Nora K. and Vittorio Hösle
Translated by Steven Rendall
Eleven-year-old Nora K. received Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World as a birthday present, and in it she read about Plato’s theory of ideas. One problem especially intrigued her: What about the platonic idea of the dinosaur? Ideas are timeless and cannot die. The dinosaurs, however, became extinct ages ago. Does the idea of the dinosaur still exist all the same? Could it even be that the material world is a dream and time an illusion? Moreover, is there such a thing as free will, or is everything predetermined? Is the soul eternal? Do animals have a consciousness? Is the universe infinite? Is there such a thing as objective truth? Does God exist, and why is there evil in the world?
These are some of Nora’s questions which prompted her correspondence with Vittorio Hösle, a philosopher by profession, who invents a wonderful philosophical fantasy. Taking the film Dead Poets Society as his inspiration, he creates a place where the great philosophers of antiquity and their modern successors can all meet. They gather in the “Café of the Dead but Ever Young Philosophers” and discuss Nora’s letters—Parmenides and Socrates, Descartes and Hobbes (whom Nora doesn’t like at all), “Mac” (Machiavelli) and Kant, Nora’s “patron philosopher” Giambattista Vico and Hans Jonas, and many others. The sparks fly from time to time, as the great thinkers squabble quite frequently—no wonder, since conflicting arguments from the entire history of philosophy collide with each other head-on.
Nora’s letters are intelligent, never precocious, and always imaginative. Vittorio Hösle provides answers which are entertaining but still critical, and he is clearly concerned about not setting his expectations of the child too low. In his afterword on children’s philosophy and philosophy with children, he sketches what role philosophy could play in raising children. The correspondence with Nora, an authentic exchange of letters between January 1994 and January 1996, is a lovely document of a philosophical friendship between an adult and a child.
The Dead Philosophers’ Café has been widely translated and is now making its first appearance in the English language.
From the Introduction
This is how letters in this book came to be written. Nora had long been interested in philosophical questions. On her eleventh birthday she received a copy of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. She read the book with great interest, and it aroused her curiosity about a number of issues. When I came to visit, she asked me several questions about philosophy, because she knew I taught the subject. Thus, before we began our correspondence, she asked me once whether the Platonic idea of dinosaurs had died out along with the last individuals of the species—a question that is not without a certain originality. I tried to explain why the idea of dinosaurs would not be affected by the extinction of the individuals; she found my explanation satisfactory, and this led us to adopt the nicknames, “Dino-Nora” and “Idea of Dinosaurs.” In recognition of the significance of her question I sent her a marzipan dinosaur for Christmas. Our exchange of letters begins with her thank-you note.
Thanks so much for the marzipan dinosaur! I loved it, and put it on my night-table. That way I can look at it whenever I want to.
Unfortunately, so far I’ve been able to read only the first page of your book, but soon I’ll finish my other book and then I’ll begin yours.
In my book on philosophy I am now reading about the Middle Ages. This part is also very exciting. In history, we are still dealing with the Greek notion of women. Aristotle’s interpretation made me really mad.