Child's-Eye View of a Big ideaA Book Spanning Western Philosophy Has Proved a Bestseller among Teenagers. er, Why?

By Appleyard, Bryan | The Independent (London, England), December 14, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Child's-Eye View of a Big ideaA Book Spanning Western Philosophy Has Proved a Bestseller among Teenagers. er, Why?

Appleyard, Bryan, The Independent (London, England)

Next month Sophie's World, a novel by the Norwegian Jostein Gaarder, will appear in this country. It arrives here having been a publishing sensation in Europe - 500,000 hardback copies were sold in Germany alone. This is sensational because Sophie 's World definitely does not have "bestseller" written all over it. Aimed at teenagers, it is a long, educational fairy-tale designed to teach them the entire history of Western philosophy.

Sophie, the heroine, finds her life taken over by a man - Alberto Knox - who is driven by an inexplicable desire to make her learn philosophy. He employs devious and fantastic means and, indeed, Sophie's own story turns out to be tied in Lewis Carroll-like knots, involving mirrors, talking animals and parallel worlds.

But all that apart, Knox gives it to his pupil straight. His coverage of the history of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre, is easy reading but undiluted and unadorned. Leave out the whimsy and what is left is a lucid and, until it g

ets to the 20th century, reasonably comprehensive philosophy novel.

The book is also a pro-philosophy polemic. It opens with a culturally bracing quotation from Goethe - "He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth" - and, throughout, Alberto Knox insists that the subject he is teaching her isthe best the human race has done and that to think philosophically is the highest calling of all. He even offers it to her as a kind of secular immortality.

"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."

A white rabbit is the slightly clumsy, Carrollian image used to make the point that philosophers are the highest and the best. Existence is this rabbit, plucked from a conjurer's hat. We are born poised on the outer tips of its fur, staring outwards at the wonder of creation. But as we age, we turn away and creep down into the rabbit's coat, forgetting our sense of wonder. Philosophers, however, stay balanced on the hair tips The polemic is reinforced by Sophie's constant complaint that she is not taught anything like this at school. The dull routine of her schoolwork is contrasted with the wonders Knox has to impart. At the most elementary level this book was clearly written as a tract in favour of teaching philosophy to children. And, indeed, as partof the publicity effort for British publication, a conference is to be held at Kent University in January to show how philosophy can be taught at nursery, primary and secondary schools.

The success of the novel is, at first sight, an odd, almost startling phenomenon. Philosophy in this century has neither been wildly popular, nor has it beeen seen as a great and glorious adventure. Rather, it has been regarded as the obscure preserve ofa few sad devotees, stricken with an onanistic passion for futile game-playing, donnish nit-picking and endlessly circular word play.

Philosophers have not quite been pigeon-holed with trainspotters but they haven't been many pigeon holes away. The simple truth is that, with the one brief exception of post-war Paris, philosophy has not been hip.

Latterly it has also suffered from being a spectacularly politically incorrect activity. More than any other discipline, philosophy is founded on an endless vista of Dead White European Males - the earliest of whom were slave-owners - imperialistically enunciating their racist, phallocentric laws. Few traditions could be more calculated to outrage the caring, globally conscious student. Indeed, this week it emerged that Yale University cannot bring itself to spend a $10m endowment because it was intended to "further the study of Western civilisation".One Yale philosophy student was quoted as saying, with superb pretension, that she had had her fill of Plato and Kant.

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Child's-Eye View of a Big ideaA Book Spanning Western Philosophy Has Proved a Bestseller among Teenagers. er, Why?


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