Sophie’s World

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Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder Theme Icon
The Nature of Reality Theme Icon
Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sophie’s World, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Theme Icon

Sophie’s World isn’t just a history of philosophy. It’s also the story of how two people, a young woman named Sophie Amundsen and another young woman named Hilde Møller Knag, come to apply philosophy to their own lives. In this sense, the novel is a coming-of-age story: a dramatization of how Sophie and Hilde use their educations to gain a new sense of maturity and self-control.

As in any good coming-of-age story, Sophie and Hilde—lonely girls with brusque mothers and absentee fathers—need to find role models and parent figures to guide them along the path to maturity. In one sense, Sophie’s World shows how philosophy itself can be a “father figure”—a source of comfort, emotional support, and solace. Sophie’s mentor, Alberto Knox, is a personification of philosophy itself (as well as a riff on his creator, Albert Knag). But Alberto isn’t just Sophie’s teacher—he’s also her friend. This suggests that the purpose of Sophie and Hilde’s education isn’t just to understand philosophy; the purpose is to learn how to interact with others.

What kind of educations do Sophie and Hilde receive from their mentors? From the very beginning, it’s made clear that Sophie will not be learning about ordinary, day-to-day matters—there’s no economics or health in this syllabus. In this sense, Sophie’s contrasts with the work that she does in school, and with the lifestyle she sees at home, personified by her rather dull-minded Mom. There’s a strong sense that “education,” at least as Sophie’s schoolteachers understand it, has impoverished Sophie’s soul, leaving her lonely and unable to cope with the deep questions of life. After we learn that Hilde is reading Sophie’s story, we realize that the purpose of Sophie’s philosophy lessons is to teach Hilde how to live. Hilde is a lonely child—she doesn’t seem to get along with her mother, and she’s rarely shown interacting with friends or classmates. Hilde’s father, Albert Knag, has written Sophie’s World for Hilde, suggesting that he understands her loneliness and frustration (Sophie is meant to be a portrait of his daughter), and wants to teach her to cope with her emotions using philosophy. In short, philosophy isn’t just a new form of information—it’s also a method of coming to grips with one’s feelings, and learning how to live.

As Hilde and Sophie’s relationships with their mentors would suggest, philosophy shows us how to live by teaching us how to interact with other people. By the end of the novel, Hilde has learned how to empathize with Sophie, despite the fact that Sophie is a fictional character: Gaarder portrays this act of empathy as a clear sign of Hilde’s emotional maturity. Hilde also reunites with her father using philosophy as her tool: she turns the tables on him by planting letters at Albert’s airport, confusing him into thinking that his world might be an illusion as well. Although it might seem like Hilde is being disobedient or cruel to her father, she’s actually showing her affection for him, and proving that she’s embraced the philosophy lessons he’s sent her. In the final scene of the novel, Hilde and Albert sit together, talking about the history of the universe: a symbol of the way that philosophy, unlikely as it sounds, can bring families together.

In this way, philosophy ends up being more practical than it seems. After she finishes her philosophy curriculum, Hilde isn’t “all grown up” in any traditional sense (she’s still living at home, still in school, still uncertain about colleges or careers, etc.), but she’s demonstrated her intelligence, her thoughtfulness, and—most importantly—her love for her fictional friends and her real-life father. In this way, philosophy helps her come of age.

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Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Quotes in Sophie’s World

Below you will find the important quotes in Sophie’s World related to the theme of Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Who are you?” Sophie asked.
She received no response to this either, but felt a momentary confusion as to whether it was she or her reflection who had asked the question.
Sophie pressed her index finger to the nose in the mirror and said, “You are me.”
As she got no answer to this, she turned the sentence around and said, “I am you.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Brass Mirror
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this almost "primal" scene, Sophie stares at herself in the mirror, and finds—of course—an image of herself staring back. Although the moment seems trivial, it's actually one of the most important in the novel. Sophie is examining herself and expressing her self-consciousness—in short, beginning to think like a philosopher. Moreover, the scene foreshadows the self-referentiality of the novel Sophie's World. The novel will make reference to its own artificiality—to the fact that it is just a novel—in much the same way that Sophie acknowledges her own reflection staring back at her. The starting point for any philosophical investigation, it would seem, is the kind of self-analysis that Sophie is practicing here.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

All the earliest philosophers shared the belief that there had to be a certain basic substance at the root of all change. How they arrived at this idea is hard to say. We only know that the notion gradually evolved that there must be a basic substance that was the hidden cause of all changes in nature. There had to be “something” that all things came from and returned to. For us, the most interesting part is actually not what solutions these earliest philosophers arrived at, but which questions they asked and what type of answer they were looking for. We are more interested in how they thought than in exactly what they thought.

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alberto Knox, speaking to his student, Sophie, offers an interesting take on the history of philosophy, and a model for how to study philosophy through a historical lens. Knox acknowledges that the earliest philosophers offered explanations for the mysteries of the universe that we now know to be false. (For example, some Greek philosophers thought everything was made out of water.) And yet even though early philosophers' ideas have become obsolete, Knox insists that they're still worth studying: it's worth examining how philosophers went about answering basic questions, even if the answers they arrived at have been disproved.

Knox's ideas can be applied to the rest of the novel: even if we disagree with Kant or Hegel, it's worth studying them to see how their minds worked. Their conclusions, we might think, are wrong, but their methods can be put to good use. In other words, it's necessary to study the history of philosophy if we want to practice philosophy now.

Chapter 7 Quotes

A philosopher is therefore someone who recognizes that there is a lot he does not understand, and is troubled by it. In that sense, he is still wiser than all those who brag about their knowledge of things they know nothing about.
“Wisest is she who knows she does not know,” I said previously. Socrates himself said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Remember this statement, because it is an admission that is rare, even among philosophers. Moreover, it can be so dangerous to say it in public that it can cost you your life. The most subversive people are those who ask questions. Giving answers is not nearly as threatening. Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Socrates
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Alberto Knox tells Sophie about the life and death of Socrates. Socrates, Knox argues, is important in the history of philosophy because of his method—the method of asking questions—moreso than any of the specific answers he provided. Socrates' questioning was considered radical and even dangerous, because it showed how little the average person understood about the world.

Knox's analysis of Socrates illustrates how important philosophy is, and how important studying the history of philosophy can be. Philosophy isn't just an esoteric hobby—it's a genuinely heroic, dangerous undertaking that can be used to change society. (If it wasn't, then Socrates wouldn't have been executed.) Furthermore, it's important for Knox and Sophie to study the history of philosophy so that they can learn from philosophers' methods. Socrates' theory of forms might not hold much weight anymore, but his method of persistent questioning is still very important: it's the method philosophers still use today.

“We don’t learn anything there. The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that school-teachers think they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils.”
“Now we’re back to white rabbits again! You know something? I demand to know who your boyfriend really is. Otherwise I’ll begin to think he is a bit disturbed.”
Sophie turned her back on the dishes and pointed at her mother with the dish mop.
“It’s not him who’s disturbed. But he likes to disturb others—to shake them out of their rut.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Mom / Sophie’s mother / Helene Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sophie argues with her mother—a rather worldly woman who is clearly concerned about her daughter's new ideas. Sophie tries to tell her mother what Alberto Knox has been teaching her about the importance of philosophy, but Sophie's mother doesn't really listen to her daughter at all. On one hand, Sophie's mother is being condescending in assuming that Sophie just has a new boyfriend, but on the other hand Sophie is acting rather pompous all of a sudden, delivering grand statements like this one about "the difference between schoolteachers and philosophers."

The scene is important because it dramatizes a point Alberto has already made: most people are too busy with their everyday lives to bother with the basic philosophical questions of the universe. Sophie's mother may have been inquisitive and curious when she was a child, but the pressures of adulthood have distracted her from philosophy: she's so concerned with her career and her duties as a mother that she seems uninterested in her daughter's investigations.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The thought of the “young girl” led Sophie to the last question: Are women and men equally sensible? She was not so sure about that. It depended on what Plato meant by sensible. Something the philosopher had said about Socrates came into her mind. Socrates had pointed out that everyone could understand philosophical truths if they just used their common sense. He had also said that a slave had the same common sense as a nobleman. Sophie was sure that he would also have said that women had the same common sense as men.

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen, Socrates , Plato
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sophie considers a question Alberto Knox has presented her with: are women and men equally sensible? Sophie believes that women and men are equal on an intellectual level; indeed, she cites aspects of Socrates' thought (the theory of forms, for example) to prove her point.

The quotation shows Sophie synthesizing the knowledge she's learned from Knox's lessons. Instead of just memorizing some facts about Socrates, Sophie is applying Socrates' teachings to her own life. In doing so, Sophie proves that she isn't just a passive student, absorbing lessons from a teacher in a classroom—instead, she's actively participating in her own education, flexing her intellectual muscles. Moreover, Sophie's deduction about Socrates and women's rights shows that it's possible to apply philosophers' ideas to one's own life: philosophy might seem like an outdated subject, but in fact it's a very relevant discipline.

Chapter 12 Quotes

After careful consideration Sophie felt she had come to the conclusion that healthy forests and a pure environment were more valuable than getting to work quickly. She gave several more examples. Finally she wrote: “Personally, I think Philosophy is a more important subject than English Grammar. It would therefore be a sensible priority of values to have philosophy on the timetable and cut down a bit on English lessons.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Sophie shows that she's learned a great deal from her philosophy lessons with Alberto Knox. Assigned to write an essay for school, Sophie produces a coherent argument about the importance of philosophy.

The quotation is important because it shows Sophie applying her philosophy lessons to real life: philosophy helps Sophie succeed in school. Moreover, the quotation shows that Sophie isn't just a parrot: while she's learning lots of facts about philosophy, she's also learning how to construct original philosophical arguments. One could even say that the difference between Sophie's school education (the education she's legally required to receive) and her philosophical education boils down to the difference between parroting information and synthesizing knowledge. In school, Sophie learns a lot of information but very little wisdom; with Knox, she learns how to think for herself.

Chapter 14 Quotes

She herself was just an ordinary person. But if she knew her historical roots, she would be a little less ordinary. 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.

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Sophie begins to feel the scale of the history of philosophy. She's learned about the ancient Greeks, and the knowledge she's learned gives her a sense of the vastness of Western philosophy. One could say that Sophie is experiencing the sublime here: she's experiencing something so vast and complex (philosophy through the ages) that she feels tiny and insignificant. And yet Sophie also feels proud that she can recognize the vast, complex subject that is philosophy—most people barely acknowledge it exists.

The quotation is a good piece of evidence for the importance of studying the history of philosophy. Unlike science or mathematics, philosophy doesn't necessarily progress over time: Hegel isn't necessarily any more right than Aristotle, simply because he's a more recent thinker. Therefore, it's important to study the totality of philosophy, rather than the most current thinkers. Furthermore, studying the history of philosophy gives Sophie a sense of the complexities of the human mind: she's in awe of people like Plato and Aristotle, who used their ingenuity to study the universe. In short, philosophy provides Sophie with a sense of wisdom that few teenagers ever achieve.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“St. Augustine’s point was that no man deserves God’s redemption. And yet God has chosen some to be saved from damnation, so for him there was nothing secret about who will be saved and who damned. It is preordained. We are entirely at his mercy.”
“So in a way, he returned to the old belief in fate.”
“Perhaps. But St. Augustine did not renounce man’s responsibility for his own

life. He taught that we must live in awareness of being among the chosen. He did not deny that we have free will. But God has ‘foreseen’ how we will live.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Saint Augustine
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Sophie meets Alberto Knox in a church. There, Knox tells Sophie about the life of Saint Augustine, one of the most important Christian philosophers. In doing so, Knox brings up an important philosophical concept: the idea of free will.

As Knox puts it, Augustine believed that humans' lives were predestined according to the wisdom of God. And yet Augustine didn't believe in fate, plain and simple—he believed that humans had the freedom to make their own choices. While Augustine beliefs may seem contradictory, Augustine fashioned a sophisticated model of human freedom that didn't infringe on God's omnipotence. The idea of free will becomes increasingly important to the novel as we realize that Sophie and Alberto are not, strictly speaking, free. In general, then, the problems with Augustine's philosophy—the problem of how free will can coexist with a divine, all-knowing entity—foreshadow the second half of the novel.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“When Newton had proved that the same natural laws applied everywhere in the universe, one might think that he thereby undermined people’s faith in God’s omnipotence. But Newton’s own faith was never shaken. He regarded the natural laws as proof of the existence of the great and almighty God. It’s possible that man’s picture of himself fared worse.”
“How do you mean?”
“Since the Renaissance, people have had to get used to living their life on a random planet in the vast galaxy. I am not sure we have wholly accepted it even now. But there were those even in the Renaissance who said that every single one of us now had a more central position than before.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Sir Isaac Newton
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Alberto Knox teaches Sophie about Sir Isaac Newton, one of the key figures in Western philosophy (even though he wasn't a philosopher!). Newton's contribution to philosophy is crucial: he showed that the natural world functions according to a number of predictable, mathematical rules. Newton's insights into the laws of science are themselves one part of an important trend in the history of Western thought: scientists following Newton used their training to show that humanity was, in a word, not special—for example, that humans evolved over time, the same as monkeys (Darwin), or that humans' brains were chaotic and unpredictable, like animals' (Freud).

While it's possible to interpret Newton and his successors as dangerous figures who ushered in an age of chaos and uncertainty, Knox disagrees. Newton, Darwin, and other may have used science to show that man wasn't "at the center of the universe," but they also suggested the importance of individuality and personal freedom. Ironically, if scientific laws, not God, control the natural world, individual people become more powerful and central than ever before.

Chapter 23 Quotes

In a momentary vision of absolute clarity Hilde knew that Sophie was more than just paper and ink. She really existed.

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen, Hilde Møller Knag
Related Symbols: The Binder / Sophie’s World
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hilde—who, we realize, has been reading a book called “Sophie’s World,” starring Sophie Amundsen—decides that Sophie is “real,” despite the fact that she’s also a fictional character created by Hilde's Father. In an interesting reversal of Spinoza, Hilde decides that Sophie’s fictional nature is no barrier to her being real: since all humans are “creations” of a divine entity, then Hilde herself isn’t any more real than Sophie.

Hilde’s relationship with Sophie also suggests that ideas and concepts are more real than the physical world (one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy). Even though Sophie lacks a body, the idea of Sophie carries with it a certain amount of sense—enough, perhaps for Sophie to qualify as a real person. Furthermore, the notion that a fiction can be real is a premise for reading Sophie’s World in the first place—the fact that Hilde is herself a fictional creation doesn’t stop us from liking her, empathizing with her, or learning from her. Hilde and Sophie are both literary devices, designed to teach readers about philosophical ideas and, perhaps, make us question the reality of our own lives.

Chapter 31 Quotes

“Our actions are not always guided by reason. Man is not really such a rational creature as the eighteenth-century rationalists liked to think. Irrational impulses often determine what we think, what we dream, and what we do. Such irrational impulses can be an expression of basic drives or needs. The human sexual drive, for example, is just as basic as the baby’s instinct to suckle.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Karl Marx , Sigmund Freud
Page Number: 426
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Alberto marks a turning point in his lessons for Sophie. For many chapters now, the philosophers he’s chosen to discuss have been rational and logical—they’ve trusted that reason coulb be used to solve almost any problem. After this chapter, however, Alberto turns to modern thinkers like Freud and Nietzsche—figures who don’t have the Enlightenment era’s faith in logic. As Alberto explains, Freud believed that the human mind was controlled by irrational impulses more than rational thoughts—urges like sex, hunger, and violence are far more important than reason in determining what a human being does. This complicates things, and means that the realm of philosophy blends more with other studies like psychology and economics.

Chapter 34 Quotes

Major Albert Knag’s first impulse was to smile. But he did not appreciate being manipulated in this manner. He had always liked to be in charge of his own life. Now this little vixen in Lillesand was directing his movements in Kastrup Airport! How had she managed that?

Related Characters: Hilde Møller Knag , Albert Knag / The Major
Page Number: 485
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Albert Knag, the author of the book-within-the-book, returns from his long tour of the Middle East. Knag, the father of Hilde, is surprised to find that someone (Hilde, we recognize) is manipulating his environment: someone has placed elaborate banners at his airport terminal and slipped highly specific messages into his seat on the airplane. The effect of Hilde’s manipulation is to make Knag question the reality of his world—he wonders if he, like Sophie, might be a character trapped in someone else’s novel—just as Hilde has intended. It’s important to note that Hilde is trying to give her father a taste of his own medicine: Albert has manipulated the characters in Sophie’s World for his own amusement; now, he finds himself being manipulated and disoriented. Hilde’s actions underscore the point that no human being is completely free in the conventional sense. Perhaps we’re all just characters in someone else’s “book”; i.e., our actions have been predetermined by some divine entity (whether it be a Christian God or a more abstract force of the kind hypothesized by Spinoza).

“You’ve become a grown woman, Hilde!”
“And you’ve become a real writer.”
Hilde wiped away her tears.
“Shall we say we’re quits?” she asked.
“We’re quits.”

Related Characters: Hilde Møller Knag (speaker), Albert Knag / The Major (speaker)
Page Number: 495
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hilde reunites with her father, Albert—the man who's been writing her letters about philosophy, assembled into the book Sophie's World. Hilde and Albert compliment each other for their ingenuity. Hilde compliments Albert for writing Sophie's World; Albert praises Hilde for mastering philosophy and for engineering a series of pranks that disoriented him, proving that she'd truly understood his lessons in epistemology and ontology.

Albert and Hilde's exchange reinforces the point that Sophie's World is a coming-of-age story: over the course of the novel, Sophie learns to channel her frustration and anxiety into abstract thinking. In the process she becomes a more mature, confident thinker—or as her father puts it, philosophy helps her become a grown woman.

Chapter 35 Quotes

They jumped out of the car and ran down the garden.
They tried to loosen the rope that was made fast in a metal ring. But they could not even lift one end.
“It’s as good as nailed down,” said Alberto.
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“A true philosopher must never give up. If we could just... get it loose …”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Hilde Møller Knag , Albert Knag / The Major
Page Number: 506
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Sophie's World, Sophie and Alberto—fictional characters who've somehow attained a degree of independence from their creator—find themselves in a strange world. Everything around them, including people, is frozen. In spite of the hopelessness of their situation, Sophie and Alberto try to move a metal ring, which is attached to a boat near to where Hilde and Albert are sitting. Sophie is persistent in her attempts to the move the ring—in spite of the unlikelihood of moving the ring, she keeps trying, confident that philosophers never give up.

In all, the novel ends on a note of cautious optimism. Sophie seems to have no chance of moving the ring, but her intellectual training gives her hope and confidence. Gaarder suggests that philosophy, in addition to being an important area of study, can also be something like a religion for its students: it can provide people with hope and confidence in their own abilities. As the novel began, Sophie was a timid, shy young girl—now, with philosophy as her weapon, she's brave and determined.