Sophie’s World

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Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder 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.
Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder Theme Icon

The defining theme of Sophie’s World is, pretty clearly, philosophy. As the book moves along, Sophie Amundsen, a teenaged girl, learns important lessons in the history of Western philosophy from her teacher, Alberto Knox. Alberto, an intelligent man, guides Sophie through the ancient Greeks, the medieval thinkers, and Enlightenment and Romantic idealists. All this should make us wonder which philosophical ideas Alberto and Sophie believe to be true. More broadly, we might want to ask if Western philosophers make progress over time; i.e., if a 19th century thinker like Hegel is more “correct” than an ancient philosopher like Aristotle. Finally, the philosophical themes of Sophie’s World make us ask: what is wisdom? (The word “philosophy” literally means “the love of wisdom,” after all.)

It would take too long to summarize every philosophical system that Alberto reviews with Sophie—in fact, doing so would be beside the point. By the end of the book, Sophie certainly hasn’t committed to any one system of ideas. There are things about Plato, Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche that she admires, and a few moral issues that she’s particularly interested in (feminism, for example) but she’s not prepared to throw in her lot as a Kantian or a Nietzschean. Even after learning about 3,000 years of Western thought, Sophie continues to wonder what to believe.

The concept of “wonder”—both in the sense of questioning what is true, and in the sense of being continually astounded by the world—is crucial to understanding Sophie’s World. One reason the novel doesn’t end with Sophie arriving at an answer to her questions is that any such answer would be a little unsatisfactory, since it would make the universe seem “fixed,” predictable, and dry. Alberto teaches Sophie about philosophy not to give her answers but to train her to ask questions—to think of herself as an outsider, trying to make sense of what’s right in front of her nose. As Alberto says toward the beginning of the novel, the philosopher is like a child watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. Most adults are so used to seeing “tricks” of this kind that they don’t bat an eye—by the same token, most adults aren’t astounded by the fact that they’re alive, that the universe exists, etc. A good philosopher will never lose her sense of wonder at the universe’s mysteries. One could even say that the goal of philosophy as Alberto understands it is to escape banality and boredom. (Throughout the novel, Sophie’s intellectual excitement is contrasted with her Mom’s dullness.)

In this way, Sophie’s World arrives at the strange conclusion that although it’s important to ask philosophical questions, it’s not particularly important to choose definite answers to these questions. For this reason, Socrates may be the paradigmatic philosopher for Sophie and Alberto: a wise man who accepted that he understood nothing, and never lost his fascination with existence. For Socrates—and perhaps for Sophie and Alberto—philosophy must be an ongoing process of reading, discussing, and contemplating. (This explains why it’s necessary for Sophie to learn about the history of Western philosophy, and why she often goes back to reread her lessons.) Philosophy is about preserving one’s sense of wonder—this, it’s suggested, is the only real wisdom.

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Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder Quotes in Sophie’s World

Below you will find the important quotes in Sophie’s World related to the theme of Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder.
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 2 Quotes

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.
In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sophie reads a letter from Alberto Knox, her mentor and friend. Knox makes an interesting point: people don't usually ask themselves deep questions about the "magic" of the universe. Although the universe is full of wonder, people are so used to their everyday lives that they never stop to ask where the world comes from, how life is possible, and other philosophical questions. It's as if the world is one big magic trick, and people are so used to seeing it that they've stopped wondering how it works, or even being entertained by it.

And yet Alberto insists that the desire to understand the magic trick—to understand the universe—is precisely what makes humans human. Humans have been blessed with the gift of self-consciousness, so they should use their intelligence and wisdom to study life's mysteries, especially through the study of philosophy.

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 11 Quotes

Finally, let us look at Aristotle’s views on women. His was unfortunately not as uplifting as Plato’s. Aristotle was more inclined to believe that women were incomplete in some way. A woman was an “unfinished man.” In reproduction, woman is passive and receptive whilst man is active and productive; for the child inherits only the male characteristics, claimed Aristotle. He believed that all the child’s characteristics lay complete in the male sperm. The woman was the soil, receiving and bringing forth the seed, whilst the man was the “sower.” Or, in Aristotelian language, the man provides the “form” and the woman contributes the “substance.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Plato , Aristotle
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sophie learns about Aristotle, a philosopher who was arguably even more influential than Plato, but whose philosophy wasn't as friendly to women. Aristotle disagreed with Plato in arguing that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men.

And yet even if Sophie (or we, the readers) disagrees with Aristotle on women's rights, it's important to study his ideas. Aristotle was an intelligent man, and yet he allowed the sexist culture of his era to influence his thinking: he used philosophy to rationalize the subjugation of women that he saw all around him. By studying Aristotle, Sophie learns how to take great philosopher's ideas with a grain of salt: to accept some of their ideas while rejecting others as the products of ignorance or bigotry.

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.

“It’s interesting to note that the eggs of mammals were not discovered until 1827. It was therefore perhaps not so surprising that people thought it was the man who was the creative and lifegiving force in reproduction. We can moreover note that, according to Aquinas, it is only as nature-being that woman is inferior to man. Woman’s soul is equal to man’s soul. In Heaven there is complete equality of the sexes because all physical gender differences cease to exist.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Saint Thomas Aquinas
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Alberto Knox educates Sophie about the history of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages. Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the key Christian philosophers, believed that women were inferior to men physically, and yet equal spiritually. On Earth, women were weaker than men, and yet in Heaven, their souls were the same.

It's possible to criticize Aquinas for his sexism—for arguing that women were inferior to men during the course of their natural lives. But it's also possible to praise him for being progressive, at least by the standards of the late Middle Ages, on women's rights. When studying the history of Western philosophy in general, it's important to refrain from criticizing every philosopher for sexism and racism, even if such critiques are easy to make. Even if Aquinas isn't totally "PC" by 21st century standards, he pushed philosophy in the right direction—toward gender equality—and he deserves some credit for doing so.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“But Descartes tried to work forward from this zero point. He doubted everything, and that was the only thing he was certain of. But now something struck him: one thing had to be true, and that was that he doubted. When he doubted, he had to be thinking, and because he was thinking, it had to be certain that he was a thinking being. Or, as he himself expressed it: Cogito, ergo sum.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Rene Descartes
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Knox describes an important philosopher, Rene Descartes. As with other important philosophers, Descartes is important to Sophie not so much for his ideas as for his methods: somewhat like Socrates, Descartes used a method of "systematic doubt": denying the existence of anything until it was proven true. Using systematic doubt, Descartes arrived at one conclusion: he, a thinking being, existed. ("I think, therefore I am.")

Knox's gloss on Descartes is important because it shows how greatly philosophy changed since the Middle Ages. Where Augustine and Aquinas believed that all thought must begin with belief—the belief in a Christian God—Descartes argued that philosophy must begin with doubt. Descartes wasn't a nihilist; rather, he maintained that the only way to truly believe something was first to doubt it and then use logic to prove it. The quotation also suggests that philosophy begins with introspection: for example, Descartes examining the capacity of his own mind. In this way, Knox’s discussion of Descartes takes us back to the beginning of the novel, in which Sophie looks at her own reflection in the mirror.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“Or think of a lion in Africa. Do you think it makes up its mind to be a beast of prey? Is that why it attacks a limping antelope? Could it instead have made up its mind to be a vegetarian?”
“No, a lion obeys its nature.”
“You mean, the laws of nature. So do you, Sophie, because you are also part of nature. You could of course protest, with the support of Descartes, that a lion is an animal and not a free human being with free mental faculties. But think of a newborn baby that screams and yells. If it doesn’t get milk it sucks its thumb. Does that baby have a free will?”
“I guess not.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Rene Descartes
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alberto Knox clarifies some of the ideas of Spinoza, one of the most important—and difficult—of all Western philosophers. Spinoza argued that free will was an illusion. Humans were no freer than lions or other animals—just like lions, they have an inborn nature that leads them to crave certain things (food, love, art, etc.). Humans only believe that they’re free because they can’t stand the idea that they’re slaves to their own nature.

In addition to being a good explanation of a complicated philosopher, the passage is also an illustration of Knox’s philosophical method. Knox doesn’t tell Sophie how to understand Spinoza; instead, he uses a series of short, pointed questions to keep Sophie engaged in the discussion. Like Socrates, he pushes Sophie to broaden her mind and consider ideas she would have otherwise dismissed. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

“Before we sense anything, then, the mind is as bare and empty as a blackboard before the teacher arrives in the classroom. Locke also compared the mind to an unfurnished room. But then we begin to sense things. We see the world around us, we smell, taste, feel, and hear. And nobody does this more intensely than infants. In this way what Locke called simple ideas of sense arise. But the mind does not just passively receive information from outside it. Some activity happens in the mind as well. The single sense ideas are worked on by thinking, reasoning, believing, and doubting, thus giving rise to what he calls reflection. So he distinguished between ‘sensation’ and ‘reflection.’ The mind is not merely a passive receiver. It classifies and processes all sensations as they come streaming in. And this is just where one must be on guard.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, John Locke
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Knox explains the philosophy of John Locke to Sophie. Locke believed that the mind is born a “blank slate”—just an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. And yet Locke also believed that the mind was born with the capacity to perform certain actions, such as thinking and reflecting. Humans are unique from animals, he argued, in that they can reflect on what they observe, and learn from their experiences.

Knox’s explanation of Locke has clear ramifications for his lessons with Sophie. Just as Locke argued, Sophie is using her experiences and observations to learn. One could even say that she’s classifying and processing her lessons with Knox, converting them from experience to wisdom.

Chapter 25 Quotes

“So now let’s sum up. According to Kant, there are two elements that contribute to man’s knowledge of the world. One is the external conditions that we cannot know of before we have perceived them through the senses. We can call this the material of knowledge. The other is the internal conditions in man himself—such as the perception of events as happening in time and space and as processes conforming to an unbreakable law of causality. We can call this the form of knowledge.”

Related Characters: Alberto Knox (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Immanuel Kant
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Knox sums up the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of Western philosophy. Kant elaborated on Locke in believing that the human mind was a combination of passivity and activity. The mind passively absorbed experiences, using the five senses. At the same time, however, Kant believed that the mind was hard-wired to interpret these experiences in certain ways: to feel the sense of time, space, etc. There were also certain “ideas” about the universe, which were impossible to prove but which also determined the way the human mind experienced life—causation was one such idea.

In all, Kant’s view of the human mind is important to Sophie’s education because it suggests the way that she interprets Knox’s lessons: she hears his voice and reads his letter, but she also brings to the table certain predetermined ideas of her own, such as causation. Kant is also important because he argues that there’s a limit to what logic and philosophy can prove: the idea of causation, for example, is impossible to prove or disprove. Kant foreshadows his philosophical successors, who will go much further in challenging Western philosophy’s faith in logic and reason.

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 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.