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Philosophical Anthropology: Human as a Person, Sokol 2002

Anthropology is a general term that refers to the study of humanity from now to the past. There are many different anthropologies we could categorise under the term. For example, biological anthropology focuses on human through times via the lens of biology and evolution. Archaeological anthropology studies past human activity by examining artefacts and social anthropology recognises certain patterns in the society’s behaviour. And finally philosophical anthropology tackles the fundamental questions such as what it means to be human or why do people behave in certain way and not the other? As we can see each sub-discipline is connected to the others, scientists of all those disciplines turn the spotlight on human but from different perspectives. And so, their methods must be somewhat different too. If we observe many cultures throughout history buried their companions without asking why which is often philosophical means we would lose something interesting. To join the journey of philosophical anthropology and see through its lens means to consider the current knowledge about human, its environment but also its subjectivity.

A Czech philosopher, anthropologist, translator, and politician Jan Sokol who born in 1936 and died in 2020, asked the very similar questions like what it means to be a human. He was influenced by Christianity, many famous philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, or Jan Patočka whose daughter Františka he married. He held the opinion that philosophy should reflect the challenges that are highly relevant today. When the most held scientific method and technology becomes the primary lens through which we perceive world, it is this this kind of reductionism that he wanted to avoid especially when thinking about human. Therefore, Sokol devoted a lot of his work in protecting the humanity against the ideological and technological threat and it‘s not surprising given his close relationship to technology (Jiří Gabriel, n.d.). He worked as a goldsmith, clockmaker and precision mechanic from the ages of fifteen to twenty-eight. (‘Jan Sokol: The Man Who Could Be President’, 2003). Later then he studied mathematics and became software developer and research fellow at Institute of Mathematical Machines in Prague between 1964 and 1977 (Jiří Gabriel, n.d.). Shortly said, to show up his interest we could note that the very first books he published included educational books on machine computation and design as well as introductory texts to the Bible. Since 1991 Sokol lectured on philosophy, anthropology and religion at the faculties of Education and Philosophy of Charles University, where he became the first dean of faculty of humanities in 2000 (Fakulta humanitních studií Univerzity Karlovy, 2021). Only two years after, the first edition of ‘Philosophical Anthropology: human as a person’ was published.

The book was written based on the lectures he would given to his students of the courses on philosophical anthropology devoted mostly to students of pedagogy. The motivation for the courses and therefore this book is to introduce students of pedagogy and other fields that share the close connection to human beings. If we think about it for a second, deciding what is the most important about human for students and what should students be thinking about is not an easy pursue. The book has also its own, much wider motivation which turns out to be completely essential and highly relevant for students and other readers as well. As we already foreshadowed in the brief biography of Sokol, in this book he builds a counterpart to the reduction of individual human identity to a merely human mass as we can see in past terrors. Digital technology does the reduction by definition and people may self-reduce themselves if they don’t reflect their relationship with tech enough. Thus, the book is highly relevant.

The book meets its goal as an introductory educational text, it is highly readable and relatable, which might lead to an interpretation that is too effortless. In some sense, he does not do any job for us any more than it’s needed for us to join the journey. To understand it, we need to look at the structure of the book. It is divided in three parts. The first part looks at human matter from the perspective of an intersection of distinct studies or if you want branches of anthropology as we already covered some of them in the introduction. Here the human is being observed ‘from the outside’, says Sokol. This chapter shows how, over time, the physiological limitations and surrounding environment including society define human and drive its behaviour. There are also many introspective points from psychology, but they still stand in the subject-object hierarchical perspective. An interesting shift is being made in the last two chapters, because these chapters choose a different view. It is this view in which the way the meaning is gained is far more accessible to us and in which our lives gain meaning. The second part considers our own subjective experience as a perspective on many important phenomena such as freedom or death. It focuses on the inner view that’s generally intangible with standard scientific methods. The final part unravels the relationship in which we as individuals are becoming ourselves - thus persons. This part unravels the collective, relationship-driven meaning.

Human as a person is a central theme of the book. What does it mean? If we put the ‘human as a person’ into a google translator at the time when this text is being written and ask it to translate the phrase from English to Czech, the translator returns phrase ‘člověk jako člověk’ which draws no distinction between human and person as if they were synonyms. When I began reading this book, my mind was tuned on the level of understanding like google translator’s language model. Sokol in the book draws distinction between the two as if not every human is a person yet. Or as he put it, we are not complete persons; we are not even used to talk and think about ourselves in a personal way. He ends one of his opening chapters saying “Man has to learn it at first. And he learns so, as we will see, on others”. At this point he says “on others” that evokes hierarchy because we are not ready, yet.

There is a thin line in understanding of human as a person. On the one hand, a person is a type of unique being, a unity that is being for itself while its actions are congruent with its own values. Sokol emphasizes this notion of person in the very beginning, with quotes of various philosophers. For example, there is quote of J. Locke referring to a person as “a self endowed with enduring identity”. Indeed, being true to oneself, one’s own feelings, is what we can assess for ourselves quite simply, it is a paradox when we act in a different way than we personally want. It is offering to note that an opposite of being person is what we usually call wearing a mask and not being true to oneself. Sokol offers an interesting synthesis to both extremes because for him, wearing a mask, that means acting differently in different contexts and life situations, it is the way how human is becoming a person and preserves own humanity. What more, it is the way of being because it means one is a sort of designer that projects into future being. In striving towards being a unique, self-fulfilling unity, one might commit more harm than if they didn’t pursue such goal.

In this sense I think Sokol’s message is very close to the perspective of humanistic psychology and the concept of being oneself, described and popularised by Carl Rogers in his book On Becoming a Person. The book shares the antithesis to behavioural, hierarchical perspective in human relationships. Avoiding wearing a mask leads to a realisation that being a person means to admit that one is a process, a constant change. The reason is that holding complete congruence is impossible for human being. As a side effect of such trying, one accepts being process and acting ad-hoc based-on contexts that may appear to be very close to wearing a mask although in no longer harmful way.

The perspective of an individual is what the reader will be grateful for, but it is not the primary viewpoint. Sokol sees the phenomena from a very broad perspective that looks far beyond individual. Being person is simply unattainable ideal, at least for a living human. In his perspective, it is up to the others to judge whether one was being person or not. The distinction of human and person gets us to notice whether we ourselves see human as species or as unique individual in the right situation. Sokol quietly asserts these claims, indirectly with his respectable, warm approach. It cannot be a typical textbook that would just explain things. Sokol complements his delivery by numerous notes. His experience becomes inseparable part of his arguments as it is part of the method. Experience is usually gained by ongoing reflection over long period of time, but here we get it condensed, almost at one point. When facing experience that is so condensed, one can hardly expect to understand it at once. This is perhaps the reason why the reading is so simple, that it becomes hard.


  1. Fakulta humanitních studií Univerzity Karlovy. (2021, březen). Prof. PhDr. Jan Sokol, CSc., Ph.D. Fakulta Humanitních Studií Univerzity Karlovy.
  2. Jan Sokol: The man who could be president. (2003, February 26). Radio Prague International.
  3. Jiří Gabriel. (n.d.). Jan Sokol. Slovník Českých Filosofů.