Author: Phillip Jensen

Whose History of Philosophy?

A review of the book Sophie’s World A Novel about the History of Philosophy, Jostein Gaarde, Macmillan USA, 2007, from kategoria magazine Issue 4.

It’s the sort of story that publishers usually only dream of. A book, writ­ten by a little-known Scandinavian high-school teacher, about the history of Western philosophy of all things, became a run-away best-seller. In 1995 it sold over 8 million copies; the latest count takes it over 9 million. Defying all normal assumptions about academic topics, philosophy has suddenly become hot property. Somehow, philosophy has moved out of armchairs and ivory towers into the mainstream.

Sophie’s World is subtitled ‘A Novel about the History of Philosophy’, which gives some indication of the point of the book. It is a novel—but more than that, it is an entertaining gallop through various chronologically­ organised philosophical schools of thought. The reader ends up with an overview of Western philosophy, set in a novel in which the fictional characters work out their own drama in the light of these philosophical traditions.

Sophie’s World is intriguing, both for what it says and for the fact of its popularity. The success of a book like Sophie’s World must be an important sociological indicator of both intellectual desire and insecurity. For one, the idea of having within one novel the whole history of Western philosophy seems to be very attractive to the instant generation. Apart from the need to follow intellectual fashion, there is a sense that our education has omitted essential information about life and its meaning, and that the answer lies in the deep mysteries of philosophy. Here, then, is the chance to discover what the famous names actually taught.

There are other reasons why the popularity of this book is important. This is not a technical book but an educational apologetic for philosophy —and because it aims to be general, it tells us what ‘general opinion’ is. It is not seeking to present a particular slant on philosophy, or on its history, but trying to give the overview of what the discipline has been about and where it is up to now. Here is one of the ‘summary of the consensus of scholarly opinion’ books. As such, it is an indicator of the current status of our intellectual community.

Sophie’s World is also striking if taken as representative of the mainstream intellectual view of philosophy. The book takes the intellectual high ground of the philosophers, singing the praises of genuine philosophy: critical, rational, and unbiased; removing prejudice, superstition and convention; not given to quick, rash judgments but relentlessly pursuing truth, knowledge, beauty and morality.

And to be quite frank, that is precisely what we need philosophers for. We do not need them to choose a beauty queen or the day’s bargain in tomatoes. (This is why they are unpopular!) Philosophers will try to ignore highly topical affairs and instead try to draw people’s attention to what is eternally ‘true’, eternally ‘beautiful’, and eternally ‘good’ (pp. 65-6).

From this objective, eternal viewpoint, the book dismisses Christianity by domestication and association. While Christianity is given some prominence in the history, it is carefully placed in a negative category, as we will see. Yet it is significant that as the book draws to its close, philosophers also become strangely silent. The important thinkers for Gaarder are no longer philosophers in the generally understood sense, but Marx, Darwin, Freud and the researchers of modern astronomy. Knowledge is the result not of philosophers any more, but scientists. Is the discipline of philosophy, like Christianity, to be dismissed as a thing of the past?

The strengths

The author and the publishers deserve to be thanked for their efforts to make such important matters part of the common domain of social intercourse. This book enables those who love ideas and philosophy to share them with friends. It invites the wider community into the conversation of the great minds of the past.

The philosophy is beautifully and simply written. It is easy to read, interesting and arresting in its style. Even when discussing obscure and abstract ideas, the writing never loses its clarity or accessibility. As an introduction to the history of philosophy, few books will be able to open up the subject to more people. The dust-jacket of the book tells us “For eleven years Jostein Gaarder taught philosophy in a high school in Bergen”, and that experience obviously informs his approach to explaining philosophical concepts. Added to these advantages the novel format can involve the reader inside philosophical reasoning in a way that a more didactic book would not. Like any good teacher, Gaarder encourages revision by providing his characters with new reasons to reiterate the philosophical arguments. Those who have already read the book will recognise that the mid-novel plot twist is very enjoyable and allows the reader to participate in a way that lifts the whole presentation.

As a novel alone, however, it is doubtful whether Sophie’s World would deserve to be a success. The characters are fairly dull and uninteresting, the plot is thin, the conflict and tension are not particularly gripping, and there is a lack of real suspense. The whole is just a little too unrealistic for the reader to care what happens to the people involved. The characters are merely tools for the exposition of philosophy. The strange old man who is teaching Sophie philosophy never becomes anything other than a strange old man, and the precocious Sophie is never anything but a stooge of philosophical education. There is a certain juvenile directness to the style which may have been deliberate, for the sake of simplic­ity; but it does not make for a gripping read. (Maybe being in translation is part of the problem?)

The place of Christianity

One of the problems in recording the history of Western philosophy is the place that is going to be given to Christianity. Christianity has dominated Western culture, and has an important interplay with philosophy both in antagonism and concurrence.

At first glance Sophie’s World is very positive towards Christianity. There are many references to it. Even when not specified, the God that is under discussion generally conforms to the Judeo-Christian God (though not necessarily the biblical, trinitarian God). Church plays a part in the lives of the characters and is used as scenery for some of the discussions. There is a chapter on Christ which shows more than a superficial understanding of his claims. There are repeated examples of the difference that holding a Christian view of God, especially as creator, would make. There are places where the misrepresentations of Christianity are corrected—for example the confusion that arose from the importation of Aristotelian views of women into the church. Luther is mentioned with some respect in the chapter on the Renaissance—there was more to him than just indulgences. But none of the other Reformers appear, and Luther is only a part of the Renaissance, and a ‘gloomy’ part of it at that.

At second glance, the novel has a negative sub-text about Christianity. Philosophy, we are told, has had a long tradition of freeing people from the bonds of mythology, superstition and religion. Christianity is in the bondage side of the history, not the freedom side. It is true that most of the directly negative comments are levelled at the polytheistic ancient world religion or the modern New Age superstitions, rather than Christianity or the possibility of God’s existence—after all, some very respectable philosophers have argued for a non-materialistic philoso­phy. However, the philosopher of the book (Alberto) confesses to being a naturalist in the end (p. 360) and revelation as a source of knowledge is disparaged. Adam and Noah appear in the same place as Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood, Jesus and his death are paralleled to Socrates and his death, and Christianity is an expression of the interaction of Semitic culture and Indo-European mythology. Science and philosophy are the judges of truth, not God or his word. Hilde’s father works for the United Nations, the true bringers of peace in the world, especial­ly in the religiously war-torn lands of the Middle East.

Despite the room it gives to Christianity, then, the novel fails to do justice to Christian views. The Trinitarian nature of Christianity does not fit into the simple philosophical question of the existence of God. To parallel Jesus’ commitment to truth, and his death, to Socrates, is to misunderstand Jesus’ teaching.[1]

The history of philosophy

Any book purporting to be about ‘the history’ of philosophy faces the prob­lem of all histories; they are by necessi­ty selective, and the more ground they try to cover the more selective they have to be.

The approach that selects a range of representative thinkers, rather than concentrating on just one school or topic, is the usual method of first year university texts and courses. Without very much negative critique, all major views are outlined and given their due credit as significant contributions to the discipline. We do not adopt one view or another, but take on parts of all the truths that have been discovered. It is a useful approach for the beginner; it enables the newcomer to gain a grasp of the whole subject. It is also a safe approach for the writer. It has the appearance of objectivity, and by pre­senting all the main views evenhanded­ly, one demonstrates the important ability to appreciate others’ viewpoints, and to represent them fairly.

Yet this kind of selectivity can have bad results, and cover unintended (or intended) biases. Its impression of objectivity is deceptive. The gathering of certain great thinkers into a book does not give a history of great thinkers, but a collection. In the collection, decisions of whom to include and whom to exclude involve the value judgements and biases of the collector. Yet by having a sufficiently large collection, by being polite about everyone and by including people that you really do not agree with, it is possible to convey the idea of some objectivity— and it enables the author to avoid mak­ing a decision and arguing a case.

In this novel the philosophy that Jostein Gaarder is interested in is not that of logic, mathematics or semantics. Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Popper and Ayer are not given any place as the story diverts to Marx, Freud, Darwin, and cosmology. Certain topics continue to appear whether or not they were the concerns of philosophers, for this is a very politically correct novel. All the modern shibboleths are mentioned: ecology, feminism, tolerance, Eastern religion, comparative religion, the UN and new world order. This may be to make the issue of philosophy relevant to today, or to include the readers from as wide an audience as possible, but at face value it seems to be because these issues are the ones that matter to the author.

Here is not “A Novel about the History of Philosophy”, but an eclectic look at some of the philosophical roots of a modern naturalistic humanism. In the end, science is deferred to as the adjudicator of truth; and material­ism, while not dogmatically certain, is definitely the preferred option.

However, while we are led to these conclusions, we are not actually given the reasons for them. We have an impression that this is where the combined wisdom of the ages will lead us; but a different history would have led us to a different end-point.

Questions for Sophie

This book is no marginal work. It presents itself as a general, mainstream history of philosophy, and its popularity demonstrates that it fits such a niche. As such, it claims moral and intellectual superiority over other views (such as Christianity) but does not present a compelling case for this superiority. Its conclusions are little more than its assumptions, and many of these assumptions could do with more examination.

For one, the anti-God nature of the assumptions is not analysed philosophically. The Christian objections to naturalism are not even mentioned, while the victories of Socrates over the religiously superstitious and of the materialists over the Platonists are expounded clearly. Another unexplored assumption is the reality of meaning and the value of philosophical investigation. Even though as the novel progresses the world is presented as a great accident, it is not to be viewed as meaningless. Sophie, it seems, must find meaning in the world’s excitement or its immensity or its wonder. Yet she does not ask the questions of how one can find meaning in an accident.

Displaying another unexamined assumption, especially on politically correct issues, the writer commends ethical and civilised behaviour. Yet the reader is never given any basis for ethical or civilised behaviour. Christians have a clearly explained basis for such behaviour in the character and purposes of our creator and saviour. We even understand why it is that people who reject God will continue upholding ethical standards, for they are made by him whether or not they acknowledge him. The non-Christian view presented in this book, on the other hand, prides itself on the rigour of its intel­lectual inquiry but gives few reasons for the behaviour and ethics it is commending (so at this point at least has little ground for rejecting Christianity). The book does not teach the acceptance of Kantian ethics, nor the rejection of Neitzsche’s ethics, but gives a quick nod to both and encourages us to find our own. The same problem can be seen on the question of knowledge. While certain forms of knowledge such as the New Age and religious superstition are rejected, there is no real explanation of the writer’s view of knowledge—just the assurance that physicists now know.[2] Science is not challenged to show its philosophical basis. There is just a utilitarian bowing to the success of science—it works, therefore it is true.

Sophie’s World leaves us asking questions; the questions that have been left unanswered by this look at philosophy. We are left feeling at the end of Sophie’s World that after the effort of centuries of thinking, we know little more than when we started. This has to make one wonder—if the great minds cannot come to any answer, what is wrong? Is it just possible that there is a flaw in the assumption that we by ourselves are able and capable from our ‘unbiased’ viewpoint, unaided by any revelation of our maker, to come to an understanding of the true nature of the human condition?

I am reminded of the teachings of Ecclesiastes.

I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end (Eccl. 3:10-11)

[1] Gaarder has a generally good understanding of the New Testament; it is just unfortunate that at the point of Jesus’ death he has some crucial misplaced emphases. It is true that both Jesus and Socrates died “for the sake of their convictions” (p. 52)—but more importantly Jesus died for the sin of mankind. “[B]y meeting their death so bravely they commanded an enormous following, also after they had died” (p. 53)— however Jesus is not followed because of his courage, but because he died for the sin of the whole world. Moreover Socrates’ teaching would be true or false independently of his death, while without the death of Jesus the whole of his teaching fails completely.

[2] Scientists are the rule by which knowledge is tested, in Gaarder’s view. “Democritus believed that nature consisted of an unlimited number and variety of atoms” but “Today we can estab­lish that Democritus’ atom theory was more or less correct” (p. 35). “In Darwin’s time, it was widely believed that about 6,000 years had elapsed since God created the earth” but “…today we know that the earth is 4.6 billion years old” (my italics), p. 315.

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