Sophie’s World

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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.
The Nature of Reality Theme Icon

Sophie’s World may be a book about Western philosophy, but it’s (inevitably) too short to encompass all of Western philosophy—it has to pick and choose which aspects of this subject to focus on. It’s important to note that while the book outlines many of the major questions of philosophy, it’s a little more interested in answering some of these questions than others. When Alberto Knox reviews Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Plato, etc. with Sophie Amundsen, he spends much more time discussing these figures’ ideas about epistemology—i.e., the study of what is real and what can be known about the world—than he does reviewing their views on ethics, politics, etc. One reason that the book focuses more on epistemology than ethics or political philosophy is that the question of reality is directly relevant to the book’s plot. As we move on, we become aware that the story of Sophie and Alberto, as it’s presented in the novel, is itself being read by another girl, Hilde Møller Knag, whose father, Albert Knag, has sent her a book called Sophie’s World for her 15th birthday. It’s no wonder that Sophie’s World focuses so extensively on epistemology—as the characters try to figure out what world they’re in, and whether or not they’re “real,” the philosophy of epistemology becomes directly relevant to their lives.

One way to start talking about epistemology and reality in Sophie’s World is to ask, which of the two storylines is more real than the other? Certainly, this is the question that Sophie and Hilde keep asking themselves. Sophie begins to realize that her life—her entire “world,” as the book’s title says—is the product of an author’s imagination. Nothing she does matters, since it’ll only ever amount to a pile of ink and paper. Similarly, Hilde recognizes that Sophie is struggling to come to terms with her world’s unreality. Hilde begins to resent her father for “cruelly” manipulating Sophie and her fellow fictional characters—she thinks that he has some responsibility to treat his creations with a measure of respect.

The trick that Sophie’s World plays on us is so clever that it can take a while to realize what it is. By asking which storyline is real—and by encouraging us, again and again, to try to answer this question—the book deceives us into forgetting that—of course—neither text is more or less real than the other: they’re both equally fictional, equally made up, equally ink-and-paper. By playing this trick on us, Sophie’s World makes one of its most persuasive and powerful points about the nature of reality. If we’re willing to believe that one fictional story can be more real than the other, then we’ve already conceded that a work of fiction can be real in the first place. But in what sense can fiction be real?

Throughout Sophie’s World, it’s suggested that ideas and stories may be more real than what we usually think of as reality (the physical, material world that we interact with every day). This is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy, dating all the way back to Plato (who believed that the world of unchanging, idealized “forms” was more real than the material world, which was always changing). But even if we don’t agree with Plato, the idea that stories and fictions can be real and true is a basic premise of literature—if we didn’t believe that Sophie’s World had some relevance to our lives, or had emotional or artistic truth to it, then we wouldn't bother to read it (or even look up the LitCharts summary). By the time the book ends, we’ve seen that ideas can have a profound effect on people’s lives. It’s for this reason that the book ends with the image of Sophie—strictly speaking, an imaginary person—“stinging” Hilde—within the context of the book, a “real” person. This is a clever metaphor for the way that ideas, fictions, and abstractions—i.e., all the things that people lazily refer to as “not real”—can influence the way people behave in the real world.

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The Nature of Reality Quotes in Sophie’s World

Below you will find the important quotes in Sophie’s World related to the theme of The Nature of Reality.
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 15 Quotes

“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 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 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 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 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 26 Quotes

“The fairy tale was the absolute literary ideal of the Romantics—in the same way that the absolute art form of the Baroque period was the theater. It gave the poet full scope to explore his own creativity.”
“He could play God to a fictional universe.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker)
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Knox discusses the Romantics with Sophie. He argues that the fairy tale was the most important literary form for Romantic writers, because it allowed such writers to “play god” over their own literary creations. By this point in the novel, we’re well aware that Sophie and Alberto are themselves the creations of a writer, Albert Knag (who is himself a character in the text!). In other words, Alberto and Sophie are talking—obliquely—about their own situation: they’re puppets in a writer’s fictional universe, just like characters in a Romantic author’s fairy tale, or actors in a Baroque writer's play. The question then becomes: are Alberto and Sophie exercising any real freedom by talking about their own existence? They’re still fictional creations, and yet it’s suggested that by acknowledging their own artificiality, they reach some form of freedom from authorial control. (An even better question might be: are we, the readers, any more free than Sophie and Alberto? We’re probably not characters in a book, but are our decisions any less predetermined?)

Chapter 29 Quotes

“That society would be a just society. It would have arisen among equals.”
“Men and women!”
“That goes without saying. None of them knew whether they would wake up as men or women. Since the odds are fifty-fifty, society would be just as attractive for women as for men.”
“It sounds promising.”
“So tell me, was the Europe of Karl Marx a society like that?”
“Absolutely not!”
“But do you by any chance know of such a society today?”
“Hm ... that’s a good question.”

Related Characters: Sophie Amundsen (speaker), Alberto Knox (speaker), Karl Marx
Page Number: 398
Explanation and Analysis:

Alberto tells Sophie about a thought experiment designed by the famous political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls argued that the only truly “equitable” society would be one in which the planners would be randomly assigned a place in the society they just invented (so that the creators/leaders of the society couldn't give themselves preferential treatment to others). Such a scenario is, of course, hard to enact in real life. Sophie and Alberto’s discussion ties in with Alberto’s lessons on Karl Marx, the political philosopher who argued that society is always designed to help the powerful and the wealthy maintain their control of the “means of production” (i.e., the tools and resources that produce goods and allow the wealthy to stay wealthy).

Alberto’s rhetorical question to Sophie (“But do you by any chance …”) raises another interesting point—perhaps one of the goals of philosophy should be to make society more equitable. Up to now, philosophy has generally seemed abstract, loose, and metaphysical—with Marx, philosophy becomes a concrete, economic subject, aiming to change the world instead of simply describing it.

Chapter 33 Quotes

“They have vanished into thin air,” said Helene Amundsen, not without a touch of pride.
She drew herself up to her full height, walked toward the long table and began to clear up after the philosophical garden party.
“More coffee, anyone?”

Related Characters: Mom / Sophie’s mother / Helene Amundsen (speaker), Sophie Amundsen, Alberto Knox
Page Number: 478
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Sophie and Alberto—now fully aware that they’re just characters in someone else’s book—find a way to escape from their text: they simply “vanish into thin air.” The paradox is this: Alberto and Sophie seem to have “chosen” to escape their text, but in fact, their author (Albert Knag) has just written them out of the text—in short, they’re just as obedient to Knag’s will as ever.

At the same time, the passage marks a turning point in the novel: after this point, Sophie and Alberto will continue their adventures, though it's not clear who, if anyone, is writing their story (besides the book's real author, Jostein Gaarder). In a sense, Sophie and Alberto have "escaped" Knag, but they're just as obedient as ever to Gaarder, the author of Sophie's World.

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.