Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, perhaps best known for his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and for popularizing the practice of “critical pedagogy,” also wrote passionately and profoundly about what it means to be human.
In fact, both Freire’s critique of oppression and his ideas about education were informed by how he posed the problem of being human.
Problematizing humanity as a “project,” Freire explored the dialectical interdependency of subject and object, conscious human action and the world. He framed the problem thus:
There would be no human action if there were no objective reality, no world to be the ‘not I’ of the person and to challenge them; just as there would be no human action if humankind were not a ‘project,’ if he or she were not able to transcend himself or herself, if one were not able to perceive reality and understand it in order to transform it.
Working within and beyond the Marxist tradition, Freire’s “philosophy of praxis,” to borrow the phrase popularized before Freire’s time by the Italian Marxian thinker Antonio Gramsci, the Brazilian philosopher of education distinguished human life and history from other nonhuman life.
Throughout history, we men and women become special animals indeed, then. We invent the opportunity of setting ourselves free to the extent that we become able to perceive as unconcluded, limited, conditioned, historical beings. Especially, we invent the opportunity of setting ourselves free by perceiving, as well, that the sheer perception of inconclusion, limitation, opportunity, is not enough. To the perception must be joined the political struggle for the transformation of the world. The liberation of individuals acquires profound meaning only when the transformation of society is achieved. The dream becomes a need, a necessity.
It is not only that we are historical beings capable of reflecting upon our own historicity. As creative beings, we humans “tri-dimensionalize time” into past, present and future, creating a history of “epochal units,” yet it is our thinking and action to transform the world mediating us that humanizes us and that world we co-create. Humans, “as beings of praxis,” are endowed with the capacity for interrelated theory and action, mutually reinforcing action and reflection. “Only human beings,” Freire added, “are praxis—the praxis which, as the reflection and action which truly transform reality, is the source of knowledge and creation.” As humans reflect upon and “produce social reality (which in the ‘inversion of praxis’ turns back upon them and conditions them), then transforming that reality is an historical task, a task for humanity.”
That “historical task,” however, reveals humanity’s “problematic nature,” as Freire put it. While we “humanize” the world by transforming it, that process does not always signify our own “humanization.” Indeed, as humans change the world our actions can lead to our deleterious “dehumanization,” a widening of the gap between our potential and our actual. The necessity of choice—between either dehumanization, an oppressive denial of our (or others’) individual faculties and collective capacities, the harmful distancing of what is and what could or ought to be, or humanization, the actualization of potentials—signifies an element of human freedom.
Freedom, for Freire, must also be struggled for and achieved. Of all the “uncompleted beings, man is the only one to treat not only his actions but his very self as the object of his reflection,” and it is through that objectification that humans are able to grasp the “dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom.” Conscious of being conscious, people, through dialogue, can pose the “limit-situations” that alienate and disempower them as problems to be overcome through concerted, conscious action in a reality recognized as really a process always undergoing transformation.
The process of overcoming, of realizing freedom, is inseparable from education. The human, “a consciously inconclusive being,” is immersed in a perpetual pedagogical process. “Consciousness of one’s inconclusiveness,” Freire averred, “makes that being educable.” A critical education is a “problem-posing” pedagogy. It contrasts with the “banking concept of education,” which posits students as only objects (not also subjects), receptacles or deposit boxes into which nuggets of knowledge can be inserted. The banking model assumes a problematic “dichotomy between human beings and the world,” supposing a person merely exists in the world, not with that world and with others whom he or she co-creates said world with.
“Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power,” Freire observed, “problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality.” Critical pedagogy does not simply take the world as given datum nor students as just containers of knowledge for storing fixed facts. It instead involves examination of the genesis of existing facts, an exploration of how what is came to be and an unpacking of the contradictions within what prevails at present. Problem-posing pedagogy promotes people’s “power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Contra the banking method, which engenders a “fatalistic perception” of the existing circumstances taken as immutable or natural, this critical pedagogy presents that same present as an objective problem subject to subjective cognition and transformative action informed by that cognition, clarifying the “situation as an historical reality susceptible to transformation,” propelling further collectively self-organized inquiry and control over the co-constructed social universe.
Through cultivated conscientização, the process of increasingly critical consciousness and “the deepening of the attitude characteristic of all emergence,” agency is enabled: “Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled.”
Unveiling of exploitative relationships that empower some people at the expense of others, entails assailing such situations as interfering “with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.”
Through conscientização human beings become conscious of their own ontological incompleteness and of the historically structured “limit-situations” presently precluding their continued humanization. To be sure, fuller humanization is in no way guaranteed. “Hope,” however, as Freire understood, “is an ontological need.”
 Ibid., 53.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971). Hoare and Smith claim the term “philosophy of praxis” was used in Italy before Gramsci by the theoretical Marxist Antonio Labriola, who died in 1904. Labriola stressed the impact of concrete relations on consciousness and embraced the nexus established between practical and theoretical activity, as well as between philosophy and history, within the Marxist tradition; see: Hoare and Smith, “Introduction,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, xxi. It was later Gramsci’s contention “that the majority of mankind are philosophers in so far as they engage in practical activity and in their practical activity (or in their guiding lines of conduct) is implicitly contained a conception of the world.” To a greater or lesser degree, Gramsci observed, “each one of us changes himself, modifies himself to the extent that he changes and modifies the complex relations of which he is a hub.” A “real active philosopher,” for Gramsci, would be “the active man who modifies the environment, understanding by environment the ensemble of relations which each of us enters to take part in. If one’s own individuality is the ensemble of these relations, to create one’s personality means to acquire consciousness of them and to modify one’s own personality means to modify the ensemble of these relations.” Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis,” then, took history and philosophy as in some sense “indivisible,” and encouraged action informed by inquiry so as to enable humans to go from a common understanding of the world pervasive insofar as we all transform it to more incisive “theoretical consciousness” of our actions and socioeconomic arrangements, to the “unity of theory and practice” necessary for substantive reorganization of the social order; see Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 344; 352; 333.
 Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Robert R. Barr (New York: Continuum, 1992), 99-100.
 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 101.
 Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation, trans. Donaldo Macedo (South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1985), 70.
 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 100-101.
 Ibid., 51.
 Freire, The Politics of Education, 70.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 113.
 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 97.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 93.
 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 80.
 Ibid., 74.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 55.
 Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, 8.
James K. Anderson is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar, and social theorist. He received a PhD in Mass Communication and Media Arts from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in May 2016. He was born and raised in the Midwest but now struggles to live in Southern California.