Sophie's World | Study Guide

Jostein Gaarder

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Sophie's World | Chapter 4 : The Natural Philosophers | Summary



Later that same afternoon Sophie's mother brings her an unstamped letter and assumes it is a love letter. Sophie lets her believe this rather than the truth. The letter contains three questions Sophie thinks are stupid, but she ruminates on them all evening at school and the next day. After school she gets yet another philosophy packet. In it her mysterious mentor explains that the earliest philosophers were concerned with the processes of the natural world so they could liberate themselves from religious doctrine.

But how they thought is more interesting than what they thought. First, there was Thales, who believed water was the source of all things. Then there was Anaximander, who proposed a "boundless" universe, and Anaximenes, who believed air was the source of all things. Parmenides was a rationalist, who believed "nothing can come from nothing." Heraclitus believed the opposite: everything was in a state of change. Empedocles built upon their thoughts to determine that the world was made up of four basic elements—earth, air, water, and fire—in interplay with one another, thus creating both "substance" and "force." Anaxagoras believed the world was made up of tiny particles, or "seeds."

Sophie decides philosophy is not something you learn but "perhaps you can learn to think philosophically."


Sophie's mentor's letters are dense, but Gaarder structures his chapters so that the reader always has a chance to think and ask questions along with Sophie about the material. The plot is so far limited to Sophie reading letters and going about her day, and because Gaarder sacrifices physical action for mental action, Sophie needs to be relatable and sympathetic. The goal seems to be for the reader to see themselves as a kind of a "Sophie"—a curious student going along on this journey with her.

At the beginning of this chapter Gaarder seems apologetic that the history of philosophy is exclusively male. And this is not lip service. Gaarder proves he believes women should be able to "make their mark" in philosophy by presenting his knowledge to the female main characters of Sophie and, as the reader later finds out, Hilde. Indeed, all the philosophers presented in the novel are male (as are the teachers, Alberto and Albert), but the message from the author is that the future is wide open to any human, male or female, who is willing to ask questions.

It is interesting to note the natural philosophers were quite often wrong. They continue to be celebrated not because of the validity of their theories but because they dared to think differently. When Sophie considers this, she starts to understand what seems to be Gaarder's main thesis: philosophy should not be reserved to the diligent study of dusty old books by wise and inquisitive old men, but should be experienced in one's daily life by all, male and female, young and old.

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