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by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


When Alice Meets Socrates

Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy
By Jostien Gaarder
Translated by Paulette Moller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
405 pp.; $19, hardcover;
Berkley, $6.99, paper

Jostein Gaarder is a high-school philosophy teacher in Norway whom I first encountered via an interview on National Public Radio in the fall of 1995. That philosophy is regularly taught in the Norwegian high-school curriculum was the first surprise from the interview. The second was that Sophie's World, Gaarder's history of Western philosophy embedded in a science fiction--like novel, was already in its ninth English printing and slated for translation into French, Russian, Korean, Portuguese, and various other languages. Gaarder himself seemed rather bemused by the attention his first book was receiving, and by the fact that (in his words) he was being "shipped around the world like a package" as a result. (Since then, two more books by Gaarder have appeared in English translation.)

After reading Sophie's World, I could understand the unusual enthusiasm the book has generated. I happen to teach a required course in the history of psychology to undergraduate majors in that discipline. Since many psychology majors are neither by training nor inclination attuned to the history of philosophy that makes up the bulk of the course, anything that can reduce their anxiety and capture their attention between textbook chapters and primary source readings is to be welcomed. In my experience, a well-chosen novel can often do the trick: B. F. Skinner's Walden Two has been a mainstay of my history course for years, and Sophie's World now bids fair to become another.

Sophie Amundsen is a 14-year-old high-school student who comes home one day to find two envelopes addressed to her, each containing a single question: "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" This marks the beginning of a correspondence course in philosophy, unilaterally initiated by an eccentric but enthusiastic middle-aged, free-lance ...

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