Throughout Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire draws heavily on the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—especially the concept of dialectics. A “dialectical” way of thinking starts with a “thesis” (an initial idea or proposition) and an “antithesis” (an idea that opposes or contradicts the thesis), and the interaction of these two ideas creates a “synthesis,” or a new idea that reconciles the conflict between the two original ideas. Freire argues that dialectics are the fundamental logic of reality, and he uses dialectic thought in his discussions of oppression, education, and social change. According to Freire, when oppressed people come to see the world as “dialectical,” they become more aware of how reality works and can therefore affect reality to become more free.
Freire argues that dialectics are the natural logic of the world. In his theories of the world and of human consciousness, Freire brings up several examples of binary, conflicting ideas that must be resolved. For one, his model of history is dialectical: he points out that “themes” (the worldly expression of ideas and values during a historical moment) and “limit-situations” (historical conditions that limit human freedom) always exist in tandem with oppositional or contradictory themes and situations. The theme of “domination,” for example, is dialectically opposed to the theme of “liberation.” As some people try to become free and others try to preserve their oppressive power, the contradiction is resolved through the social changes that happen over time.
Freire also uses dialectical methods in his theories of education and social change. Since Freire believes that history proceeds according to dialectical logic, he argues that understanding dialectical thought can help oppressed people take action to free themselves. The “banking model” of education (where a teacher tells students to memorize and recall facts) is in no way dialectical. The teacher has knowledge, and he or she imposes that knowledge on the students. Freire’s “problem-posing model,” however, is dialectical in that teachers and students share important, and sometimes conflicting, ideas that are brought to a synthesis through group effort.
Freire uses the example of labor negotiation to explain how dialectical thought, as practiced in education, can be applied to political struggles. In this scenario, a group of oppressed workers wants to demand higher pay, while their leader wants to push for more radical changes. Freire argues that the solution to this problem lies in “synthesis”: the leader should work with the people to get higher wages, while challenging the people to ask why they should only ask for high wages. Although the leader and the people have opposing perspectives, the leader should reconcile those perspectives to create a new strategy.
It’s important to note that Freire’s dialectical approach has its flaws. Although dialectics are commonly used in Marxist philosophy, other critical approaches (particularly more recent ones) reject the notion that dialectical logic can explain history and reality. Freire divides society into a strict binary of oppressors and oppressed people, while a more nuanced view of oppression might consider intersectionality—the notion that social categories intermix in such a way that a person can be simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.
A more nuanced view of oppression might also consider the motivations of people who attempt to preserve the status quo. For example, Freire would condemn a political leader who wants to create significant social change, but only makes superficial changes that do not challenge the oppressive system. While Freire sees these small changes as a sign of “false generosity” (since he believes that a leader who truly cares about the oppressed should work to create a wholly new society), this view takes for granted that oppressors see themselves and the oppressed as being totally separate. Even when he talks about revolutionary leaders, Freire points out a contradiction that makes their role in the struggle more complicated. Revolutionary leaders must see themselves as part of the oppressed so that both groups can fight for freedom together; however, they also have to be distinct from the oppressed, so that they can organize and coordinate the groups. Although liberation resolves the contradictions in oppressors and oppressed people, it also relies on certain contradictions like this.
Dialectics Quotes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one. The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor, no longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom.
[Themes] imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independent, disconnected, or static; they are always interacting dialectically with their opposites.