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.
The Nature of Reality ThemeTracker
The Nature of Reality 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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“But do you by any chance know of such a society today?”
“Hm ... that’s a good question.”
“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?”
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 …”