we are grasping the hub of an issue that has immediate consequences for the way we look at the world.
As the story progresses, the letters multiply and Sophie sets out to find their author, who turns out to be Albert, a philosopher. He shows her that they are in fact both characters in a book on philosophy, written by someone else. Albert is teaching Sophie philosophy in an attempt to distract the author, who is making them the victims of his whims. Albert suggests that they should try to escape from his pen.

The reader wants to know what will happen-and at the same time starts wondering if we are all characters in a story written by someone else. In that case one would either have to comply with the script set for one or rebel against it. We come here to issues of freedom and determinism. The book, with its stories within a story, is a mirror of the jumble we call life.

Anyone who has had the slightest contact with academic philosophy won't find much new philosophical content in this book, which is a repetition of mainstream histories and has little to say about alternative interpretations. Similarly, anyone who approaches Sophie's World with novels like Tolstoy's, Maugham's or Kundera's in mind will be disappointed. But Sophie's World manages to combine the suspense of a good novel with acquainting the reader with a wide range of philosophical authors and their ideas.

Gaarder's genius is to turn Sophie's world into the reader's own world. Over 20 million copies of his book have been sold, in 45 languages. Its success is a hopeful sign. The name of the main character, Sophie, and the book's title play with the etymology of 'philosophy' which stems from the Greek for 'lover of wisdom'. It is encouraging that so many readers all around the world-including my students in Mexico-find wisdom worth pondering and loving.

Marta Sañudo is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Monterrey, Mexico.