Exploring Emancipation: A brief interaction between Bhaskar and Freire

I was first introduced to Paulo Freire by Eureta Rosenberg. She also introduced all her Masters students to the idea of education being a process of emancipation and transformation. Thanks Eureta, you are an educator that emancipates.

The first steps towards investigating the concept of emancipation -digging up Freire.

One of the weaknesses of my Phd proposal was the lack of attention that I gave to unraveling the concept of emancipation. This is surprising as it is a word that I often use to describe the purpose of my work. Imagine my slight embarressment that I had failed to engage, with intellectual rigour, with an idea that has so much meaning and importance to me. It is almost as if I stopped engaging with emancipation as a concept after I read Freire’s work in 1998 [12]. Then I realised that I may not be the only one with this ’blind spot’. All trans- disciplinary theories and approaches aim to bring about some form of change for the better. The motivation for change is often driven by a recognition of the importance of morals and values when it comes to deciding what this change is. Early probings into the concept of emancipation in relation to trans-disciplinary approaches shows that it requires further conceptual  work as the idea of change and emancipation carriy diverse meanings. This gap has lead to a determination to revisit the concept of emancipation with some depth before continuing on with this study. I have just begun this mini-project within the PhD. Below I document a few emerging contemplations.

My initial engagement with the idea of emancipation was through Freire’s work. Freire, an educator from the critical school, believed that the ultimate pedagogical aim is liberation. He understood this to be the liberation of the self, a quest for human completion [12]. For Freire, this liberation was a freedom from a false consciousness. Freires concept of false consciousness has been critiqued in terms of who decides what false consciousness is. In fact I critiqued it in one of the final papers I wrote for my Master’s degree way back in 1999. The critical stance I took of Freire’s work followed on from the conviction of the Critical Theorists that knowledge is constructed and therefore can be falsely constructed to form a false and oppressed view of the self. Although the view of the self was seen as constructed there was a sense that disempowerment and ’power over another’ was a real, thing and, I argued, viewed as a fixed object. The problem then, for Critical Theoriests was that disempowered people were not able to see that they were living into a false and diminished sense of their humanity and that they had adopted this view of themselves through the powerful influence, and this includes the influence of education, of the ruling elite. The disjuncture for me, at the time, was that Critical Theorists saw this construction of meaning as false and yet saw disempowerment as a reality. I argued that by judging a group of people as ’disempowered’ through a false consciousness automatically assumed that the group making this judgement was empowered thus refusing to accept that power is not a fixed object but the knowledge structures within which we exist construct these power relations and that it is through our langauge that we use that we view ourselves as empowered or disempowered.

I argued that false consciousness cannot be imposed upon people and be seen as the reason for oppression, rather it is coming to realise that all that we are, all our meaning is made up of our construction of ourselves through the power structures in which we function. Through challenging these power structures we come to realise the flexibility of power and our relationship to it.

Fifteen years down the line I realise this was rather a naive intepretation of Freire’s work and that my argument is potentially dangerous as the relativist nature of the argument could indeed deconstruct away the very real oppression in the world.

Reinstating a dialogue with Freire: That ’sorry I think I misunderstood you,  Did you mean this?’ phase

What then was Freire saying about emancipation and the path to freedom? Critical Realism and the work of Roy Bhaskar have helped me begin to re-evaluate Freire’s work. This is an ongoing process and these preliminary comtemplations are made tentatively as I have only just begun this mini-project within the PhD project. I am also not claiming that Freire was a critical realist. Rather the conceptual tools of critical realism are helping me understand mistakes in my own critiques which have opened up new spaces for viewing Freire’s work.

The basis of my mistake was to view the way in which we know about the world (epistemology) as the way the world is (ontology). My argument followed that if knowledge is constructed then it is through this deconstruction and reconstruction of ideas, thought and language that the world changes and is understood to be. There is a conflation of epistemology and ontology in my critique of Freire. I critique him for saying that the path to liberation is through realising the false image we have of ourselves is a constructed imposition of the ruling class and that this power is very, very real. My discomfort was, how can false consciousness be a construction but the disempowerment of individuals not be. How can a view of oneself be seen as constructed and thus relative but the powerful structures that impose this false view be seen as real and material? I also struggled with the idea of the power to change being in reach of the individual and all that was needed was a shift in consciousness and a realisation of oppression to bring about change. In my work experience, understanding that one was oppressed did not necessarily lead to liberation.

On a re-reading of Freire’s work I have come to understand his theory of false consciousness to be much broader than individual consciousness. Freire spoke of false and critical consciousness. To understand false consciousness one needs to first understand what is meant by critical consciousness and why Freire saw this as so important for emancipation. Freire’s ideas of critical consciousness are linked to his theory of agency. For Freire consiousness went beyond the personal. It is something ’both in and with the world’ [5]. To be a critcal agent in the world means to relate to the world in a meaningful way and add to the world in an authentic way. Critical consciousness is an analysis or a rigourous reading of the world. [5]. This reading of the world is necessary to understand how things have come to be through the history of individuals and structures and how these histories have produced the ’material and symbolic layers of human life.” [5]. Engagement is crucial aspect of critical consciousness. This means that an authentic reading of the world does not happen in isolation but through a critical engagement in and with the world in dialogue with others.

”Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the sub- ordination of students to teachers becomes impossible.” [12, p. ̃75]

From this quote one can see that Freire’s critique is aimed at the power struc- tures within the education system and the teacher, student relationship but it also shows that he sees knowledge of the world as integrally linked with action. Knowing and agency cannot be separated out from each other. In fact Freire de- scribes a valid investigation of the world as a ’dialectic play between ourselves and the world’ where critical consciousness means having a ’true grasping of causality which is realised through an experience of and with the world.” [5]. Being denied agency in Freire’s terms means being denied to both the access and production of knowledge AND to the collective process of knowing and learning through a relationship with the world.

This links both learning and agency to an experience of and with context and a dialogic process between people and between people and the world.  This then explains and sheds light on Freire’s idea of false consciousness which can be a suffering of anyone regardless of class or position. Freire describes false consciousness in two ways:

  1. Magical consciousness which is a failure to recognise agency because we do not question the injustices opposed on us by a superior force. Magical consciousness is also a view of human awareness as an empty vessel to be filled with neutral content.
  2. Naive consciousness is the belief that you are superior to reality and in control of it and so are free to understand it as you please. ”It is the belief that one can superimose oneself upon the world, instead of understiand oneself as part of it.[5, p. ̃707]”.

Naive consciousness is not only present in the elite classes. It can also exist in the middle classes. An example being the belief that if you have positive thoughts you will be able to manipulate your reality to fit into these thoughts. The fact that 90% of the population still live in abject poverty regardless of whether they are having negative or positive thoughts is disregarded. This is a prime example of how people believe themselves to be superior to reality. So the reality which tells us that more than two thirds of the world struggle to find their next meal can be easily ignored and superimposed with a false reality in which the elite see themselves as removed from the world and not as part of it. A way out of this false consciousness is agency – an experience of and with the world.

What this tentative re-reading of Freire has done is open up a few points about agency and learning.

  • knowing of the world and acting in it are inextricably linked
  • critical consciousness can only be realised through dialogue based on ex-perience and action
  • causality is understood both through experience in and knowledge of the world.
  • collaborative meaning making is interdependent with the ability to act authentically.
  • Agency is the ability to interpret the world based on a critical conscious- ness

Starting to dialogue with Bhaskar and Freire: That ’getting to know each other’ phase.

What I initially struggled with when I first encountered Freire was a conflation of how we make meaning of the world and act in it and how the world is. Freire often talks of reality and that a false reality is the adoption of a false consciousness.

This seems to assume a reality which is true and that can be known through what Freire calls critical consciousness. Is this a value statement or is this a statement about the the way the world truly is? The reason this question is important to consider is because of the debate in science about whether a value can be a statement about the world. This debate is linked to whether a value, such as a value of freedom, can be linked to a fact. It also brings into question the debates around values – whose values count for example.

Critical Realism take on the concept of emancipation by looking at the eman- cipatory ambition of science and social science. Science and social science are the names we give to a knowledge system or a set of knowledge systems. These knowledge systems consist of information about the world but they also consist of approaches (rules and logic) about how to investigate and know the world. Freeing up ’truth’ is the motivation behind a set of procedures and rules for investigation, discovery and knowledge generation.

How does this link to Freire? Freire argues that a critical consciousness is a rigourous reading of the world. When I first read this I considered agency to simply be the ability to act on the world but it is also the ability to know the world. This is the emancipatory battle that lies at the core of science.

The rules and traditions of the science we know today emerged out of Hume’s critique of the control of the church and how the church perpetuated this control by entrenching a way of knowing the world which Hume labeled as superstitious. In response he developed a linear causality to avoid any possibility of the truth being clouded by opinion or value. If Freire had been around during Hume’s time he may have called this behaviour of the church as a false consciousness where the church saw itself as more powerful than reality and superimposed its understanding of reality and on the masses.

The difference between Hume and Freire is that Hume saw the problem being the method that was used to know the world. Freire would have seen it as a false understanding of reality and that we are somehow seperate from the world and can thus can force our will upon it. For him our being in the world is the root of our ability to know it. He adds that this knowing of the world is bought into being through dialogue and collaborative meaning making. The process of meaning making is a process of adding value or interpreting what we know of the world and our place in it. This is the process of emancipation.

When the meaning making is imposed or presented as fact when it is actually an interpretation of fact and thus a value. This is oppression. Hume on the other hand, at times, said that there is no connection. The fact that we perceive something to be connected to something else and caused by something else is nothing more than a habit of the mind (pers comm, Price, 2015.02.28).

Bhaskar seems to agree with Freire but how exactly Bhaskar’s theories enhance Freire’s views of a critical consciousness is still not completely clear to me. Bhaskar’s philosophy validates a lot of the work of the social sciences whose emancipatory objective is directed (as it was with Freire) against structures, because social structures provide the conditions for our actions and can be either enabling or constraining of social justice or the good life for all. For Freire the ability to critique these structures would be to have a critical consciousness. He sees this as a form of dialogic learning, of participating in the world. Bhaskar adds another layer, the ability to work with facts and the validity of a transition from fact to value which includes, what Bhaskar calls, an explanatory critique. Danermark et al.[6] say for example that we can hardly explain racist actions without considering conceptions about races and their characteristics and in the explanation there is a critique of these conceptions.

To unearth these generative mechanisms Bhaskar uses the idea of an ontological stratification that describes three overlapping reality domains: the real, the actual and the empirical: where the domain of the empirical are the sense experiences and constructed concepts, the actual being the events and experiences and the real being the mechanisms, events and experiences of a given phenomena (Hartwig, 2007, pg. 401). The three domains are dependent on each other with mechanisms possessing causal powers that may or may not produce events which again many or may not be experienced as a sense experience in the domain of the empirical [1].

And this is where I stop. I can see that Bhaskar’s position is opening up my reading of Freire’s theoris of emancipation but I’ve reached the limit of a clear understanding of Bhaskar to sum up or carefully place where Freire and Bhaskar meet. There is still much to understand about how Bhaskar explains the transition from fact to value and indeed his own theories of transformation.

There is also a lack of clarity about how critical realism would envisage an emancipatory movement. This is probably because I have not done enough reading. The interpretation of fact may be the point of freedom but it could also be the point of control. There are also questions of what mechanisms allow for the democratic interpretation of fact and, whether a democratic interpretation can be synonymous with a just interpretation. For example the majority of South Africans would interpret the fact that the country has such high murder rates as a result of the punishment for murder not being fierce enough. Most South Africans would call for the re-instatemnt of the death penalty to deal with rising crime.

Shall we meet again?

The idea that reality can be viewed as stratified and that the interpretation of fact into value is valid process of knowing the world has relieved my earlier misgivings of Freire’s work and yet I’m still not completely clear what this tells us about emancipation and action in the world. There is a feeling that Freire and Bhaskar have a lot more to say to each other but I am still too ignorant of both of these great minds to facilitate a more engaged and rigourous conversation.

This is a very clumsy expression of Freire meeting Bhaskar. On re-reading it I am unclear whether this has been a comfortable conversation with two like minded theories or an awkward and forced engagement which, now that I’ve reached the end of this paper/report, I’m glad to get away from. This first meeting has sparked a curiosity though that tells me that this is not a first, once of meeting but rather the usual kind of tentative meeting between strangers. Look I don’t think Freire and Bhaskar have hit it off from the start but a few more meetings may lead to a better acquaintance if not a long, lasting friendship. Only time and a lot more reading, will tell. There are also some great stories to tell by Visvanathan [22] and his ideas of ’cognitive justice.’. . . . until next time.


  1. [1]  Roy Bhaskar. A Realist Theory of Science. Routledge, 2008.
  2. [2]  Roy Bhaskar, C. Frank, K.G Hoyer, P. Naess, and J. Parker. Interdisci-plinarity and climate change. Routledge, 2010.
  3. [3]  B.Nicolescu. Futures of transdisciplinarity, april 199.
  4. [4]  W. Carr and S. Kemmis. Becoming critical: Knowing through action re- search. Deakin University, 1983.
  5. [5]  James M Czank. The critical epistemology of paulo freire. 2012.
  6. [6]  Berth Danermark. Explaining society: Critical realism in the social sci-ences. Psychology Press, 2002.
  7. [7]  Yrj ̈o Engestrom, Hannele Kerosuo, Yrj ̈o Engestr ̈om, and Hannele Kerosuo. From workplace learning to inter-organizational learning and back: the contribution of activity theory. Journal of workplace learning, 19(6):336– 342, 2007.

Jane Burt March 1, 2015 9

  1. [8]  Norman Fairclough. Language in new capitalism. Discourse & Society, 13(2):163–166, 2002.
  2. [9]  Norman Fairclough. Analysing discourse: Textual analysis for social re- search. Psychology Press, 2003.
  3. [10]  Jo. Ferreira. An unorthodox account of failure and success in environmental education. PhD thesis, Deakin University, 2007.
  4. [11]  F.Luks and B.Siebenhner. Transdisciplinarity for social learning? the con- tribution of the german socio-ecological research initiative to sustainability governance. Ecological Economics, 63(2):418–426, 2007.
  5. [12]  Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.
  6. [13]  G.H. Hirsh-Hadorn, H Ho↵mann-Riem, S Biber-Klemm, W Grossenbacher- Mansuy, D Joyce, C. Pohl, and C Folke. Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer, 2008.
  7. [14]  R.J Lawrence and C. Desprs. Futures of transdisciplinarity. Futures, 36(4):397–405, 2004.
  8. [15]  A. Max-Neef. Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological economics, 53(1):5–16, 2005.
  9. [16]  M.Caner and C.I Brumar. Transdisciplinary niches fostering lifelong learn- ing. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 28:636–639, 2011.
  10. [17]  Thomas S Popkewitz. Curriculum study, curriculum history, and curricu- lum theory: the reason of reason. Journal of Curriculum studies, 41(3):301– 319, 2009.
  11. [18]  Leigh Price. A transdisciplinary explanatory critique of environmental ed- ucation. PhD thesis, Rhodes University, 2007.
  12. [19]  D.J. Roux, K.H. Rogers, Harry Biggs, P.J Ashton, and A. Sergeant. Bridg- ing the science-management divide: Moving from unidirectional knowledge transfer to knowledge interfacing and sharing. Ecology and Society, 11(1), 2006.
  13. [20]  Andrew Sayer. Realism and social science. Sage, 2000.
  14. [21]  S.Cornell, F. Berkhout, W.Tuinstra, J.D T`abara, J.J ̈ager, I. Chabay, and L.van Kerkho↵. Opening up knowledge systems for better responses to global environmental change. Environmental Science & Policy, 28:60–70, 2013.
  15. [22]  Shiv Visvanathan. 6— knowledge, justice and democracy. 2005.
  16. [23]  Lev S Vygotsky. Mind in society: The development of higher psychologicalprocesses. Harvard university press, 1980.

Jane Burt March 1, 2015 10

[24] Ken Wilber. Introduction to integral theory and practice. Integral Naked, 2004, 2003.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *