Praxis is the central concept which Paulo Freire adopts to capture the dialectical relationship between consciousness and the world, reflected in the pedagogical approach for which he became famous. The concept of praxis dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks and as far back as Aristotle. It connects with Socrates’ dictum, captured by Plato in the Apologia, that the unexamined life is a life not worth living. This entails reflection on the process of living – an intellectual function. This is connected with Gramsci’s later notion that all human beings are intellectuals but not all carry out the function of intellectuals. The reference here is to the thinking and reflecting processes that accompany most activities and that one should help nurture with political change in mind.
Praxis continued to be adopted in subsequent writings in social theory. It entails action-reflection-transformative action. It gained revolutionary prominence in Marxist thought and action. Gramsci rendered Praxis the central concept of his philosophy – “The Philosophy of Praxis” – in keeping with the Marxist tradition and Marx himself: “revolutionizing practice” (Marx and Engels 1978, p. 144) entailing reflection on action to change the world. This is captured in Marx’s 11th and final Thesis on Feuerbach where he states: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx and Engels 1978, p. 145).
But human activity consists of action and reflection: it is praxis, it is transformation of the world. (Freire 1970, 1993, p. 125)
Reflection, Theory, and Transformation
There is a transformative edge to Freire’s interpretation of praxis which involves theory which is regarded as a codification of reflection on and rumination with regard to experience and therefore the world of action (Freire 1970, 1993). This renders problematic common phrases such as “from theory to praxis” – theory is embedded in praxis. Praxis is geared to transforming the world, that is to say, one intervenes in history to contribute towards its development. Put differently, education based on “praxis” is one that allows people to act on their material surroundings and reflect upon them with a view to transforming them.
The process (action-reflection-transformative action) involved is dialectical and not sequential as the late Paula Allman (1999), one of the key exponents of Marxian concepts in Freire and Gramsci, emphasized time and time again.
For Freire, action on its own, isolated from reflection, is tantamount to mindless activism. Reflection, divorced from action, constitutes empty theorizing.
Praxis lies at the heart of different situations in Freire’s writings. One recurring aspect of his use of the concept is that of standing aside, either voluntarily or through forced circumstances, to take a critical look at things which are familiar. Frank Youngman (1986) aptly puts it thus: “… education must help people in the process of objectifying the world, critically understanding it, and acting to change it.” (p. 171). This serves as a definition of the term praxis.
Contradiction of Opposites
While gaining this critical distance, with a social justice intention, the people involved would be contributing to “negating the negation.” (Allman 1999) They would be negating the process of thwarting the subaltern, the oppressed, and disenfranchised in their process of becoming, becoming more, in this case becoming “more fully human,” a notion that exposed Freire to criticism, from a postmodernist and related perspectives, of essentializing the human condition. In denying the necessary conditions for this humanization to occur, one would be dehumanizing oneself while, at the same time, dehumanizing others. By the same token, in gaining further “humanization,” the oppressed humanize the oppressor. All this is related to solving the contradiction of opposites between oppressors and oppressed. This is genuine revolutionary activity, one which is intended to resolve the contradiction rather than maintain it by simply replacing the personnel involved, the oppressed replacing the oppressor by acting on the internalized image of the latter, activating the “oppressor consciousness” –wanting to be like the oppressor. Praxis can play an important role in solving this contradiction.
Pedagogy of Praxis
Paulo Freire’s pedagogical approach, developed in the North-East of Brazil, and especially in Angicos, can take us some way in this regard. It is an education based on praxis. It is in fact the “Pedagogy of Praxis,” something which somehow echoes, though not deliberately, Gramsci’s “Pedagogy of Praxis.” It is a pedagogy which has “critical distancing” at its core. What is often problematically referred to, in Latin America, as the “Metodo Paulo Freire” is said to capture this sense of critical distancing. What is important, however, for one’s appreciation of Freire’s approach, is the philosophy at the heart of it, rather than the “method” itself. As with all pedagogical approaches, the one advocated and exemplified by Freire is bound by context. In fact, Freire time and time again argued that one should not refer to his approach as a “method.” What happened in say Angicos cannot be transferred elsewhere cargo style. Putting it differently, and echoing Freire’s words, the experiment cannot be transplanted but must be reinvented. This having been said, a recapitulation of the Freire approach at Angicos brings to light the basic features of an education based on praxis. Quite instructive here is Dennis Goulet’s succinct account of this approach, in his preface to the English version of Freire’s very early writings.
Generative Words and Themes
There was a preliminary phase since any community education project entails one’s getting to know the community involved, the people’s speech patterns, aspirations, preoccupations, and what captures their imagination, among other things. Every community has its own characteristics. Educators were to spend time in the community, probably as part of a team involving target learners themselves who became coresearchers and coeducators in the project, just as the educators became colearners. The collective work involved searching for “generative words” with a focus on their “syllabic richness” and intimate connection to the people’s quotidian experience (Goulet 1973, p. 11). The next stage involved codifying the material gathered into different forms of cultural products, including dramatic representations, photos, drawings, etc. This was meant to enable people, who form part of this culture, to gain critical distance from things that are familiar to them, “extraordinarily re-experiencing the ordinary” as Ira Shor puts it in his Critical Teaching in Everyday Life. The ensuing discussion, prompted by “hinge themes,” introduced by the official educator, involved a process of decodification. The group members were helped to recognize the situation as the one in which they live. They were helped to hopefully begin to view it in a different, more critical light, unveiling, in the process, the underlying contradictions of this reality. They were then involved in developing alternative futures, a new codification through which they intervene in the history-making process affecting their own community and possibly larger ones (Goulet 1973, p. 11).
Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men [sic.] exist at all. (Marx and Engels 1978, p. 158)
Praxis constitutes the means of understanding the social relationships involved and identifying the possibilities of such awareness for the struggle to generate a climate for radical social change. The point of departure, for Freire, is human beings “in the ‘here and now’.” (Freire 1970, 1993, p. 85).
Secondly, this pedagogical approach involves conscientização (Roberts 2000), a concept that is closely linked to that of praxis. Conscientização has its prominent place in Latin American social thought, including radical religious thinking. Freire acknowledges that it had been employed by Brazilian radicals in the 1960s and identifies Dom Helder Camara, then Bishop of Recife, as the person who helped popularize it. Freire later stopped adopting the term because of its loose usage, devoid of any sense of praxis (Freire 1993, p. 110). He later began to reuse it describing it as the process “of the coming of consciousness” (Freire 1993, p. 110).
Third, there is a connection between praxis, conscientização, and literacy. However, the kind of literacy involved is one that transcends that of simply functional literacy. The latter kind of literacy, though sufficiently political in the sense that it allowed subaltern groups, in Brazil at the time, the right to vote, did not allow for praxis. Functional literacy of that type would involve a mechanical process of learning – devoid of the political act of reflection. It was divorced from the context for radical social change. The kind of politicizing literacy Freire introduced, a literacy-entailing praxis, was called “critical literacy.” The quest for critical literacy, that is, to read and write the word and the world, applies to both the conventionally illiterate and conventionally literate alike. One can read the word but not necessarily read the world while doing so. Others have argued, going beyond Freire, that critical literacy also involves reading and writing the world and its construction through various media in a process of critical literacy. The terms critical literacy, conscientização, and praxis therefore become inextricably intertwined. Critical literacy, involving praxis, is the process whereby one reads the word and the world with a view, in the revolutionary praxis sense, to transforming it. Parallels with the work of Italian critical educator, don Lorenzo Milani, have been made in this context.
Authentic Dialogue and the Collective Dimension of Learning
Liberatory education is fundamentally a situation where the teacher and the students both have to be learners, both have to be cognitive subjects, in spite of their being different. This for me is the first test of liberating education, for teachers and students both to be critical agents in the act of knowing. (Freire, in Shor and Freire 1987, p. 33)
Fifth, what emerges from this process is an affirmation of the collective dimension of learning. There is the recognition here that revolutionary transformation of the world implies a collective, and not a single, effort. Revolutionary praxis is collective in nature. Freire argued that one engages in the task of social-justice-oriented transformation in concert with others (Freire 1970, 1993, pp. 85–86). Taking a purely individualistic approach to becoming “human” is mistaken in that it can entail denying others possibilities for reaching the same state. It would entail the dehumanizing process of “having more” (pp. 85–86), all part and parcel of “having” rather than “being.”
Different Contexts for Praxis
The process of praxis in his early and most celebrated works, namely, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Cultural Action for Freedom, centered around political and communal life in general. In later work, however, when confronted by impoverished communities such as those of Guinea Bissau, then just liberated from Portuguese colonialism, his formulations around praxis took on a slant that echoes Capital Vol. 1. It also echoes Karl Marx’s advocacy of a “polytechnic education” in the “Geneva Resolution of 1866.” The site of reflection for Freire, in this specific African context, was the world of economic production. Freire argued extensively and prescriptively (at odds with his general philosophy), in Letter 11, that there should be no dichotomy between productive labor and education (Freire 1978).
He even went so far as to argue that educational institutions should not be “distinguished, essentially, from the factory or from the productive activity in the agricultural field” (p. 105), thus echoing Mao, Nyerere (the school-shamba as a site for “self-reliance” education), and others who wrote from a “Third World” perspective in this context. This position, which provoked severe criticism, posits a version of praxis characterized by reflection on the world of production. It somehow echoes Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s belief that “praxis (critical, creative, human life-activity) can radically transform men and women into different kinds of being through labor” (von Vacano 2013, p. 484).
Exile as Praxis
Finally, reference was made earlier to Freire’s different uses of Praxis for an understanding of different situations. Reflecting on his experience of exile in “talking books” with people who were banished externally (Antonio Faundez) or “exiled” internally (imprisoned in Brazil – Frei Betto), Freire even used praxis to define these moments. These situations allowed Freire and the two coauthors in question the chance to gain critical distance from the context they knew. They were cut off from action in countries (Chile under Allende, Brazil before the 1964 coup) where a potential social transformation was halted by repressive military takeovers. Freire makes statements to this effect in the 1989 book with Faundez, translated into English as Learning to Question, and also in the hitherto nontranslated into English exchange with Ricardo Kotscho and Frei Betto (Carlos Alberto Libanio Cristo). This exchange appears under the book title Essa Escola Chamada Vida (The School called Life).
The period of exile constituted a profoundly pedagogical experience for Freire. The same applied to Betto who engaged in drama and other projects within the Brazilian cells; he was twice imprisoned (Betto was a student leader during the military dictatorship period). Conversations with other exiles or prisoners of conscience, or otherwise, served as a form of praxis since they had the potential to generate the knowledge, emotional responses, and reinvigoration necessary to seek to transform Brazilian society once the stressful situation was to come to an end. This was to occur with the abertura (opening) in the early 1980s and the promise of democracy, a very fragile democracy at first (Freire was at first skeptical of returning from exile and was persuaded to do so by such friends as Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns).
Relearning Changed Context of Origin
For Freire, however, praxis of this type entailed further dialogue and learning on return to the country from which he was banished. He had to “relearn Brazil” since the context in which he was born and bred had changed considerably throughout the 16-year period of exile. Otherwise, the implication would be that, as a hero welcomed home, he ran the risk of being another agent of “cultural invasion,” generating imported ideas which cannot be transplanted in the new, albeit home, context. Engaging in praxis involved constant refection and relearning on the world of action. In Freire’s case, this must have culminated in his having sufficiently relearned Brazil to the extent that he acquired the confidence to assume the post of Education Secretary in the Municipal PT government of São Paulo, when invited to do so by Mayor Erundina. There he reintroduced “praxis” in a manner that allowed the concept to lie at the heart of the “popular public schools” he helped develop, targeted at such children as the “menino/a popular” (popular child). He encouraged the “school community” to develop curricula on the basis of “thematic complexes” that arose from investigations of the surrounding environment.
It would be fair to state, by way of conclusion, that Freire’s earlier and broader conceptualization of praxis is the most enduring interpretation of this term in critical education circles. Ira Shor, Antonia Darder, Henry Giroux, Peter Roberts, Paula Allman, and Peter McLaren frequently use it. The concept also lies at the heart of the radical liberation theology movement in Latin America that inspired and is inspired by Freire. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff described faith as a “liberating praxis,” the term Freire himself uses in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
There are those who distinguish between “praxis” or, in some cases, “intellectual praxis” and “revolutionary praxis.” The former is said to constitute a case where people might change but the structure of oppression is left intact. This has been a standard critique of Freire. Conscientisation does not necessarily lead to transformation. It might simply lead to adopting an attitude based on critical awareness but this does not bring about change. Revolutionary praxis entails building on one’s continuous critical engagement and awareness to act on the world, possibly even through militant action and violence (as with guerilla warfare in Latin America and elsewhere) to bring about change. One does not preclude the other. Praxis, involving conscientisation, can help create the climate for revolutionary change. In Gramsci’s words, every revolution is preceded by an “intense labor of criticism.” Otherwise, the material change involved would be simply a top-down development rather than an ongoing revolutionary democratic one; hence the “prefigurative” educational work. Freire’s pedagogy of praxis serves this prefigurative work well. As Gramsci postulated, revolutions of different kind, sudden or of very long duration, the latter involving the gradual renegotiation and transformation of relations of hegemony, require a long process of educational and cultural work. The “pedagogy/philosophy of praxis,” in the Freirean and Gramscian sense, can potentially play a decisive role in this process.
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