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.
Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Education, Mentorship, and Coming of Age Quotes in Sophie’s World
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?
“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.
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 …”