Antonio Pele | Beyond Theory and Praxis in Paulo Freire Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (English Version)

By Antonio Pele, PUC-Rio University

Reframing the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (PO) of Paulo Freire within a critical theory perspective is both challenging and productive. It is challenging inasmuch it puts into question a potential static and merely theoretical/historical interpretation of Freire ideas in the book. It is productive inasmuch it also urges the development of a critical and political praxis, that following this year’s Critique 13/13 seminar intends to investigate how to use this text (and others this year) in order to built today a “zone à défendre”.  It is even more productive since it places education at the center of the critical and political struggle. It was a pressing political stake in Brazil back in the 1960’s and today with its proto-fascist government. Consequently, my goal is not to carry on a new exegesis of Freire’s text but to draw on some of his insights and to interpret them as useful for critical/political struggles now. Actually, this what Paulo Freire was doing in PO. He was not really interested in relying on a coherent epistemological background but to use his ideas and, for example, the arguments of other thinkers for his own political struggles in his time. In PO, Freire could rely and quote both humanist/personalist Christian thinkers, such as Emmanuel Mounier, Alceu Amoroso Lima, Jacques Maritain, Teilard de Chardin and critical authors/militants such as Camillo Torres, Louis Althusser, Eric Fromm and Karl Marx.

The contends of PO results from the educational work that Paulo Freire has carried on in Brazil particularly at the Serviço Social da Industria (Sesi) in the region of Pernambuco (1947-1957), in particular the creation of Circulos of Pais e Professores. The dialogical and horizontal approach in the education process was there put into practice in order to foster not only alphabetisation throughout the country but also and foremost to turn the Brazilian people into an actual political subject. As most Brazilian and political thinkers of the late 50’s/60’s Paulo Freire was sharing the views of the intellectuals of the Insituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros (ISEB), such as Alvaro Vieira Pinto and Guerreiro Ramos, according to which Brazil was in process of transition from an old world to a modern one. Consequently, throughout this process and according to Freire, the pressing issue did not consist merely in economic terms, but also to turn the Brazilian people in active and well-aware actors of Brazil development (Haddad, p. 53-54). As such education played a crucial role inasmuch both its contends and actors had to be redefined in order to avoid reproducing the oppressed/oppressors relationships and to make education a “practice of freedom”.

Two Critical Displacements

The first aspect I would like to shed light on, consists in the relationship between theory and praxis in PO.  On the one hand, it seems that critical praxis is more relevant than theory. The word “praxis” appears many times in PO and the text is largely dedicated to bring and prepare a revolution in both political and cultural terms.  For instance, the oppressed gain their liberation not “by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it” and through “their recognition of the necessity to fight for it” (p. 45). Also, “there is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (p. 87). “Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders – in their communion, in their praxis – can this theory be built” (p. 183). However, even if praxis sustains all the discourse of Paulo Freire, theory also plays a major part, or at least, knowledge, observation, non-praxis, non-dialogue and even silence are fundamental to inform free and non-oppressive behaviour in the education/political processes. For instance, when Paulo Freire describes the work of educators they cannot impose their knowledge. They must first observe the new universe they are in, as “sympathetic observers”, in order to understand the needs and values of a chosen population area (p. 109).  At a first stage, they must refrain from educative action.  Besides, the liberation of the oppressed aims first at deconstructing how people think about themselves and how individual thinking oppressed each single individual. The changes in the mode of thinking are at the core of the Freirean pedagogy. In Chapter 4 of PO, Paulo Freire even draws a graph in a footnote explaining and differentiating the theory of revolutionary action from the theory of oppressive action (p. 135-36). Even if critical praxis is guiding the work of Paulo Freire, he also deeply reckons on theory in order to inform the latter. However, the interesting approach here does not consist in the relation between critical theory and critical praxis but on the displacement they both produce. What it is at stake in PO is not the question of the relevance of praxis vis àvis critical theory (and conversely) but the issue of the making of critical subjects. Theory and praxis are used to achieve this goal and not to define the aspects of the dialectic relation between them. The former oppressed individual  – now informed by the dialogical Freirean educational methodology – becomes a political and critical subject who is not anymore passive towards the relation of power. The struggle, the fight and violence are appropriate means to reach the humanization and liberation of individual. PO targets first the continuous shaping of critical and political behaviour. As a former student of Freire, Antonio Ferreira, once said in the closing of course at Angicos (Brazil/Rio Grande do Norte): “in other times, we were masses, today we are not masses anymore, we are being people” (Em outra hora, nós eramos massa, hoje ja não somos massa, estamos sendo povo) (Haddad, p. 71) Critical subjects are under makingand humans are beings that are taking part of their own constitution.

The second aspect I would like to unpack is related to the object of study of Paulo Freire, that is, education. Traditionally critical theory and even part of (political) philosophy have been confronted to the following/classic alternative: either diagnosing and changing the relations of power in order to produce social and individual changes or bringing and shaping new ethical/individual conducts in order to redefine those power relations and achieve a just society.  In PO, those two aspects are merged within a same field, education. The critical and political changes affect the subjectivities involved, the oppressed, but also the oppressors and the “revolutionary leaders” who might try to impose their views. Simultaneously, those changes might also affect, in the long term, the global social relations and bring about new forms of collective and individual existences. Freire has identified in education a vantage point of critical leverage where previous oppressive/oppressed subjectivities/realities can collapse and give birth to the making of humanized and critical existences. It is no coincidence if the contemporary proto-fascist Brazilian government has not only mocked Paulo Freire cultural inheritance but also attacked (through harsh economic measures) public funding of higher education. In those dark times, in Brazil and else where, education in general and universities in particular have become not only the target of neoliberal greed but also spaces that intensify (and even shape) the political struggles that are happening outside their walls. As educators and students, and following the words of Paulo Freire, we must keep our faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love” (p. 40). (Nossa fé nos homens e na criação de um mundo em que seja menos difícil de amar)

Methodology: Cautious Optimism

The last aspect I would like to comment, deals with the methodology that paves the thought of Paulo Freire in PO. On the one hand, and against the necrophilic impulses of the oppressors, love, communion, happiness, humility, hope, are emotions that are turned into political categories. They are strategically deployed in order to reach the objective underpinning PO. For instance, the fight of the oppressed “will actually constitute an act of love” (p. 45). “Nor yet dialogue exist without hope. Hope is rooted in men’s incompletion” (p. 91) Freire mentions “emancipated labor that gives zest to life” (alegria de viver) (p. 91) “Authentic revolution” can be carried out only through the communion of the people and its leaders (p. 130). Those emotions clearly demonstrate the optimist approach of Paulo Freire and the influence of the Liberation theory in his thought. Those emotions are mobilized against the despair of the masses fostered by the necro and sadistic tendencies of the oppressors.  Thanks to this optimism, progress can be achieved; humanization and liberation are made possible. However, they do not represent a naïve and innocent perspective since they are entrenched with a realistic and cautious/historical approach. Indeed, and particularly in Chapter 3 of PO, Freire defines the dialogical methodology of his education. He first insists in identifying the “thematic universes” and the “generative themes”. He then shows how “limit-situations” might first generate fear and hopelessness among the oppressed. But then through critical action, and an accurate gaze on the historical and particular reality, limit-situations can be overcome (through limit-acts), hope and confidence can be established. (p. 99-100). Each time, and through the transcendence of previous and alleged limited-situations, lies untested feasibility (inédito viável). (P. 102). There is here a progressive methodology that is constantly aware in both the actual possibility of freeing the oppressed by/through themselves but also aware of different moments and stages where this liberation could either refrain this progress or reproduce the role of the oppressor. However, the latter is not an obstacle of the former. It is real but by no mean it conditions the possibility of the making of critical/political subjects. As Bernard Harcourt proposal, there is also in Paulo Freire critical endeavor, a constant vigilance in unmasking specific illusions that sustain our contemporary relations of power, and a reexamination of its own critical conclusions. Paulo Freire also brings a “cautious optimism” since political strategies can be mobilized now, through an accurate understanding of the historical moment. It all depends on our courage and our love to carry on this struggle.


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, New-York: Bloomsbury, 2012

Sérgio Haddad, O Educador. Um Perfil de Paulo Freire, São Paulo: Todavia, 2019