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Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - 10:05 PM Permanent link for Sophie's World
Sophie's World

I read Jostein Gaardner's Sophie's World over the past few weeks across multiple, short business trips.   The book was OK.   I'm not much of a fiction fan and so the story telling aspects of the book didn't really resonate much.   It was, as advertised, a good intro to the history of Western philosophy across 500 pages (stopping curiously short at the Existentialists and with a large emphasis on Greek / Roman antiquity).

The story is told using the frame of a young Norwegian girl named Sophie who receives mysterious letters from an unknown sender each containing a single concise lesson about a critical period of Western Philosophy.   I didn't really care about the frame story (I'm sure there are some dramatic nuances of Sophie's life that rub off on the lesson... oh well) but the individual lessons were perfectly sized and ideal for either a raw beginner or a moderately knowledgeable person just looking to flesh out his/her knowledge base.   I'm now conversant on the Sophists   ;-)

For example, I often toss about the phrase Kantian Ethics to describe the latest crap coming out of the UN or an NGO - Gaardner gives me a crisp, succinct, authoritative passage describing it [p 337]

...the important thing is that you do it because you know it is right.   Even if the money you collect gets lost in the street, or is not sufficient to feed all the mouths it is intended to, you obeyed the moral law.   You acted out of good will, and according to Kant, it is this good will which determines whether or not the action was morally right, not the consequences of that action.   Kant's ethics are also called a good will ethic

The passage is well crafted even if the ethics themselves are horribly anti-economic.  Kant would argue that the Baker can only feel good about his job IF the explicit goal is feeding the poor and not profit (and perhaps if he doesn't feel so charitable, he should be compelled to do it?) .  Karl Marx had some ideas along these lines...   The UN has many many ideas along these lines and is infatuated with things that look & feel right even if they have no real impact on physical life on the ground.   But I digress....

Gaardner's choice of material reveals some biases both subtle and not-so-subtle.   The narrative is pretty coherent and primarily focuses on metaphysics and theories of, what else, the meaning of life.   However, Gaardner seems to portray philosophy as unidirectionally evolving -- inherent conflicts between, for ex., Locke and existentialists, are implicitly portrayed as "the existentialists discovered something new which invalidated Locke."   Newer philosophy isn't automatically better philosophy - after all evolution itself is often marked by evolutionary dead ends. 

Sometimes Gaardner's politics directly creep into the book - probably an inevitability given the choice and breadth of subject matter.   For example, in this passage - towards the culmination of the book, the philosopher is teaching young Sophie about a 'pivotal' development of 20th century philosophy [p 463]:

In our own time, we also have completly new problems to face.   The most serious are those of the environment.   A central philosophical direction in the twentieth century is therefore ecophilosophy or ecosophy, as one of its founders, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, has called it.   Many ecophilosophers in the western world have warned that western civilization as a whole is on a fundamentally wrong track, racing towards a head-on collision with the limits of what our planet can tolerate.  

...There is something basically wrong with western thought, they claim.

"I think they are right."  [Sophie responded]

Ahem, uh yeah, right.   And we all know that Sophie's voice here is basically Gaardner's intended voice for the reader.  Predictably, Marx gets very sympathetic treatment [p 398]:

[Sophie] "If conditions were as bad as you say, I think I would have signed that Manifesto.   But conditions are surely a lot different today?"

"In Norway they are, but they aren't everywhere.  Many people still live under inhuman conditions while they continue to produce commodities that make capitalists richer and richer.   Marx called this exploitation"

...On the other hand, it would be unreasonable to blame Marx for the negative factors in the so-called socialist countries fifty or a hundred years after his death.   But maybe he had given too little thought to the people who would be the administrators of communist society."

Ah, so Marx had great ideas but just bad implementation cuz they couldn't find the right leaders?   Presumably the "ecosophers" have licked this problem which plagued the socialists.  Phthooey.  By contrast, pro-capitalist  "Econo-philosophers" are NEVER profiled - ZERO Adam Smith, for instance, despite the deep coverage afforded to his contemporaries.  Hume, the epistemologist, is described but Hume, the economist is never mentioned.   This aspect is PATHETIC.   (Economists get no respect - humanities folks think of 'em as too sciency and science folks think of 'em as too soft.... )

So, in the end, Sophie's World is a decent book - great for someone looking for a concise intro to select topics in the history of Western philosophy.  However, one should keep in mind that the book is far from comprehensive nor is it free from the author's bias.

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