Hegel and Critical Pedagogy
One of the most important contributions to the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire comes from German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. While there is an ongoing debate as to whether Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (PO hereafter) has superseded its intellectual predecessor, this section will focus on unearthing the underlying influence of Hegel’s philosophy through a comparative description of the PO and the Phenomenology of Spirit (PS hereafter).
Both Hegel and Freire sought to write a book that could serve as a ladder toward self-awareness, freedom, and liberation. In Hegel’s case, the PS is a history of the education of consciousness, one that results in “absolute knowing,” which is also referred to by Hegel as the “standpoint of science” (as in the Science of Logic) (Hegel 1991). In other words, the PS focuses on the tendency of world history (i.e., Spirit, or the totality of the history of all consciousnesses, of all human beings) toward freedom and defines “science” as the philosophy or vantage point from which the reader can comprehend this process and become aware of this journey, which is also the reader’s own journey.
It should be noted at this point that by “all human beings,” Hegel meant white, European, subjects. There is debate in the literature as to whether Hegel was influenced by the Haitian Revolution (Buck-Morss 2009), as well as to his feminist credentials (Mills 1995). Nonetheless, in the PS all the crucial historical, political, cultural, religious, and philosophical references are properly speaking European; the PS generally excludes consideration of other civilizational perspectives.
In Freire’s case, the PO offers a pedagogy, a method that can spur the process of the education and ultimate liberation of the oppressed consciousness. Its underlying assumptions are similar to Hegel’s: the oppressed and the oppressor are incomplete beings who can become conscious of their own incompleteness and attempt to become more fully human. A closer examination of the following themes will reveal the parallels and differences in more detail (Mills 1995).
Lordship and Bondage
One of the most visible resemblances between Freire and Hegel is in their treatment of the relation between the master and the slave. In the PS, the chapter on Lordship and Bondage belongs to the development of self-consciousness at the individual level; later chapters in the PS will deal with the same topic from the societal and spiritual level. Self-consciousness can be defined as a prototypical human that knows itself as a subject and is aware of its capacity to transform the world and its surroundings.
But where did this “subjectivity” come from? How did it develop? Lordship and Bondage is preceded by a section in which Hegel argues the following: nature or the objects of desire (food, water, all of natural existence) cannot properly be the medium through which a person comes to awareness of its own subjectivity; only through a relation to another human can a person come to know itself as a subject. In other words, only through the struggle against another human can the human animal awaken its self-consciousness. This is the education process that self-consciousness undergoes in Lordship and Bondage.
Thus, the struggle between the master and the slave is one of recognition; both want to be recognized as the master, as a subject. When they first encounter each other, each thinks of itself as subject and the other as a mere animal. Insofar as each self-consciousness is unwilling to accept the other’s authority – for to do so would entail the self-negation of selfhood – each tries to force the other to recognize a foreign authority, and the struggle necessitates the risk of life as proof of independence from nature.
Each self-consciousness is here engaged in a struggle for a misguided notion of freedom, namely, the notion that only as an independent individual can I be said to be a person, a subject. Kant’s moral laws, the Hobbesian sovereign, are all built upon this fantasy of pure detachment from society and nature. Self-consciousness is, hence, the ultimate egotistical being, wholly absorbed within itself and only preoccupied with and only aware of its private interests. Everything beyond is seen as a mere limitation, as a shackle, and as a radical otherness.
The struggle for recognition, however, fails if one or both parties die because a claim to authority is a claim insofar as there is someone to obey. The struggle can result in a positive result only if one self-consciousness learns that life is essential to be a self-consciousness; there is no such thing as a dead subject, and thus life and subjectivity constitute an unbreakable interdependence. In the midst of the struggle, then, if one of the parties pays heed to its instinct for self-preservation, it will be forced to submit to the will of the other, accepting a dependent existence and becoming a slave. The victor, who has thus proved itself to be a pure independent self-consciousness, is the master.
The lord is now in command of the slave by virtue of proving he has no fear of death and is therefore independent from nature. Moreover, he can enjoy that which provides sustenance through the labor of the bondsman. This mediation allows the lord to further annihilate the independence of life; for example, the pig becomes pork, a human food, not an animal that has an independent existence. In this pure comfort, the master achieves self-identity with life, turning everything in the natural world into an extension of his will.
A problem, however, arises. The lord lacks the one thing that drove him into the struggle in the first place: recognition by an equal, another self-consciousness. In degrading the bondsman to a thing, the one recognizing the lord’s authority is not a subject. The master certainly grants the slave a certain level of recognition. After all, masters do eat food prepared by slaves, give them commands in a shared language, etc. But this recognition is of a limited kind and at best equates the slave to animals with more advanced cognitive functions. For the master the one thing that makes a human truly human is missing in the slave: the capacity to live by normative values, to obey a law for its moral worth alone, and to be absolutely free and independent.
And because the master’s authority is only morally binding and human, if it is recognized as such by another human, the lord is condemned to be uncertain of his own subjectivity. In other words, to be a human among animals is to not be a human at all. This is the result of a recognition that is one-sided and unequal: a radical dissatisfaction that will drive the lord into unconscious manifestations of insecurity and doubt. As the blame is pushed on the slave, the master will resort to ever more tyrannical expressions of rage and madness. Ultimately, in dehumanizing the bondsman, the lord dehumanizes himself, sinking to animal desire, to a subhuman existence precisely because he attains the independence and power over everything.
This movement is a dialectical reversal, wherein the master showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be; in wanting to become a subject, it nonetheless sinks into the existence of an object because it lacks recognition. The slave, on the other hand, will also go through a dialectical reversal and become the truly independent self-consciousness.
The bondsman believes that the lord is an independent subject. What it does not yet realize is that in the experience of being subjugated and forced to labor, it has itself already become a potential subject. The lord merely declared its independence from life in principle, but in practice it is a glutton, a slave to its animal desire. The slave, on the contrary, by way of servitude, denies his own natural impulses; through work, the slave postpones the satisfaction of desire.
Not only does he achieve independence from life in the labor process but also an enduring recognition in the product of this work. While for the master everything that has an independent existence is alien and therefore needs to be subjugated to its will, for the slave the product of his work is an external thing that retains its independence vis-à-vis its creator, but is nevertheless not really alien. By transforming the world, the slave sees himself reflected in the thing. Thus, a new form of independence is revealed to the slave, and he comes to see in the independent existence of the object his own independence: If the object, something completely at the mercy of the slave’s work, still retains an independence, a self-identity, then the slave himself, though enslaved, also possesses the same kind of independence.
Hegel ends this section by emphasizing that both the absolute terror of death and alienated work are essential for the slave’s transformation. In other words, the master, who makes sure the slave faces both of these oppressions, is essential to the slave’s freedom. Without a fear that can make the slave tremble and despair, work becomes a mere expression of self-certainty. Conversely, without work, there is nothing that can reflect back to the slave his own essential independence. Fear without work is pure dependence on the master, and on nature, work without fear is pure independence, a form of fully self-absorbed vanity. The freedom earned by the slave in his torments is an embedded one. It is an independence that can only and necessarily come forth within the confines of absolute dependence and servitude.
However, this freedom is only an inner freedom of the mind, not yet the objective freedom that can only come through the abolition of the institutions that enforce enslavement. The slave’s independence, its freedom, is therefore something that will not help him attain mutual recognition: this freedom is merely the freedom of stoicism, a retreat into the abstract kingdom of the mind.
Oppressor and Oppressed
Freire’s account of his own master–slave dialectics borrows many aspects from Hegel’s. But he also diverges significantly, not the least because for Freire, the stoic freedom of Hegel’s slave is inadequate for the context of a postcolonial Brazil in the twentieth century. If Hegel’s chapter ended in a subjective freedom (which Hegel goes on to supersede), Freire will set his aim at objective freedom, at the overthrow of the objective conditions of enslavement and oppression. This underlying difference is the source of the main divergences in their respective analyses.
From the outset, Freire shares the foundational assumptions of Hegelian thought: the meaning and essence of being human is to be recognized as a subject and to develop our capacities as social agents in this world. Dehumanization is the negation of this essence, and it is the vocation of those affected to strive for freedom and recognition. Freire also takes from Hegel the idea that oppressors are not fully human; in Hegel’s terminology, they have not attained self-consciousness or rather regress into animal desire. Freire further adds that only the oppressed can achieve the liberation and humanization of both parties. And the way to achieve this is, just like in Hegel’s case, through work and through praxis.
A crucial difference surfaces here: the objects of work in Hegel’s case were things of nature – stones, animals, plants, wood, etc. The kinds of work involved were along the lines of carpentry, farming, cooking, construction, and such. In Freire’s case, the objects of revolutionary praxis are social relations, that is, the institutions of social oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization. And this kind of work involves a spiritual rebirth of the oppressed consciousness, one that is marked by the love of humanity.
In the beginning, Freire says, the oppressed will adhere to the oppressors; they think that to be free is to have power over nature and over other human beings. This was true of Hegel’s slave as well. It sought the status of master, but lost in the ensuing struggle. Freire names this misidentification with the master as a manifestation of the slave’s fear of freedom. To achieve freedom, the oppressed must embrace the risks of freedom that revolutionary struggle entails. Here is yet another difference with the PS: while for Hegel the fear of death was crucial for the slave’s development as a spiritually, if not physically, free subject, for Freire the condition for the freedom of the oppressed is to be rid of the fear of death.
But the courage of the oppressed is not motivated by the desire to control and suppress the freedom of another being; this was the mistake that the master made in the PS. For Freire the struggle of the oppressed is not aimed at gaining power over the oppressors. Doing so would only result in a new situation of oppression. This is the reason why the oppressor can never be the liberators and humanizers; they know only of violence and lovelessness. The oppressed, on the other hand, have the capacity to shed their fear of freedom, which also involves the fear of death, and turn their fight into an “act of love.”
The notion of love is central to Freire’s thought. And even here, there are remarkable similarities with Hegel’s emphasis on the collaborative nature of mutual recognition. In the PS, self-consciousness is described as essentially split, a duplication, something that is radically independent, free, and self-determining only insofar as it exists in a relation of radical dependency. In other words, self-consciousness is radically dependent, first and foremost on nature, because life is the medium in which the self is embedded; secondly, on “others,” because the self cannot exist as such without recognition, without another self acknowledging me as a subject.
Of course, the PS has shown how self-consciousness tries to suppress this dependence and claim its independence over nature and over its own social peers. And it has also shown that the master inevitably fails in its quest because it had a naive idea of what independence means; it is impossible to “supersede” another human being, i.e., to force recognition from the other, unless the other is willing to give it. A human is, after all, different from a fruit, and nothing done externally can forcefully extract recognition. No amount of violence can help the master become a humanized self-consciousness. Consequently, the action of seeking recognition can only be achieved together, in communion and in solidarity, as an act of love for the other that is nothing but an act of love toward oneself. Hegel tells us that self-consciousness needs to become aware that it at once is, and is not, another consciousness, if it ever wishes to move beyond the limiting narrowness of self-identity and into full humanness. This is also, in essence, what underlies Freire’s notion of revolution as an act of love, rather than of violence. Its goal is not to suppress an enemy but to affirm the essence of being human for both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Moreover, the struggle to achieve this will not come without a fight; Freire was not a pacifist. In his view, freedom has to be conquered, for the transformation of the objective conditions of oppression necessarily involves all forms of power struggle. In this sense, Freire is also agreeing with Hegel insofar as the latter believed that in some instances, bloodshed and death are part of the life process of spirit by which renewal and birth become possible.
Lastly, it should be noted that both Freire and Hegel shared a similar ontological framework; if their belief in the perfectibility of humankind is still highly debatable, what is certain is that both affirmed the very possibility of historical progress. For Freire, humanization was not merely a historical possibility but a human vocation that the oppressed are fated to pursue. And while dehumanization is for him a historical reality, it merely comprises an “inauthentic” expression of social reality. Hegel, on his part, similarly affirms the “self-certainty” of the master as a necessary element in the slave’s development into stoicism but labels it as a “one-sided” and misguided manifestation of spirit (this confidence in the march and progress of history would come under heavy critique and doubt in the course of the twentieth century).
It is against this ontological background that Freire’s pedagogy is designed to make an intervention: its goal is not to direct the oppressed or grant them freedom (this is impossible). Rather, the emphasis is on helping them open a path toward their own liberation. The means to achieve this is a dialogical pedagogy that is synonymous with the practice of freedom. In other words, it is a pedagogy that helps both teachers and students recognize each other as essential to their respective identities as free subjects. And above all, it is a pedagogy that fosters a concrete set of actions aimed at changing the objective conditions of existence beyond the confines of the classroom. Thus, when undertaken dialogically, education is potentially a historical intervention in objective existence of revolutionary proportions.
This means that while Freire borrows from Hegel the main outlines of his ontological framework, the pedagogy introduced in the PO constitutes the main point of departure between the two thinkers. On the one hand, Freire’s pedagogy spoke for a different constituency; the PO is the theoretical manifestation of a different social group, in a different historical time. On the other hand, this pedagogy represented a non-prescriptive blueprint for a form of political praxis, a point of view that is absent in the PS. While the PS inhabits the skins of the particular forms of consciousness in history, it does so only to the extent that it shows how the inner workings of its own assumptions bring about its own collapse. The book itself is written from the “standpoint of science,” a point of view that is universal and from where the reader can comprehend the entirety of the process of the spirit’s development. Thus, in developing a pedagogy that focuses on praxis, Freire abandons the standpoint of absolute knowing and claims the particular social space inhabited by the revolutionary class of his time.
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