Sissela Bok


Today’s philosophy departments would make these people turn over in their graves:
William James
John Stuart Mill
Immanuel Kant

Philosopher Sissela Bok’s intellectual bloodlines flow directly from parents who made landmark contributions to the social sciences and human understanding. Her father, Gunnar Myrdal, conceived of and assembled the legendary cross-disciplinary study of race, An American Dilemma, and some twenty years later produced Asian Drama, a large-scale investigation of underdevelopment. In 1974, he won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Her mother, Alva Myrdal, published Nation and Family, Women’s Two Roles, and The Game of Disarmament. She actively worked on child-rearing issues in Sweden, worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, and was Sweden’s ambassador to India. Later in her life she worked tirelessly on nuclear disarmament. For that work she garnered a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1982.

Sissela Bok was raised in Sweden and Switzerland. She studied at the Sorbonne before she married future Harvard University president Derek Bok. She then continued her education in the United States, where she received a master’s degree in clinical psychology at George Washington University in 1958. Later she completed her doctorate at Harvard in philosophy in 1970 with a dissertation titled Voluntary Euthanasia.

Bok is the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1982), an extension of her investigation of some of the issues raised in Lying. A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, which dovetailed with her mother’s passionate concerns about disarmament and the nuclear balance of terror, was published in 1989. In 1991, after her mother’s death, the more complete English-language version of Alva Myrdal: A Daughter’s Memoir was published in the U.S. (first published in Sweden in 1987 as Alva: Ett kvinnoliv). In 1995, Bok published Common Values, and has updated her reflections—given the post–September 11 world order—in a new preface in 2002 in an essay titled Rethinking Common Values. Consistent with Bok’s acuity in dealing with pressing public concerns, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment was published in 1998. Also published that year was Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide (with Gerald Dworkin and Ray Frey).

One of Bok’s colleagues, Dennis Thompson (director of the Program in Ethics and the Professions and the Alfred North Whitehead Professor at Harvard University), said of her, “She was one of the first to apply philosophy to issues of current concern. She is a pioneer in the field of practical ethics or applied moral philosophy, as it is sometimes called. She has a remarkable talent for identifying and clarifying issues that have important moral content when they need to come to public attention.”

Sissela Bok is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies and has been a professor at Harvard and Brandeis universities. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, and is working on a book on happiness. This interview took place in her spartan office.

—Robert Birnbaum


THE BELIEVER: Were there philosophers who said [your book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life] was not philosophy?

SISSELA BOK: I’m sure there were.

BLVR: Not to your face.

SB: Well, there was one review and I can’t say who it was because I am not entirely sure, because I have repressed it.

BLVR: [Laughs]

SB: It said, “This is not a book of philosophy. This is a travelogue.” I should mention something else. I brought something [to the interview]. There is a man, Olof Lagercrantz, whom Ithink of as my mentor when it comes to writing; he was a Swedish writer, poet, and editor—of a big Swedish newspaper—and a biographer. He wrote a book called On the Art of Reading and Writing that I translated. Here is a passage I often cite when I speak about writing. It explains why I don’t consider bringing in other writers, other societies, other professions and periods as writing a “travelogue.” This is what he says: “Rainbows, rockets, slivers of mirror, and arrows are important for a good text. I mean by that connections between different times, places, consciousnesses, and aims that point both backwards and forwards.” And here is what I especially love: “As the tale moves along, its kernel must lie still while everything around it is in motion.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Robert Birnbaum’s idea of a vacation is being able to sit down and read Edith Grossman’s new translation of Don Quixote. Because he lives in New Hampshire with his blond canine, Rosie, he may be able to do that soon.

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