Albert Knag, Hilde’s father, calls Hilde in her house to wish her a happy birthday. He asks Hilde if she’s received his present. She tells him she’s delighted with it—she’s read up to the part where Sophie and Alberto reach the major’s cabin. Hilde tells her father she’s learned more in only one day than ever before in her life. Hilde also confesses that she’s beginning to think of Sophie as a real person. Albert doesn’t deny this at all—he only says, “We’ll talk more.”
This is a major moment—the first time Albert speaks aloud (rather than speaking through letters to Hilde). Clearly, his lessons for Hilde are working well—Hilde is learning a lot about philosophy by studying the adventures of Sophie and Alberto. As we too are learning, it’s often easier to study philosophy when it’s presented within the framework of a novel, rather than in a work of nonfiction.
Hilde falls asleep reading from her book. In the book, Sophie talks with Alberto in the attic. Alberto moves on to tell Sophie about the life of Immanuel Kant. Kant was born in 1724, and studied religion and philosophy from an early age. He tried to use reason to preserve the basic tenets of Christianity while doing away with what he saw as the dogma and nonsense of religion.
Kant represents the philosophical project of many of the Enlightenment thinkers: he tries to study the world in a way that honors the role of reason and intelligence while questioning blind faith. This doesn’t mean that Kant doesn’t think faith has a place in life, but he also doesn’t think it can be running the whole show.
Kant’s project was to unite the rationalism of Spinoza with the empiricism of Hume. The universe, he argued, is neither a solely abstract concept, nor is it strictly material. To illustrate Kant’s point, Alberto gives Sophie a pair of colored glasses. The glasses let Sophie see the world, but also “color” her view. This is similar to the way Kantian ideas “color” our view of the world. Humans, Kant argued, are naturally disposed to conceive of the world in categories like time and space—things that aren’t, strictly speaking, real. The mind doesn’t just absorb experiences, as Locke argued—the mind also shapes and interprets experiences in terms of categories like space and time. Kant agreed with Hume that causality was an illusion, but argued that causation was another kind of category, one unique to the human mind.
Alberto’s lesson for Sophie is a good example of why Albert bothered to write a novel for Hilde in the first place. By having Alberto teach Sophie philosophy lessons in a playful, friendly fashion—and by teaching Hilde indirectly, through a third-person work of fiction—Albert makes Hilde’s philosophy lessons more memorable and more interesting. The idea that time and space are categories builds on the counter-intuitive ideas of Hume: if causation can be an illusion—a subjective phenomenon—then perhaps space and time can be as well.
Kant coined the term “the thing in itself” to describe the external world, a world that we can never know completely, due to the categories through which we perceive it. In this way, life consists of a constant interaction between the thing in itself—the external world—and the human mind, which is shaped by categories like time, space, etc.
Kant showed the limits of reason for understanding the “deep questions” of life. When faced with a question like “Does God exist?”, humans have no experiences upon which to base their answer. Nor can their reason solve the problem. People like Aquinas and Aristotle tried to use logic to prove God’s existence, but—in Kant’s opinion—failed to do so satisfactorily. The only way to approach God, Kant claimed, was with faith, as neither reason nor experience could “prove” God.Sophie compares Kant to Descartes—they both “smuggled God in by the back door.”
Sophie’s interpretation of Descartes and Kant is a common one, but not necessarily the correct one. Kant is perfectly upfront about the fact that God still has a place in his philosophy—he’s not trying to “trick” his readers into accepting God without knowing it. And the idea that there are some things beyond individual, rational understanding isn’t at odds with the rest of Kant’s philosophy: his entire philosophical project accepts this very premise.
There is a knock at the door. Sophie finds Little Red Riding Hood standing outside—she claims to be looking for her grandmother’s house. She gives Sophie a letter, and then departs. Sophie yells that Little Red Riding Hood should look out for the wolf, but Alberto assures her that this warning accomplishes nothing.Sophie’s letter says, “If the human brain was simple enough for us to understand, we would still be so stupid that we couldn’t understand it.”
The novel becomes increasingly fantastical, and increasingly fictional—in other words, Sophie can no longer ignore the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction (even for us, the readers, there’s rarely a moment when we truly forget that we’re just reading a book, as in many good works of literature). Instead of tricking his readers into thinking that this is “real,” Gaarder wants readers to actively question the nature of reality.
Alberto continues with his discussion of Kant’s morality. Kant believed that the difference between right and wrong was a matter of reason, rather than one of sentiment. Humans have an innate ability to know the right thing to do. Kant also believed that a good system of morality is one that respects humans for their innate worth as human beings. This means that we can’t treat human beings as mere means to ends. In all, Kant thought of morality as another category, like space or time—something that couldn’t exactly be proved with reason, but which was still crucial to the way man perceived the world.
Kant disagrees with Hume about the nature of reason: he believes that it’s possible to have a system of right and wrong that’s based on something more concrete than sentiment. But this doesn’tmean that human morality is totally objective—on the contrary, morality is another category, comprehensible to human beings but totally incomprehensible to anyone else. In a way, Kant has his cake and eats it, too—he’s willing to say that morality is more objective than sentiment, but more subjective than math or science.
Kant’s treatment of free will is extremely complicated. He believed that man is a “dual creature”—a being with a body and a mind. And yet unlike Descartes, Kant believed that there was freedom in obeying one’s moral instinct. By giving into one’s instincts, humans aren’t truly exercising their freedom—a glutton who eats only ice cream, for example, is a “slave” to his own appetites. A free human being is one who obeys his sense of right and wrong.Sophie finds this difficult to grasp, but Alberto insists, “A mere bagatelle.”
This is an important passage because it questions traditional definitions of freedom at a point in the text when the question of freedom has become particularly important (i.e. is Sophie free in any sense of the word, or is she just Albert’s slave?). Perhaps Sophie could be said to achieve freedom by divorcing herself of her appetites and desires—in other words, by pursuing reason and philosophy. Note Alberto’s catchphrase reappearing.
It’s almost time for Sophie to leave. Before Sophie leaves, Alberto has an idea. If Kant is correct, Sophie and Alberto will be exercising freedom by exercising their universal reason. Alberto promises to tell Sophie more about this plan soon. Before Sophie leaves, Alberto instructs Sophie to sing happy birthday to Hilde—they both do so.
Alberto—usually so adversarial to Albert and all of Albert’s plans—is suddenly cooperating with Albert (as he was earlier, in wishing Sophie a “happy birthday Hilde”). This is because Alberto is Albert’s literary creation, of course—Alberto’s rebelliousness is no more real than his obedience.
Sophie leaves Alberto and walks through the forest. While she’s there, she notices a figure—Winnie the Pooh. Pooh tells Sophie that he’s lost his way. He’s supposed to deliver a letter to Hilde. Sophie takes the letter from Pooh and offers to deliver it to Hilde. She walks away from Pooh and reads the letter. In it,Albert Knag mentions some things that Alberto didn’t teach Sophie. For example, Kantwas one of the first to propose that the nations of the world should band together in a confederacy of peace and cooperation—in this sense, he was the father of the United Nations.
Sophie’s most important and relevant subject may be epistemology and the study of what is and isn’t real, but the novel is also interested in defining what does and doesn’t qualify as “Western” thought. Kant’s support for what would one day become the United Nations suggests that Western philosophy played an important role in establishing what we now think of, politically, as the Western world.