Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Prof. Bok goes behind the music - Bok studied both economics and English before finally settling on her love: philosophy

By Michelle Fiks | September 12, 2002

This fall marks philosophy Professor Hilary Bok's third year teaching at the Johns Hopkins University. While philosophy does not top the list of most popular majors at Hopkins, it definitely serves an important role within the University.

As a child growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bok wanted to be creative; some of her many aspirations included a firefighter, marine biologist and politician. At Princeton, she initially studied economics, which she states, "was a mistake."

She later went on to try her hand at English because of her passion for reading. However, she thought to herself, "This is not what I really want to do."

It was after she took a class by T.M. Scanlon on the subject of moral philosophy that she found her true calling.

"I positively fell in love with the subject. I thought to myself, 'This is perfect.' With philosophy, I can do my own work and not write commentary on other people's works," said Bok. "As for bioethics, well, it's so much fun! It's like science fiction all the time! It has to be the best job in the world."

As a child, Bok was allowed to watch only one hour of television per week, though she would on occasion sneak over to her neighbor's house to watch TV there. Her current favorite movie is The Philadelphia Story and she cites the young Lawrence Olivier as one of her favorite actors.

Bok also professes a penchant for art; she likes to take pictures and paint with watercolors. She once created a sculpture that involved a crucified Barbie doll; the doll now resides in her closet.

When it comes to languages, Bok is fluent in French, though she admits that she has forgotten Spanish, Hebrew, Swedish and German. Upon graduation, she lived all over the world, in such far flung locations as Turkey, Sweden, Israel, Germany and Mexico, where she wrote travel guides during one summer.

When asked what the most common problem facing students studying philosophy, Bok answers that a prevalent problematic area arises when students try to overcomplicate matters.

She compares it to her adolescence, when she was interested in different boys but didn't quite know how to approach them.

"It's like when I was in junior high school and boys happened-I thought that there was some magic code that I needed to learn in order to talk to them. I asked everyone, OWhat is the code?' Suddenly it hit me- there is no code! You just talk to people!"

It is this mentality that she believes causes many students to become perplexed when trying to hammer out a paper on philosophy. Bok states that, "Students' problems are products of their own expectations. The work is simple; just construct an argument for your position. That may not be the easiest of tasks, but it's simple."

Her philosophy on attendance is that it serves only to benefit those taking her classes.

"Students are groups; they make their own choices. I try to make the lectures not unduly painful. Ultimately, it is the students' decisions on whether they choose to come to class or not."

She previously taught for nine years at Pomona College. Bok, who received her B.A. from Princeton in philosophy and her Ph.D. from Harvard in philosophy, currently teaches Introduction to Bioethics. She has also taught a number of seminars at Hopkins; these include "Ethics and Animals" and a seminar in which she delved into the topic of "What things can I do to myself to get myself to do things." While this may seem wordy, the essence of the class looked at problems of addiction and the weakness of human will. One of the reasons Bok enjoys teaching at Hopkins is because of the "flexibility that it affords to teach peculiar seminars."

Professor Bok is currently writing on Kant's "justification of categorical imperative.

"The categorical imperative is the basic moral rule. It states that you should always act in such a way as to treat humanity as an end, and not as a means," she explains. "For example, people are not tools that you can simply use with no regard to their feelings. Ultimately, you should always respect people's will."

When asked what her favorite book is, Bok is quick to name Middlemarch by George Eliot as "the most wonderful novel." What she loves most about Middlemarch is Eliot's ability to create four separate worlds and yet somehow manage to weave them all together.

"It's all about the literary genius," she concluded.

From the age of 12, she has held a passion for both playing the guitar and music in general. In her free time, she plays on her folk and electric guitars, plays with her two rescued cats, does research on philosophy and mows her lawn.

For relaxation, she heads to the backyard. "I refer to my backyard as 'The Health Club.' My lawn is one acre and it sort of slopes unevenly, all over, so that when I mow it, I'm constantly pushing my lawn mower. It would probably take five hours to mow, if I did it all at once. It's a great way to iron your mind.

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