Sophie's World | Study Guide

Jostein Gaarder

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Sophie's World | Chapter 5 : Democritus | Summary



Sophie's question of the day is "Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?" This prompts her to get out her old Lego set and play with them. But when her mother catches her at it, she denies "playing" and instead insists she is performing a "complicated philosophical experiment."

Her packet the next day is about Democritus (c. 460–370 BCE). Democritus built upon his Greek predecessors to create atom theory: the world is built of "infinitesimal blocks that can join and separate again." Democritus, who did not believe in an immortal soul, is classified as a materialist, which is the idea that the objective, material world precedes and provides the substance for the thoughts about that world.


After her reading Sophie "could hardly help smiling." She is beginning to really enjoy picking apart philosophers' arguments and attempting to see if they align with her own beliefs, such as Democritus's lack of belief in an immortal soul. Gaarder seems to argue that this is the purpose of philosophy—a constant questioning and reexamination of one's worldview.

Sophie understands that Democritus solved the problems inherent in the thought of previous philosophers by using his common sense. Similarly, she deduces she might solve her own mystery about who is writing the daily letters by watching her mailbox from her window—definitely a common-sense approach. By taking what she learns and applying it to her life, Sophie is showing that philosophy is not simply in the realm of rarified thought but is also useful on a daily basis. Sophie lets herself become an extreme example of philosophy becoming a part of everyday life since grappling with the questions in the packets she receives takes up most of her free time.

Gaarder's use of Legos to explain atomic theory is an excellent example of how he employs concrete images to explain abstract theories and thus makes philosophy approachable and fun. It is also an apt metaphor for how Sophie comes to understand that philosophers build upon the ideas that came before them but must continually question those ideas to construct a paradigm that works for them.

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