Sunday, March 7, 2010

Who the Liberator, Who the Oppressor, Who the Oppressed?

Another piece of writing for a class. It's based on the references at the bottom of the post (Hegel, Marx, and Freire), and I don't recommend anyone read it.

That said, I do believe it should be somewhat accessible even if you are not familiar with the works about which I am writing. But I could be wrong. You'll just have to let me know.


The trouble with Hegel - whose Phenomenology of the Spirit permeates the very heart of the writing of both Marx and Freire - is that he operates in complex spheres of meaning, where the seemingly clear categories of, say, "lord" and "bondsman" exist absolutely separately, and yet also in intimate (and perhaps internal) relation. Hegel was certainly not the revolutionary that Marx and Freire are, but it would be foolish to regard these disciples as either separate from or clearer than their predecessor.

To be sure, Freire especially - about whom I will concern myself - is a clearer writer than Hegel (as we will soon discover), but that does not mean that his terms are easily delineated. Who the liberator, who the oppressor? Who the oppressor, who the oppressed? Who the oppressed, who the liberator? Any and all of these combinations - these apparent dichotomies - are not innately dichotomous. They are realms of ambiguity, and while it might be abundantly clear in a real, but limited, social situation who is oppressor and who is oppressed, to look at the question systematically makes the relations involved appear much more complicated.

Hegel's project was no less that a description of the entirety of human spiritual and intellectual history, and a description of that history in terms that would allow for the very humanizing which Freire holds as his end-point. I will not recapitulate that project here, because that is a fools errand. Rather, I want to highlight the particular section of the Phenomenology that Marx and Freire both gravitate towards, the section entitled "Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage." It is worth noting that this section resides in a larger chapter on "Self Consciousness: The Truth of Self-Certainty."

A sample of Hegel's writing, so you can appreciate the difficulties into which we will soon proceed: "This ambiguous supersession of its [the other's] ambiguous otherness is equally an ambiguous return into itself [self-consciousness]" (Hegel, p.111). This is not an accidental selection of text, because it contains within its ambiguity one of the key components of Hegel's project: the simultaneous and paradoxical interrelation of opposing forces, which merge together both externally and internally to produce a new objective and subjective reality. This is very much what Freire calls "praxis," but here in an extremely broad and not-necessarily-revolutionary framework.

It is important to note that, in the above passage, Hegel speaks to the "ambiguous supersession" and the "ambiguous otherness." This is a challenging, frustrating, and extremely honest quality of Hegel's writing. He is unafraid to acknowledge the inherent ambiguity of the terms with which he colors human psycho-spiritual history. The entire section - and indeed much of the entire book - does not make it clear whether the subject under consideration is an individual or a society. Much like Plato, in the Republic, Hegel is speaking of both and neither. Or, rather, an idealized form of "humanity" as both individual and social. Neither can, it turns out, be extracted from the other - a point Freire makes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as well - and in the course of the dialectical process Hegel undergoes, it is sometimes necessary to conceive humanity in one or the other of the arbitrary distinctions we have built for it.


Before we attack "Lordship and Bondage," let's get some Freire on the table: "The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos" (Freire, p. 68). Apologies for selecting the passage with Greek words in it. I feel the need because this passage is a clear and well-articulated explanation of what Freire sees the goal and process - which he holds as primary - of education to be. Note that he does not assert that his liberating model of education eliminates truth; quite the opposite. Likewise note that there's a kind of difficult 'both and neither' going on in the role of the educator, about which more later.

"Doxa" means a belief, opinion, or notion, though it has also suggestively acquired connotations of cultural knowledge or dogma. "Logos," on the other hand, means... Well, it means a great many things: logic, words, The Word (from the Bible), ratio, dialogue, reason among them. You'll notice that logic and dialogue both contain logos in them, so it's hard to define it that way. Suffice to say, it is a word that broadly describes an authentic process of understanding, a process which is true in a way that doxa is not. We can, then, piece together some meaning from the passage.

"The problem-posing educator" is an educator who, co-creates a learning environment with the students which allows for said students (and simultaneously the educator) to reach a deeper understanding of the realities of their subject. This occurs through dialogue, because the very nature of "true knowledge" is dialogic (we might also say, true knowledge is social and not individual, or rather, is both social and individual, a dialogue). Didactic teaching - even of true subject matter - is still and always will be doxological knowledge, and therefore will not stand up to an evaluative consciousness. In short, even true doxology - true opinion - is not knowledge at all, and it allows for and indeed necessitates and creates the bonds of oppression for the student.

Got that? Let me rephrase.

It is through dialogue alone, and not didactic teaching, that students learn in any meaningful sense. It is also through dialogue alone that the teacher learns, and that the entire community reaches a higher level of self-consciousness and knowledge. Dialogic education is not the outcome of a revolution or even the cause of a revolution. It is the revolution.


There's more to say about Freire, but before we go there lets spend a little time with Hegel. I believe doing a brief dissection of the "Lord and Bondsman" section of the Phenomenology will help to elucidate some of the mysteries of Freire's conceptual process.

"Self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. In immediate self-consciousness the simple 'I' is absolute mediation, and has as its essential moment lasting independence. The dissolution of that simple unity is the result of the first experience; through this there is posited a pure self-consciousness, and a consciousness which is not purely for itself but for another, i.e. is merely immediate consciousness, or consciousness in the form of thinghood. Both moments are essential. Since to begin with they are unequal and opposed, and their reflection into a unity has not yet been achieved, they exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another. The former is lord, the other is bondsman." (Hegel, p. 115)

Phew. Yeah, that's a lot just to get the definitions. Believe me, we're actually cutting out a lot of the build-up to this point.

So what in the bejesus is Hegel talking about? For one thing, there is an unavoidable ambiguity about the subject of Hegel's writing here. Are we talking about an individual, or a society? As mentioned before, there is reason to believe Hegel is speaking to both, and, indeed, that the separation of individual from society is indeed one of the very things under consideration in his treatment. In this passage, in particular, Hegel refers to "pure self-consciousness" and "consciousness which is purely for another," which map not only onto "lord" and "bondsman," but onto our duality of "individual" and "society."

We need not step through the entire definitional passage, because the important bit is this: the essential dichotomy between lord and bondsman originates from some precipitating event. That event divides the "I" (and the social structure) into disparate and mutually opposed categories which nevertheless exist solely in relation to each other. The lord is lord because the bondsman exists for him, the bondsman is bondsman because he exists for the lord. The two are mutually dependent not just for their existence, but for their very definitions.

Further along, Hegel says this: "But just as lordship showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be, so too servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness" (Hegel, p.117). Freire and Hegel both recognize that within both the lord and the bondsman are the inherent contradictions of their place. The lord - as a being for itself - is dependent upon the bondsman, and therefore exists through and because of, and, in a real sense, for, the bondsman. The lord's identity, in short, falls apart. Likewise, the consciousness of the bondsman is "forced back itself," only to turn into an independent consciousness.

This process is actually quite tricky, and Hegel acknowledges as such at the outset of his description thereof: "However, servitute is not yet aware that this truth [that it is for itself, and not for another] is implicit in it" (Hegel, p. 117). The passage that follows is, essentially, Estranged Labor in more philosophical terms. The creation of an object - which seems to be devoid of self - is in fact the very thing which liberates the consciousness of the bondsman and allows it to turn back in on itself. Marx adds the important caveat that money complicates Hegel's picture, because it provides an eternal framework through which the bondsman can remain bound, but nevertheless the concept is similar: creation is the essence of the liberation of the oppressed consciousness.

This liberation is far from the end-point of Hegel's dialectic, but it reflects the same pivotal process of thesis and antithesis negating each other and re-synthesizing to form a new thesis (and antithesis). In the case of lord and bondsman, it is not recognition of each other that leads to negation, but rather a more complex procedure involving creation and fear which is not of much interest here. More important is this point: the lord and bondsman exist as separate entities, but are actually one and the same (both individually and socially), and their apparently and meaningfully differing manifestations reflect both an essential conflict and an essential sameness. The resolution of that conflict is a process of becoming that contains, ultimately, both the seed of selfishness present in the lord and the seed of selflessness present in the bondsman. It turns out that, when brought to fruition, those two seeds produce the same flower.

(As an aside, It is worth mentioning that elsewhere Hegel argues that the real synthesis of lord and bondsman - of living for oneself and living for the other - is not achieved violently. Violent revolution is an essential step, but it only serves to establish in starker terms the very opposition which was to be overcome (Hegel, p.114-115).)


It is important to note that Hegel, when he writes of the lord and bondsman, is writing of a stage of history that he believes is past (though certainly he would agree with the evolutionary truism that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and thus that the "history" here described is in a state of ever-spiraling recurrence). It is my opinion that we should forgive him this Eurocentrism for his insight; what he describes is the process of the human being (and/or the society) becoming self-consciously free in a very real and meaningful sense. Freedom, that is, predicated on itself and not on the enslavement of the other. Hegel's process is called "the dialectic," and is a dialogic process (both words central to Freire's Pedagogy). While his story of the "lord and bondsman" is a small sample of his bigger project, every step within that project contains within it the whole, and so even here we can see the humanizing force of thesis and antithesis joining to form a new synthesis.

This process may seem to be of merely academic interest, if only we didn't have such brilliant socially-active followers of the ideal. Freire's emphasis on action is sometimes lacking in Hegel (or, rather, Freire's emphasis on causing action; Hegel does not incite, he more chronicles, but in so doing he hardly denies the importance of action in the process). The lesson, however, is not that we should out and start doing, but rather that doing and thinking are inextricably linked, that to create free human beings we must ourselves first be free human beings, neither patronizing the oppressed nor allowing ourselves to be the oppressed.

Freire resists putting it in these terms, but I would venture to say that he understands Hegel well enough to see the implication: we must be oppressor, oppressed, and liberator all at once. We must exist in paradox if we are to accomplish meaningful and lasting progressive change. Let me clarify that: we are not meant to be either the oppressor or the oppressed, but rather we are meant to have undergone the synthesis that takes from each their essential realizations about the nature of being, and put them together into a single, meaningful whole.

This is a paradoxical process, to be sure, and a difficult one. Recall the quotation discussed earlier: "The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos" (Freire, p. 68). If revolution is dialogic education, as suggested earlier, it is brought about not by any one person, or any one group of people. Rather, dialogue requires, in its very nature, the kinds of illusory categorical differences that Hegel describes. Nevertheless, it would still be humanizing - a bit of progress - if we were to destroy the harmful categories of oppressor and oppressed. Indeed, it would be inevitable, if only we adopted the dialogic pedagogy of the oppressed in place of the doxologic pedagogy of the lord and bondsman.


Freire, P. (1969). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hegel, G. (1977). The Phenomenology of the Spirit. (A.V. Miller trans.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1807).

Marx, K. (1964). Estranged Labor. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. International.

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