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Philosophy Now interviews Jostein Gaarder, author of the best-selling history of philosophy, Sophie’s World.
The surprise bestseller of the last year not only in Britain but in Germany and Scandinavia too has been Sophie’s World by the Norwegian schoolteacher Jostein Gaarder. The surprise has been that this is a history of philosophy, not previously regarded as a particularly sexy subject by the publishing barons. The central character, a teenager called Sophie, receives a series of envelopes from a mysterious stranger, each one containing a lecture on philosophy. The plot has a good twist about halfway through, which in the best Mousetrap tradition we won’t reveal here.
PN So far as your publishers can tell, this book is being bought by people of all ages, but it was originally intended for teenagers. How did you come to write it?
JG A year before starting it I wrote another book which was a novel for young adults about a father and son going round Europe. They were searching for the boy’s mother, who disappeared some years ago. They went to Athens, and there the thirteen-year old boy heard some stories about, you know, Plato and Aristotle and so on. And then I just imagined, after I’d written that book, that this boy would now probably go into a bookstore or a library and ask the librarian for a book on philosophy. And the librarian would have to say “No. Nothing for you. You’re too young. You must go away.” And then I felt ashamed, and a little angry as well. So I decided to try to write a book accessible for young adults, but also for adults too. I think that many people think philosophy is important and interesting but fear that it is too difficult for them.
PN You obviously think it is important to make philosophy accessible to young people. How old were you when you became interested in it?
JG Quite young. You know, I was interested in philosophy a long time before I knew the word ‘philosophy’. In general I think small children really do ask philosophical questions: “where is the end of the world”, and “where does everything come from” and things like that. And in a way teenagers are born for a second time. They discover themselves in a new way. They also discover their bodies in a new way and again they end up asking deep questions. When I was a small child I remember wondering about all sorts of things. I have had a lot of letters from young people telling me the same story, that before they read the book they often felt that life was so strange. And then they say “when I read your book I understood that what I was doing was asking philosophical questions.”
PN You’re obviously meeting a need that people have, but why do you think it’s important to teach philosophy to young people? After all you did teach philosophy in school for number of years.
JG Well, first of all, if I was interested in football or cricket you could ask “why are you so fascinated with football”? A lot of people are. In the papers you see 10 pages on sport and you never see the question “why?” But when it comes to philosophy I would turn the question around and say “why not?” There is something democratic about philosophy. It concerns all human beings simply because it asks questions which themselves concern all human beings, such as “what is the good life?” Philosophy asks universal, you may say eternal, questions. For me it’s just a fact that every day I’m thinking “I’m alive!” It’s so strange. And I also think that one day I will not be here any more. My feeling is that life is very short. But then why is philosophy important? It of course stimulates the curiosity. That makes life more intense. The second thing is that it helps us to think critically. I think societies like ours somehow lack criticism. A sane society brings up young people to ask critical questions. The most important word in the English language is the word ‘why’, and you should teach young people to use this word. But imagine a classroom situation. The teacher says now we will do this, then we will do that and the pupil raises her hand and say “why?”. And the teacher will think that the pupil is so rude. Another reason for studying philosophy is that for the last few years many young people have had a very strong interest in alternative philosophy, like the New Age and occultism. There too I think philosophy can contribute. Before you read this alternative philosophy you should know some mainstream European critical thought to help you assess it.
PN You say in the book towards the end that much of the New Age type of thinking is like a kind of pornography. I thought “This is fighting talk!”
JG You know, this is typical of our society. We have all these instant things – instant coffee, instant food – and I think this alternative philosophy is very much instant philosophy. You buy a cheap paperback and all of a sudden you are in a strange realm wondering and wondrous. For me philosophy is to do with asking questions, but alternative philosophy gives the answers too quickly.
PN What, revealed answers, you mean? “This is how it is” “How do you know this?” “I just know…. it was a mystical experience.”
JG Or else answers based on rumours and second-hand accounts of what people have experienced which may not be correct. So I think alternative philosophy brings easy quick access to wondering and in the same way pornography gives easy quick access to the erotic. But people don’t really need pornography. What they really need is real love. And love requires time. There are no shortcuts either to real love or to real understanding. Life takes time and I’ve even met people complaining that their love life takes so much time. We are in our society rushing about so much. And then one day we realise – oh, all these days that came and went, they were life! So we are not very good in our society at simply being.
PN When you are teaching in schools, which are pupils’ favourite philosophers?
JG People often ask me who is my favourite philosopher and I always reply that I am more interested in the questions of philosophy than in the answers given in history. I think my interest in the questions was maybe reflected onto my students. They particularly liked Hume. Also the Pre- Socratic philosophers, because they are so practical and also it is easy to have an overview and grasp what they were on about. Also Descartes and the question about the body and the mind; that was something that they were attracted to. And Sartre too.
PN Talking of the 20th century, why aren’t there more recent philosophers in the book? Like Wittgenstein, for instance?
JG I’m very fascinated by Wittgenstein. I think maybe it’s possible to see that in the book, because Wittgenstein’s statements really express what I think myself. There are many reasons why I didn’t write about Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, the Frankfurt School and so on. The most obvious is that I am not an expert on 20th Century philosophy. Another thing is that I have been teaching young people who are being examined to go on to study philosophy at university and their syllabus doesn’t cover 20th century philosophy. Lastly, I don’t want to teach philosophy in isolation. I want to show connections and put things in context. Give young people some roots. When you discuss philosophy up to say 1900 you can understand the background more easily than with recent philosophy. And then modern philosophy especially in England and the US has been very concentrated on analytic philosophy and logical empiricism, which is a sort of end of philosophy, like a new scholastic period. Philosophers have been more occupied in investigating what words and philosophy cannot say than in what they can say. Maybe I’m more optimistic on behalf of human thought. I’m more interested in ontological questions, such as ‘what is the real nature of the universe?’, and by the body-and-soul questions. But today I would not discuss these questions with philosophers. I would discuss the body and soul problem with a neurologist. I would discuss the nature of the universe with Stephen Hawkins, you know, with astronomers and physicists. So I think some parts of philosophy, for the present, have moved out of the philosophical institutes, and not back into religious belief but into science.
PN There’s a lot of debate in this country about analytic philosophy: is it all a dead end, all this interest in language, is it too arid, are we moving away from the real questions in philosophy? But it seems to me that the whole analytic project is an attempt to investigate real questions about what the world is like. I’ve been told that the point is that we can only perceive the world through our senses, but what we perceive depends on how our minds work, so therefore if we want to understand the structure of the world, first we must understand the structure of our own thoughts. And to do that, we must understand the structure of language.
JG But in a way what you describe is a step back towards rationalistic philosophy. The rationalists thought that the sole source of knowledge was reason, and the mind; but the 18th century British empiricists, like Hume, the grandfathers of analytic philosophy, ended this discussion, saying that we have no inborn ideas. They said that when we are born our minds are empty, and that we build our interior universe just through our sensations, our senses.
But another recent change in philosophy which is very important is that I really think philosophers are coming back to the marketplace, where of course philosophy originated. Philosophers, at least on the Continent, are once again daring to be normative.
PN Asking how you should live, and so on?
JG Yes, it’s one of the oldest philosophical questions. Even if they don’t give answers, it is important to ask the question. In schools in Norway, you know, we teach something called ‘Ethics’. But Ethics has been reduced to the question of how to live without hurting your neighbour. Now this is a very important moral question, but it is not the whole of ethics. In philosophy ethics is also a question of “what is a happy life?” This question should be asked in schools, and has always been asked by philosophers right back to Aristotle. Aristotle said that a happy life is when you use all your immanent abilities to the full.
© Philosophy Now 1995
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is published by Phoenix House and costs £16.99