Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Existential Individual Alone Within Freire’s Sociopolitical Solidarity

  • R. Scott Webster
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_104



Freire’s work has been recognized as lacking some careful and systematic attention to details on occasion (Dale and Hyslop-Margison 2011; Gerhardt 1993; Roberts 2010). This is not a serious criticism but is simply accepted as characteristic of his humanizing approach. One example of an event Freire identifies as important but does not provide systematic details about is the personally existential encounter an individual must face alone while being educated and liberated to participate in the sociopolitical solidarity of her context. Existential encounters are often marginalized due to the all-important focus upon dialogue between others. This contribution seeks to draw attention to the existential experiences of educational transformations to which Freire refers, explaining that these are not just juxtaposed ideas (Hufford 2010) but must necessarily be experienced alone because of their existential nature and that these experiences are also considered to be a necessary element for his pedagogy for transformation.

Existential Influences

Themes such as dehumanization, alienation, domination, existential, fear of freedom, and authenticity are some examples of the terminologies that are present in Freire’s writings which demonstrate the influence that existentialism had upon some of his thinking. Freire was well acquainted with the works of the existentialists such as Buber, de Beauvoir, Jaspers, Kierkegaard, Marcel, Sartre, and others and was personally acquainted with, and quite influenced by, Eric Fromm. Comparing the existential works of Fromm and Freire is quite illuminating and so several references to Fromm’s works shall be made in this chapter.

While existentialist philosophies are readily recognized for centering their concern upon the individual who often feels alone, alienated, and anxious about the recognition of a certain sense of personal freedom, it is not systematically clear in Freire’s work of a similar sort of individually felt dread and angst concerning one’s existence. However, this chapter seeks to tease some of this out. Through his educational writings which are aimed towards liberating the oppressed social classes, particularly in South America, Freire often makes reference to the oppressed as “an exploited social class.” This may be understood as an attempt to empower the entire membership of the group as a social-political phenomenon rather than as one which is centered upon each personally existing individual. This is often supported by Freire’s (1985, p. 99) preference for such notions as “we think” rather than “I think.”

It is clear from the descriptions of oppressive systems that Freire wanted us to understand them as social-political phenomena of cultural oppression affecting an under-class, which he described at times as the “masses of common people.” Nevertheless, we can appreciate that he, along with other significant philosophers of education such as John Dewey with his emphasis upon a “new individualism,” recognized that an education for liberty involves a site of struggle in the lived existence of each individual – at least for one phase of the process. Freire (1998, p. 65) describes the felt impotence of the oppressed class as “existential weariness” because it is experienced by each individual who has a sense of being too insignificant to have any real potential for making a difference. He also describes this same “existential weariness” as a “spiritual weariness” because it is “emptied of courage, emptied of hope, and above all, seized with fear of adventure and risk” (Freire 1994, p. 114). This is particularly relevant for the notion of the “fear of freedom” which Freire appreciated is not easily overcome for those who are oppressed.


For Freire, the overall aim is to attain liberty for all – including for the oppressors as well as for the oppressed. He often described such freedom as a culture for which a liberating education is an essential component. The sort of freedom which he espoused was not unlimited and irresponsible, “perverted into license” as if it were absolute. Rather it is a socially responsible freedom which respects the humanity in all persons irrespective of their social position in life.

Cultures of oppression which domesticate and silence the masses make people consider themselves as lacking the freedom and capacity to enact change and to assertively pursue greater liberty. Freire (1985, p. 115) importantly describes this system as a culture for controlling the aspirations of the oppressed as it is “crucial for dehumanizing ideology to avoid, at all costs, any opportunity for men and women to perceive themselves as reflective, active beings, as creators and transformers of the world.” In addition to being dominant throughout the whole of society, this is a culture which is internalized at the individual level. Therefore, cultural action for liberating and bringing about changes in social structures, institutions, and practices first requires that individuals take action from a basis of self-conviction rather than being caught up simply following and being led by what the rest of the crowd might be doing – even if the crowd is enacting a culture of liberty. This is because even in this social situation the individual herself is not authentically free if she is nevertheless being led passively by others. She must be led by her own personal convictions and intentions.

This is a crucial step that is often overlooked and is quite existential in nature. Freire’s education for liberating, while a social affair involving dialogical relations, does not give freedom to people as if freedom was something to be “had” or obtained. Rather, freedom is more ontological in nature because it involves the very being of people. This transformation of individuals enables them to be free rather than just to have freedom, and as an ontological phenomenon this pertains to each individual who undergoes conscientization. This site of the individual struggling through reflective and critical thought is an important dimension for political action to begin, as Freire (2000, pp. 108 & 124) explains that others cannot “think for me” but liberated people must become “masters of their thinking.”

The felt sense of freedom at the individual level is important for all political actions because it is “the freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks…” (Freire 1998, p. 102). He appears to reference Fromm’s book The Fear of Freedom in the preface of his Pedagogy of the Oppressed in relation to education for critical conscious-raising because inevitably each individual must grapple with a new sense of personal freedom in order to enact living politically according to a new and emancipative culture which is often at odds with the dominant culture. Importantly, in Fromm’s (1942, p. 91) book is his argument that we are unfortunately too often fascinated with “freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blinded to the fact of inner restraints, compulsions, and fears.” In line with this, Freire (1994, p. 115) argues that this inner fear prevents individuals’ struggling. Significant freedom for both Fromm and Freire is freedom of one’s inner will – one’s intentionality – which must be grappled with alone while in the midst of being in and with the world.

Conscientization and Existential Angst

Conscientization is a form of intentionality which provides personal purposefulness for being with the world. In order to pursue the process of enabling people to be liberated through education, Freire (2000, pp. 55 & 111) argues that “the first stage must deal with …oppressed consciousness” which he described as “alienating domestication [and]…the bureaucratisation of the mind.” Interestingly, he explains this as a consciousness which transforms “everything surrounding it into an object of its domination …everything reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (Freire 2000, pp. 58–59) where the people “no longer are; they merely have.” This is a reflection of some similar ideas found in Fromm’s To Have or to Be? and The Art of Being. Consequently, one of the first things he tries to encourage his students to appreciate is that culture is an anthropological concept which is distinctively different from the assumed static condition of the world of nature which is often accepted as being more “objective” (Freire 1975, p. 41).

His critique of the silence that is produced in the oppressed social classes identifies that these people believe too much in an objective reality for which they feel separated and powerless to influence. Drawing upon de Beauvoir, Freire (2000, p. 74) argued that “the interests of the oppressors lie in ‘changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them’”. Hence is focus upon encouraging his students to consider the manner which they are actively relating to their own context.

Freire’s (1985, pp. 51 & 68) process of conscientization centers the “existential situations of the learners” themselves including their sense of subjectivity and how they relate to a world of human culture. This is portrayed clearly in his book Education for Critical Consciousness in which he presents drawings of ten existential situations to his adult students which they could relate to as part of their present existence. Understanding human persons as relational beings who relate to their relations is a key existential concept. Developing this in some detail, Kierkegaard has famously argued that “truth is subjectivity.” By this he meant that in order to live a more meaningful life, how one relates to the entities around one has more significance that coming to “know” (in an objective sense) the nature of the “what” of the objects themselves. This existential notion of “subjective truth” appears significant for Freire. Not in the sense for establishing “truth” in an epistemological sense of gaining knowledge about the facts of reality but rather understanding is as “truly relating” to one’s situation in an authentic manner, in a reflexive sense for how one relates to one’s environment in which one plays an active and present role.

Freire’s philosophy appears to be more action-oriented than that of the existentialist philosophers but he does value the internal strife – or anxiety – that is required to reorient a human life towards greater conscientization. Similar to the existentialists, he argues against a “spectator approach” to life and appreciates the existential angst – involving “emotional power” and what he refers to as the “dramatic tension” (Freire 1975, p. 29, 1985, pp. 128–129) of our existence. This is experienced when one encounters a critical revelation through the demythologizing praxis of a liberating education which seeks to uncover how one is positioned and then relates to the world one finds oneself “thrown” in, as it importantly seeks the raison d’être of the facts behind one’s facticity. Freire (2000, p. 115) argues that critical conscious raising must seek a holistic view of things, “a totality.” This is much like Heidegger’s notion of “total relevance” and Dewey’s notion of “significance”– it is the “big picture” understanding of the hegemonic culture in which we are embedded – and for Freire it is essential to give particular importance to the political dimensions of our world.

This “totality” view of Freire’s is also akin to Kierkegaard’s religious stage of giving meaning and purpose to all that we do. Indeed this totalizing “religious” view is able to provide a why for all entities in the environment, including a why for being moral. As Freire (1998, p. 53) explains that “what makes men and women ethical is their capacity to ‘spiritualise’ the world.” Hence through education, doxa (accepted understandings of the dominant ideology) is challenged and replaced by logos (totality of meanings in which persons participate in making such meanings) enabling people “to perceive critically the way they exist in the world” in order to transform it and themselves (Freire 2000, pp. 81–83). Freire describes this process of “becoming fully human” as an “existential experience” (ibid., p. 75) because it involves creating a culture within oneself often including fear and anxiety, but which is also shared in solidarity with others.

The inclination to develop existential purposes were previously absent in the minds and intentions of the oppressed because these are not compatible with the dominating culture. Therefore Freire (2000, p. 39) argues that conscientization “is a task for radicals” which is reflective of Fromm’s notion of Disobedience for which he argues for the importance of being a revolutionary in the sense of being with a shared vision of a better world rather than just being a disobedient “rebel without a cause.” It is understood that “the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character” (Freire 2000, p. 138) because it enables the students to better see the world as in need of change and is not a world with a “fixed entity,” which is a key feature of Freire’s problem-posing education. In a more tempered articulation of this same idea is that conscientization encourages curiosity to evolve as an important aspect of a strengthening personal intentionality. He explained in his Pedagogy of Hope that one of the reasons he gave his adult learners drawings of existential situations with which they had some familiarity was to render them sympathetic. In turn, this promotes curiosity, which in turn begins the process of conscientization (1994, p. 65).

Authenticity and Authentic Dialogue

There are frequent references to “authenticity” in Freire’s works and in particular in relation to his understanding of dialogue. Authenticity is a key concept in existentialism, pertaining to the individual who makes/chooses one’s own meanings, purposes, and intentions. Freire doesn’t always use authenticity in this manner that is specific to existentialist philosophy. However, he does appear to use it when he describes the oppressed as “unauthentic beings” and for claiming that the people’s destiny was to overcome this in order to become “authentic human beings” (Freire 1975, p. 16). He also employed this term authenticity for better understanding the potentially liberating relationship between educators and their students as one involving “authentic dialogue.”

Educators are not to impose themselves or their teachings onto students in a paternalistic sense because this would perpetuate the myth that students ought to be dependent on their teachers. Rather students and teachers are to be with each other as equal human beings – not necessarily united by identical ideas, aspirations, and feelings – but having a unity through diversity, oneness with difference, and a dialectical solidarity which is a hallmark of democratic living (Freire 1994). This is partly represented through Freire’s notion of authentic dialogue and due to the inherent differences to emerge through dialogue he explains that this activity is able to provoke a critical attitude (Freire 1975). Sometimes this is represented in secondary sources as “egalitarian dialogue” or “dialogic inquiry.” However, they present themselves as “methods” or “techniques” of pedagogy but for which Freire would be opposed. Both egalitarian dialogue and dialogic inquiry tend to be focused upon the rationality and validity of propositions and arguments for which all participants are free to challenge and engage with in a rather cognitive sense. However, these concepts do not adequately capture the existential dimension of authentic dialogue that was important for Freire (1975, p. 45) who described it in Buber’s existentialist phrase as an “I-Thou relationship.”

Freire (2000, p. 88) argued that “human beings are not built in silence” and so dialogue serves as “an existential necessity” to humanize persons. Therefore authentic dialogue brings to light the important existential personal courage needed by each individual student to overcome personal fear in order to transcend the oppressing culture which silences them from sharing their own understandings and feelings. Asserting one’s own voice is not encouraged nor welcomed in an oppressive culture which manifests itself as an inner culture of “manipulating” and silencing voices because the individual believes herself not to be worthy or capable of having a view of her own that may be contrary to the culture of the status quo.

In summary, while Freire’s works can be primarily understood as engaging with and transforming social-political practices, he greatly appreciated the important role of the existential site of struggle within individuals which they must encounter in order to participate in liberating education. This is evident through acknowledging that the dominating culture of oppression exists in the inner world of individuals in addition to being manifest in the external practices of society. Transforming oppressive political societies first requires the raising of critical consciousness or conscientization in the inner worlds of individuals. Freire argued that this might at first be encouraged through sympathetic recognition which leads towards curiosity. This might develop into a more determined interest to inquire into cultural practices more rigorously. The emergence of a new intentionality through this educative pedagogy might then enable individuals to face their fear of freedom and to choose new aspirations for themselves. Then as a collective of individuals, action in solidarity may follow. Of existential importance is the courage that is required to overcome the existential anxiety encountered at the individual level, at the interface between actual present conditions and the possible new conditions which are hoped for.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Deakin UniversityMelbourneAustralia