Sophie Amundsen lives with her mother in a suburban house. Her father, an oil tanker captain, is seldom home. Her mother works outside the home and comes home late in the afternoon. To make up for being alone some much, she is given several animals, including a cat called Sherekan.
Coming home from school one day, she looks in the mailbox and finds a letter (without a return address or stamp) addressed to her. Inside is a note with one question: "Who are you?" This perplexes Sophie, who takes the letter to her secret hiding place in the hedge that she calls her "den." She ponders over the question, coming up with several answers, none of which she thinks is satisfactory.
Thinking that perhaps there might be another letter, Sophie checks the mailbox again, and indeed does find another letter, this one asking "Where does the world come from?" Again, Sophie muses of the possible answers, both scientific and religious. She realizes that the universe must have come from something, but at what point does something come from nothing?
Checking the mailbox again, she finds a postcard, addressed in care of her to Hilde Knag Moller. It is a birthday card from Hilde’s father, apologizing that he could not be there for her birthday, and also for sending the card through Sophie, because it was "the easiest way."
Sophie is completely confused at this point. Where did the letters come from? What were the answers to the questions in the letters? Who is Hilde?
Sophie is preoccupied with the questions she has received in the mail. Sophie returns home to find a large brown envelope in the mailbox. It is addressed to her and labeled, "Course in Philosophy. Handle with care." She takes it to her "den" and finds typewritten pages asking, "What Is Philosophy?"
The letter presents her with the idea that the only thing necessary to be a philosopher is to have a sense of wonder, both about the world and about oneself. The writer states that most people lose this capacity as they grow older.
The philosopher compares the universe to a white rabbit pulled out of a top hat by a magician. While we as observers are filled with wonder at the trick, more than anything we wonder, "How did he do that?" We want to know how and why. That is the basis of all philosophy.
We as individuals are microscopic insects burrowed deep in the rabbit’s fur. A relative few crawl up the hairs. Most are content to remain in the depths of the fur, or else, having climbed to the top, crawl back down into its safety. The true philosopher climbs up the hair to look into the eyes of the magician.
Sophie is overwhelmed by this thought. She has never thought so hard in her life. When her mother comes home from work, Sophie asks her if she has ever wondered where we came from and why we are here. Mrs. Amundsen is concerned, not liking the tone Sophie has taken. She asks Sophie if she is taking drugs. Sophie just laughs.
Sophie finds another packet from the philosopher, this time on the ancient myths. The philosopher states that, in all cultures, people wanted explanations for why nature worked the way it did. Rather than coming up with a scientific explanation, they developed myths, which in turn were either based on religions or gave rise to religions.
The myths first wanted to explain natural phenomena, such as why it rains. They invented stories of the gods and goddesses and their fights against evil forces. The philosopher gives examples from Nordic mythology.
In the same way, ancient Greeks developed myths to explain the seasons, weather, and so on. Homer and Hesiod were the first to write down the myths around 700 BC, thus enabling people to discuss them. With the coming of slavery, citizens were freed to concentrate more on politics and culture.
Eventually, ancient Greek philosophers began to question the myths. They began to think that the gods acted too much like human beings, thus stating that the myths were simply inventions of humans. These early philosophers began to look for explanations not found in cultural myths or religious beliefs. They began to question politics and culture and how man should be governed. Contemplation went from being founded on myths to being established on reason.
Sophie is intrigued about the myth-makers. She imagines that she knows nothing about science and creates her own mythological explanation for the changing of the seasons.
In the next lesson, the philosopher asks Sophie questions concerning the basic substance of the natural world. He then introduces her to the natural philosophers.
He explains that all philosophers have a "project," a specific question they want answered. The natural philosophers were focused on the processes of the natural world. They believed that something cannot come from nothing. They believed that there was a basic substance from which all things were made. What that substance was is where they disagreed.
Thales, the first philosopher, thought that all things come from water. Anaximander believed that there was something called the "boundless" from which all things had their origin. Anaximenes taught the source of all things to be air.
Around 500 BC, the Eleatics flourished. Parmenides thought that everything that exists has always existed, and nothing can change. He believed that reason, rather than senses, are more reliable. On the other hand, Heraclitus believed that everything changes, and that our senses are reliable.
Empedocles refined the philosophy of both Parmenides and Heraclitus. He taught that things change, but their basic substance does not. He taught that there are four basic substances: air, water, earth, and fire. Different combinations of these made up all of nature.
Anaxagora believed that there was an even more basic substance—"seeds." From these seeds everything existed, bound together by a force he identified as "love."
Sophie receives a new question the next morning: "Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?" That afternoon the lesson arrives: "The Atom Theory." The philosopher discusses the last of the natural philosophers, Democritus (c. 460-370 BC), who believed that transformations in nature could not be caused by any fundamental change, but rather a rearrangement of some type of basic "building block" (like Legos), which he named "atoms." Democritus believed that these atoms were indestructible and eternal. He also believed that they were solid and of varying shapes and can be combined in different forms.
The philosopher points out that scientists have discovered that Democritus was more or less correct, though we now...
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When Sophie receives the next envelope, she notices that it is wet around the edges, with two holes in it. Inside are three questions: "Do you believe in Fate? Is sickness the punishment of the gods? What forces govern the course of history?"
Sophie writes a letter to the philosopher in return, inviting him to her house when her mother is home. She sneaks out and puts it in the mailbox at night.
In the middle of the night, Sophie looks out the window and spots an old man in a beret putting a letter in her mailbox and taking the letter Sophie had written him. She goes to the mailbox to retrieve the letter.
The topic of this lesson is Fate, or fatalism, which the Greeks held in the matters of...
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Sophie receives a letter from the philosopher, who reveals his name as Alberto Knox, declining her invitation with regrets. Sophie also learns that the reason some letters are wet with two holes in them is that they are brought by Knox’s dog, Hermes.
The next lesson concerns Socrates. Before Socrates, a group called the Sophists taught philosophy for money. Protagoras taught that "Man is the measure of all things," meaning that a thing is good or bad only in relation to a person’s needs. They did not believe in absolute norms for what is right or wrong.
Socrates (470-399 BC) was born in Athens of a midwife. Of unattractive appearance, he is nevertheless an intriguing person. What is known about Socrates...
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When Sophie next visits her den, she finds not a letter but a videocassette. When she views it, she sees scenes of Athens, with a short, middle-aged man with a black beard and blue beret, whom she knows is Alberto Knox.
Knox proceeds to show Sophie the sites in Athens. First, they visit the Acropolis, where the temple of Athene is. He then shows her the Dionysos Theater, where the early Greek dramas were performed. He gives her a short lesson on ancient Greek dramatists such as Sophocles.
Knox then takes Sophie to the Areopagos, where the high court of justice was held. It was here that Paul preached in the first century AD.
The next site is the agora, the old...
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Sophie awakens the next morning, still incredulous of what she saw in the video. When she retreats to her den, Hermes arrives with a new lesson, this one on Plato’s Academy.
Plato, Socrates’ pupil, founded a school on Socrates’ teaching, called The Academy. Philosophy, mathematics, and gymnastics were the subjects taught.
Plato taught that there were two worlds: the temporary material world and the eternal world of ideas. The world of ideas contained the ideas, or "Forms," from which all material things were patterned. Thus, though our senses may deceive us and give us an incomplete picture of material things, through reason we can comprehend the ideal world.
Plato also believed that man...
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Sophie decides to travel down the path that Hermes followed to find out where he goes. She comes to a lake with a rowboat. On the opposite shore she spies a cabin. She climbs into the rowboat and rows across the lake. After pulling the boat up on the shore (though not very high up), she goes to the cabin. When she receives no answer to her knock on the door, she enters the cabin. She realizes that this is the home of Alberto Knox and Hermes.
On the wall Sophie sees a picture of a house and garden. The picture is labeled "Bjerkeley." Beside it she sees another picture of an old man. This one is titled "Berkeley."
Sophie looks into the mirror on the wall and is surprised when the girl reflected in the mirror...
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Sophie receives a letter from the philosopher, saying that he understands her curiosity and is not angry, but he will now have to move.
Included is a lesson on Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato’s. Aristotle disagreed with his teacher as to objects in the natural world having an "idea" existing on another plane of existence. Aristotle believed that there was indeed a "form," but it was within the object itself and was recognized by humans through the senses and then categorized.
Aristotle believed that each thing had a form that was specific to its unique characteristics.
Aristotle was also concerned with finding the causes of existence. There was the material...
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Sophie discovers another postcard to Hilde from her father, but she notices that it is postmarked June 15. She remembers that all the other postcards carried the same date, even though it was a month away.
The next lesson from Alberto Knox is on Hellenism—Greek influence that covered religion and science as well as philosophy. In religion, the focus was now on salvation from death. Many religions and cults, including Christianity, were born in this climate. Science advanced tremendously, with Alexandria in Egypt being the center of study.
During this time, the Cynics arose. This school of philosophy believed that true happiness did not lie in material possessions, wealth, or even health. Stemming from...
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Since there is no school because of a national holiday, Joanna proposes that she and Sophie take a camping trip. Sophie has not heard from Alberto Knox for several days and is reluctant to be gone from home for very long, in case he should leave another message or lesson, but she agrees.
Sophie suggests a camping spot near the major’s cabin. Sophie leads them to the cabin, which is abandoned. On closer inspection, Sophie finds the key to the door and enters with Joanna. All is empty, but Sophie lights a candle found on the stove. Sophie convinces Joanna to look into the "magic" mirror, but they see only their reflections.
They spot a box on the floor, which turns out to be full of postcards. Sophie is...
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The philosopher teaches Sophie about the two most influential cultures on modern society, the Indo-European and the Semitic. Indo-European culture is reflected in that of ancient Greece, with its emphasis on sight. The visual representation of the gods was a major focus, resulting in visual arts—painting, sculpture, and so on—that are still evident. The Semitic culture, mainly through the Jews, was centered around hearing. The Scriptures speak about "hearing the word of God" and discourage visual representations of the holy.
Knox then reviews with Sophie the history of Israel, as portrayed in the Old Testament. The covenant they made with God was repeatedly broken by the Israelites, so history was changed by the...
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A postcard to Hilde is blown against Sophie’s window, telling Hilde that Sophie still does not understand how it all hangs together. Then Sophie receives a phone call from the philosopher, stating that there will be no more letters. They must meet in person because "Hilde’s father is closing in." Unsure of what this sinister warning means, Sophie agrees to meet Knox the next morning at St. Mary’s Church.
After the fall of Rome, culture declined throughout Europe, leading to the Dark Ages. The Church closed Plato’s Academy at Athens, leading to a break between Christianity and Greek philosophy. However, Greek culture, especially in the sciences, was preserved in the Muslim culture and in the eastern Greek...
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After the "sleepover," Sophie returns home to take a nap. She dreams about a girl on a dock, who leaves behind a gold crucifix. When Sophie awakes, she finds the identical necklace on her bed.
Following Hermes downtown, Sophie meets Alberto Knox in his apartment, where Knox now teaches her about the Renaissance, a time in which the ideas of antiquity are "reborn."
In the field of science, man’s understanding of the universe is drastically revised. It is the sun, not the Earth, that is believed to be the center of the universe. This shifts man’s belief in himself and his position in the cosmos. The scientific method is also developed, with experimentation becoming...
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Sophie continues to find postcards from Hilde’s father, but she does not know how they are getting to her. She tells her mother the entire account of Knox and his philosophy lessons. She and her mother then plan a birthday party for her on Midsummer’s Eve.
When Sophie returns to Knox’s apartment, he teaches her about the 17th century's Baroque period, the name of which comes from a term describing an irregular pearl. It was a time characterized by extremes—a life of luxury and a life of spiritual seclusion. The ephemeral nature of life was a focus, with the motif of the theater often recurring, particularly in the works of Shakespeare. The main question of the period is "what is real and what is but a dream?"...
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Sophie discovers that Descartes was similar to Socrates in that they both believed that all they knew for sure was that they knew nothing for sure. Descartes held that it was reasonable to doubt everything in principle because of this. He believed that only true knowledge could come from reason. The fact that he was able to think proved to him that he existed ("I think, therefore I am"). In the same way, he believed in God because his imperfect mind could only conceive of a perfect entity if that perfect entity was outside of his own imperfect self.
Descartes also believed (contrary to many in the Baroque period) that life is not a dream, but a reality outside of and independent of oneself. There are only two realities:...
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Knox and Sophie discuss Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher of the 17th century. Spinoza believed that both Christianity and Judaism were kept alive only by the regulations and rituals of the organized church. He was the first to interpret the Bible with the historical-critical interpretation, denying its inspiration by God. He believed that the teachings of Jesus were the religion of reason, but Christianity had corrupted them by its rigidity.
Spinoza believed that it was essential to see things from the "perspective of eternity." He believed that nature was not God himself, but in God. In a sense, therefore, he was a pantheist, but not in its strictest sense. Everything can be reduced to a single entity that he called...
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When Sophie returns home late, she decides to show her mother the video of Knox in Athens in order to calm her fears. Mrs. Amundsen is intrigued and once again pacified.
As Sophie is next going to visit the philosopher, Hermes (who is accompanying her) speaks, saying, "Happy Birthday, Hilde!" She is furious that Hilde’s father is interfering more and more in her world.
Knox tells Sophie of the empiricists, who believed that what is known is derived only from the senses. The primary empiricist was John Locke, who believed that people are born with a blank slate ("tabula rasa") on which are imprinted all that they subsequently learn. Locke wondered how we get our ideas. He believed that we take in simple...
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The conversation about the British empiricists continues as Knox tells Sophie about David Hume, who lived from 1711 to 1776.
Hume believed that all experiences were the bases of perceptions, which can be either impressions (based on external reality) or ideas (the recollection of such impressions). These perceptions started out as simple ideas. For example, a person may perceive a human body and also wings. By combining these simple ideas into the idea of an "angel," he has created a complex idea, based not on reality, but on a "cut-and-paste" idea. In short, the mind cannot create that which is not real: it can only mix simple ideas.
Because of this, Hume rejected Descartes's proof of the existence of God....
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Knox tells Sophie about George Berkeley, an Irish bishop and philosopher who lived from 1685 to 1753. Though Berkeley felt that the current philosophy was a threat to Christianity and faith, he was one of the most consistent of the British empiricists. He did not believe that the material world is the only reality. He believed that matter cannot truly be perceived; instead, we can only perceive the sensations caused by matter. The actual cause of reality (including ourselves) was ideas in the mind of God. Berkeley also questioned whether time and space had any absolute or independent existence outside the mind of God.
With the discussion of Berkeley, Sophie begins to get some idea of the scope of her existence,...
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The point of view shifts to Hilde on her fifteenth birthday at her home called “Bjerkely.” Hilde has awakened on her birthday. She finds on her bed a birthday present from her father. On opening it, she discovers a binder filled with typewritten pages. It is a book written especially for her by her father. It is called Sophie’s World. Hilde begins to read of Sophie’s adventures.
The history of philosophy is briefly reviewed as Hilde reads the book. She reads again the postcards her father had sent her in preparation for the book. She recognizes items from her own life that her father has inserted: a lost scarf, her lost money, the mirror in which Hilde has at times tried to catch her self blinking, and...
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Hilde discovers that her mother had found her crucifix down by the dock a few weeks before and mentioned it to Hilde’s father. However, when she goes to return it to Hilde, she discovers that it is missing.
Hilde continues reading her father’s book, in which Knox now informs Sophie of the Enlightenment. Centered in France, the Enlightenment focused on seven ideas. The first was its opposition to authority. The Enlightenment ideals led to many revolutions, such as the French Revolution of 1789. The acceptance of rationalism was another key point. Man’s reason was paramount, and all must be judged by reason. The Enlightenment movement itself began to spread, first in England, then to France, and lastly to Germany....
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Hilde’s father calls her on the night of her birthday. She is enthusiastic about her present, but she objects when he says that Sophie and Alberto do not really exist. Before retiring, Hilde reads about Immanuel Kant.
Kant believed that time and space are two forms of intuition, which precede all experience. Before we experience anything, we can know that we will perceive it as a phenomenon within time and space. Yet he believed that our reality did not exist separately from us. We can never know of the material world before we perceive it, which must be based on the internal conditions of each of us.
Kant also taught that, contrary to animals, we focus on causes rather than effects. He also believed that...
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Hilde continues to read about Sophie, who is now planning her birthday party. When she meets again with Knox, they discuss the Romantic period of the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. This was the last time that Europe took a common philosophical approach.
Beginning in Germany, Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. The Romantics focused on feelings, experience, and imagination. They personified nature, holding it to be an evolving organism all its own.
Romanticism affected many areas of life. In the arts, the music was keenly in tune with emotions, from passion to yearning. In literature as well Romanticism focused on being one with nature...
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Hilde reads about Hegel, who lived from 1770 to 1831. Hegel believed that there is no universal truth. Instead, truth is subjective, dependent on the person and the time in history in which he is born. Each period in history had its own “truth,” with man’s search for truth progressing every higher to an eventual complete self-knowledge. The "world spirit" is gradually coming to a consciousness of itself and its own intrinsic values. Thus, history is purposeful.
In philosophy, an idea (thesis) is put forward, stating an extreme. In reaction to this, another thesis is put forth that is completely opposite to the thesis. This opposite is called the “antithesis.” The third and final stage of knowledge results when...
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Hilde begins to formulate a plan to join Sophie and Knox against her father.
Sophie and Knox discuss the first existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard reacted strongly to Hegel’s views. Sophie and Knox are interrupted by Alice in Wonderland, who gives Sophie two bottles. One bottle allows her to experience the extremes of Hegel’s connection to everything, in which Sophie is all there is. The other represents Kierkegaard’s individualism, causing Sophie to see the wonders in the smallest objects.
In defining his philosophy, Kierkegaard stressed that each person’s existence was the starting point. All truths were subjective in that they were...
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Hilde calls her family friend Anne in Copenhagen and arranges the surprise revenge on her father as he passes through there on his way home.
Sophie and Joanna continue to plan for Sophie’s birthday party. Later, Knox calls her and invites her over for some more conversation. On her way there, Sophie encounters Scrooge (representing the capitalist) and the Little Match Girl (representing the proletariat of the Communist philosophy).
Knox explains to Sophie the teachings of Karl Marx. Marx expanded Hegel’s philosophy into historical materialism. He believed that material, economic, and social relations are the basis of society. The way a society thinks is its superstructure.
The most basic...
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Hilde reads the next chapter, in which Knox explains to Sophie the ramifications of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Darwin was born in England in 1809. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in theology, he sailed on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. This trip went around the world, with Darwin collecting wildlife specimens. Examining the variations in each species, Darwin developed his theory of evolution of all species from a single source, though he did not publish his work, The Origin of Species, until many years later. Darwin proposed that over time, small variations in a species provided traits that enabled it to survive better in its environment. Some variations were harmful, thus...
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In response to the chapter on Darwin, Hilde is upset and feels meaningless and unimportant in the vast universe.
After an encounter with the Emperor with No Clothes, Knox tells Sophie about the findings of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that man is not driven by reason alone, but by his needs. A baby is born as totally pleasure driven (what he called “id”). As he grows older, he learns to repress those needs in conformity to society’s demands (the superego). Sexual desires especially are repressed. Once driven into the unconscious, these repressed needs affect his daily behavior, causing problems and neuroses. Through psychoanalysis, these repressed feelings are confronted and dealt with, allowing him to move on....
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Hilde awakens recalling a dream, similar to Sophie’s experience of sitting on Hilde’s dock and finding the crucifix.
On her way home, Sophie tries to distract the major by climbing a tree. She is met by a goose who magically whisks her around the countryside, returning her to the base of the tree
Knox calls, wanting to meet Sophie in town at a café. This setting is used to relate various philosophical movements in the twentieth century. Existentialism was the foundational movement of much philosophical thought and art. The German philosopher Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” meaning that he considered religion and prior philosophy to be denials of man’s responsibility for his actions. Jean...
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Sophie shows her mother a book that Knox had bought for her in town; the book is called Sophie’s World. On the way home, they pass a group of protesters with signs warning of the major’s return.
Sophie and her mother prepare for the party. The guests begin to arrive, some friends of Sophie’s from school, as well as Joanna’s parents. Knox has not yet arrived. Sophie wants to wait, but her mother insists on beginning. Just as she sits people at the table, Knox arrives. Sophie’s mother introduces him to the other guests.
Odd things begin to occur. Joanna kisses one of the boys, and they eventually go off to the bushes to make love. Her parents are surprised but accepting.
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Hilde tries to find out what happened to Sophie and Knox after they left the party. She continues to read.
Sophie and Knox make their way to Oslo, only to discover that they cannot converse with the real world. They eventually escape, find a car, and take off for Hilde’s home.
Major Knag arrives at the Katsrup Airport in Copenhagen. There he finds a series of letters placed around the airport. The letters are from Hilde, giving him instructions on things to buy. Knag is mildly angry, though he realizes the Hilde is just giving him a taste of his own medicine. She is manipulating him just as he manipulated Sophie and Knox in Sophie’s world.
Sophie and Knox continue driving furiously,...
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After the celebration, Knag and Hilde sit on the glider and discuss the universe. The major tells Hilde about the immense size of the universe. Because of the distance, the light from distant starts takes many years to reach Earth. Therefore, when one looks at a star, one is seeing it, not as it is at that very instant, but as it was when the light rays left it, which may have been millions or even billions of years ago. In the same way, any intelligent being looking at Earth would not see it as it is now, but as it was in the past.
The major also tells Hilde about the Big Bang, in which all matter in the universe was gathered at one point and then exploded. The stars and planets and other matter in the universe are now...
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