What does Paulo Freire mean when he says that liberation is a "praxis" in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the opening chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, author Paulo Freire presents what he terms his pedagogy, meaning his education of the oppressed. In this pedagogy, he presents an interesting interplay between the oppressed and the oppressor that is actually very paradoxical. Through this paradoxical pedagogy we see that liberation can only be achieved through the praxis of the oppressed, meaning through the habitual practices of the oppressed.

One of his paradoxical arguments is that oppression leads to dehumanization for both the oppressed and the oppressor, paradoxical because it seems contradictory to call the oppressors less than human yet can also be seen as perfectly true. Freire further argues that it is the destiny of all of humanity to be fully human. The desire to be fully human eventually leads the oppressed to battle against the oppressors. However, Freire also warns that the paradoxical danger in battling against the oppressors is that this battle can lead the oppressed to soon become the oppressors. The trick to gaining true freedom, to restoring full humanity, is for the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressor to be fully restored through the praxis of the oppressed.

A paradox concerning the oppressors is that, though they "oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power," they do not have the power within themselves to "liberate either the oppressed or themselves." This is because, since the oppressed are also themselves dehumanized, they have no power to humanize. Evidence that the oppressors have no power within themselves to liberate the oppressed is seen in the fact that, whenever their oppressive power is lessened, their power only develops into a "false generosity." In using the term "false generosity," Freire is arguing that charity only leads to further "death, despair, and poverty" because it leads the oppressed to become reliant on the oppressors. Hence, true liberation can never be achieved by the oppressors attempting to reach out to the oppressed.

Paradoxically, the "power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed" is the power that is needed and will be enough to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressors. In other words, the power to achieve liberation comes from within the oppressed, no one else. This is paradoxical because one would see the oppressed as the weakest individuals of society, yet the reason why they have the power to liberate themselves is because only the oppressed will best understand the need for liberation, no one external to the oppressed. Therefore, the oppressed will only be able to achieve liberation "through the praxis of their quest for it," meaning through the habitual practice of their searching and fighting for liberation. Hence, he sees liberation as a "praxis," or habitual practice, because he sees liberation as something that can only be achieved through the repeated actions of the oppressed.

The actions of the oppressed develop into a praxis when, through their intellect, they come to understand their complete emotional dependence on the oppressor, then come to understand that they don't need to be dependent. When they begin to see themselves as able to be dependent, they see themselves as strong, capable, intelligent human beings; they "begin to believe in themselves." This process is intellectual in that it requires "serious reflection"; it is this reflection that makes liberation a praxis, a habitual practice, since reflection is a continual process. However, liberation cannot only be an intellectual process; it requires action to make it happen.