2003 Midwest Research to Practice Conference in
Adult, Continuing, and Community Education
Freire, Aristotle, Marx, and Sartre:
A Critique of the Human Condition
John A. Dale
Abstract: This paper examines some of the philosophical foundations that shaped Paulo Freire’s
pedagogy. From a componential analysis of the literature, a dominant theme of “critique” emerged.
From a philosophic perspective, critique implies the human capacity of rational thinking when humans
are given the opportunity to reflect on their sociohistorical conditions. This achievement of telos leads
to an escape from Marx’s concept of false consciousness into an existential perspective—that is, each
person’s confrontation with choice. Ultimately, the paper argues the potential exists to employ Freireian
pedagogy in practice if educators understand the philosophical narratives and assumptions on which his
work is based.
Freire’s Contribution to Adult Education
Recent adult education literature suggests that the pedagogical theories of Brazilian
educator Paulo Freire are gaining increased popularity among many adult educators. Merriam &
Brockett (1997) report, for example, that Freire is having “a profound influence on adult
education worldwide” (p. 43). Merriam and Caffarella (1999) suggest that critical theory,
feminism, and postmodernism, all theoretical forces in contemporary adult education, owe a
direct “indebtedness to Paulo Freire’s work” (p. 341). Many teachers in adult education are
understandably attracted to Freire’s critical pedagogy with its compelling emphasis on student-
centered learning and social justice.
In spite of the increased focus on Freire’s work, however, the author is concerned that the
rich eclectic mix of philosophical ideas that comprise his theory of learning are absent from the
adult education literature. Many adult educators are attracted to the idea of resisting “banking
education” while emphasizing the rational dimension of learning, for example, but are not aware
of the philosophical arguments supporting this view. The implications of Freire’s work are
typically highlighted without any analysis of its underlying assumptions. In the absence of
understanding the philosophical basis for Freire’s views, the ability to teach his pedagogy in an
effective and objective manner may be significantly impeded. To address this concern, then, my
paper explores two key elements of Freire’s work: (a) What are the various philosophical
assumptions shaping Freire’s critical pedagogy? and (b) How can these philosophic assumptions
be used in a practical application?
The Philosophers: An Overview
The philosophies of Aristotle, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre are important components
in Freire’s writings. Many others contributed to his narratives but to incorporate each person is
beyond the scope of this project. Aristotelean ethics forms a central component in Freire’s idea
of humanization. In The Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle (1985) argues that the characteristics
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distinguishing humans from all other entities, or their “excellence,” is their ability to reason. I
extend this to mean that humans have the capacity to think critically which is discussed in detail
later. Freire (1970/2000) adopts and expands this idea by arguing that denying humans the
opportunity to reason is a prima facie violation of their basic humanity.
The dialectical social conflict Freire (1970/2000) identifies between the oppressors and
the oppressed is directly indebted to Marx’s (1933) theory of dialectical materialism. The
achievement of conscientization, the telos of Freirean pedagogy, mirrors an escape from the
Marxist condition of false consciousness. This project relies on Marx’s assumptions that the
psychological state of mind of members of society is dominated by ideology. Freire however
avoids the deterministic implications of Marxism by emphasizing the existential capacity of
humans to influence their circumstances.
The existentialist assumptions of Jean-Paul Sartre are reflected in Freire’s narratives. To
encapsulate Sartre’s ideas, existentialism is based on “existence preceding essence.” From this
perspective, Freire argues that humans have the potential and capacity to develop higher-level
thinking and social relations. In sum, the paper draws heavily upon philosophy to provide an
analytic framework to critique Freire’s pedagogical theory which relies heavily on critique.
For both teachers and students interested in Freire’s work, grappling with the original
philosophical ideas that shaped his adult education program provides a far richer and more
informed pedagogical experience. This analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of Freire’s
work will help ensure his ideas are not simply reduced to trite adult education slogans and may
help avoid misrepresentations of his views. Perhaps even more important considering the
increased interest in Freire’s pedagogy, my analysis provides invaluable insight into the practical
efficacy of his views for adult educators and learners. If there are fundamental incompatibilities
in Freire’s philosophy of education, his theory may not hold the promise many educators believe
This research relies heavily on the literature of adult educators, and the narratives of
Freire, Aristotle, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (POTO)
(1970/2000) is used primarily to draw parallels between the authors’ concepts. To facilitate the
search for concepts, POTO and The Nichomachean Ethics were transcribed into a word
processing program to facilitate searches.
A lion’s share of the adult education literature came from the Handbook of Adult and
Continuing Education (2000; cited hereafter as Handbook). It is imperative to report that the
Handbook’s editors called for papers with an emphasis on critically reflective practice which
served as the overarching theme in this paper. Following a componential analysis method, each
author’s reference from the Handbook to Freire was transcribed (see Appendix I, available only
in the full paper). From these transcriptions, domains and concepts are identified. In Appendix
I, readers can see the specific words and phrases used to determine domains (concepts). To
organize the evident, significant passages were placed in a spreadsheet (Appendix II) for quick
reference. In Appendix II, concepts are followed by information that I found of particular value.
The readers can easily identify the respective author for each concept or passage. It is important
to reiterate the intent of this research is clarification, not definition.
Spradley (1979) defines componential analysis as “the systematic search for the attributes
(components of meaning) associated with cultural symbols” (p. 174). A componential analysis is
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typically used by ethnographers to find differences between specific words (i.e., attributes) or
concepts. Attributes are related to folk terms by additional semantic relationships. By placing
folk terms in a particular domain and finding its place in a particular taxonomy, a single semantic
relationship is isolated. A componential analysis relies on the language of the informant/s. In
this study, the adult education authors’ language is explored to develop meaning in relation to
Freire’s concepts. The researcher looked for themes within the informants’ narratives.
The analysis identified ten concepts or domains related to critique from the 2000
Handbook. These concepts are listed below and are dominated by the concept of critique or
what Freire calls “the human vocation”.
3. Social transformation
4. Experiential learning
6. A priori
7. Adult educators’ tasks
8. Structural dimension
9. Definitions, and
10. What ought to be.
Critique’s intent is not to prove or disprove an argument or simply to prove right from
wrong. In fact, a critique values its opposing argument for its “rightness” but looks more
specifically at identifying the hidden or underlying social interests or implications. In other
words, critique is a process of human thoughtfulness in order to uncover dominant relationships.
In many respects, Freire’s concept of humanization and dehumanization emerge from the
critique process. More importantly, critique is a characteristic solely embraced by humans and is
essential to Aristotle’s argument.
Hegel was the first to develop criticism systematically. In doing so, he employed the
concepts of “being”, “nothingness”, and “becoming”. From the two antithetical perspectives,
being and nothingness, arose becoming. This dialectic led Hegel to argue that human
development fosters the development and redevelopment of ideas. Much like Freire’s argument,
if indeed we are dominated, then we must therefore dominate others. Freire (1970/2000) wrote,
“If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as
Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the
objective reality which has made them these “beings for another” (p. 49). To expand Freire’s
argument, Marx’s concept of false consciousness gains currency through the assertion that
society is dominated by ideology.
In order to be truly liberated, humans must be aware of the ideologies that are imposed
upon them. Until humans are aware of forces that shape their existence, they are subjected to
the deterministic life described by Marx. To move beyond this cognitive passivity, people must
look closely at the sociohistorical ideology that shapes their consciousness. Brookfield (2000)
insists “Ideology critique contains within it the promise of social transformation and frames the
work of influential activist adult educators such as Freire, Tawney, Williams, Horton, Coady,
and Tomkins” (p. 36). Thus, ideology critique and social transformation are key concepts
underlying the domain of critically reflective practice.
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For clarification, I define ideology as a visioning theory. To name but a few, political,
religious, educational, and revolutionary ideologies are all visionary perspectives. All visionary
ideologies tend to be conservative in that their intent is to conserve or preserve their charter or
character. As a result, ideologies tend to become dogmatic. Adult education has changed with
the economic and social tides and its original charter found in Lindeman and Dewey’s
democratic platforms have lost favor. Adult education has found favor in professionalization of
adult education at the expense of social justice. According to Mayo (1999),
The last decade or so has witnessed the propagation of a hegemonic discourse in adult
education. This discourse is essentially technical-rational and focuses primarily on “what
works.” It reflects a concern with marketability at the expense of, for instance, social
justice. Among other things, it propagates the creation of programmes aimed at
providing a “flexible” and “adaptive” workforce. This workforce is to be capable of
learning and relearning skills for employment required in an age characterized by the
threat of the “flight of capital” across difference geographical boundaries. (p.1)
Research to practice
The main question for most adult educators is how do we apply critique into practice?
How can we introduce Freire’s concepts into our everyday practice? There are roadblocks
according to Gore (1993) who refers to that as “institutionalized pedagogy of regulation.” Gore
asserts that there are limitations on the level at which higher education can be emancipatory. (p.
141). The basis for my argument is bound in the human ability to look at their circumstances
and understanding why the institutionalized regulations exist. In obligatory essentialist
education, the concept of critique conjures visions of good and bad, depending on an individual’s
perspective and experiences. Critique summons negative reactions because students have been
tested and evaluated throughout their formal and informal experiences. Many of them have
never asked why they are tested, they just accept the cultural tradition and hostile invasion. In
the adult education tradition, however, critique is a concept associated with critical theorists. In
this essay, the authors from the Handbook report critique in many ways and find it particularly
important in adult education’s historical narrative.
Interestingly, the Handbook’s authors never use the term historical as it related to critique
and practice. Practice is, however, an historical enterprise. That is, an educator can only reflect
on what has happened in the past and change the present. Critical reflection on practice is an
historical endeavor and only occurs as an afterthought. According to Bailey-Johnson and
Cervero (2000), critically reflective practice encourages adult educators to reconsider their
efforts in relation to “positivist science, capitalism, and bourgeois liberalism” (p. 163). From this
argument, reflection on practice encourages adult educator to consider the sociohistorical
contexts in which he/she practices and in which students live. It is, therefore, more than
changing classroom methods by some quantitative or empirical evaluation of students’ scores or
outcomes. It is a process of critically examining the cultures and contexts in which education
takes place. Critical theory is about understanding the origins of power and knowledge and who
is helped or harmed in the uneven relationship of power and knowledge creation.
Freire’s notions of history came from Marxist ideology. Marx (as cited in Stumpf, 1989)
wrote, “Besides the world and its history there is nothing” (p. 429). Marx’s emphasis on history
illuminates his belief that humans are not only shaped but act on their historical pasts. Stumpf
(1989) also argues that “unlike Hegel, Marx believed Feuerbach’s ideas that the generating
influences of men's thought was the total sum of the material circumstances of any historic time”
(p. 430). As a result, Freire (1970/2000) argues, “There is no history without humankind, and no
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history for human beings; there is only history of humanity, made by people and (as Marx
pointed out) in turn making them” (p. 130). Marx and Freire’s notion of history differ in one
important respect. Though Marx argues that humans are subjected to history and act according
to sociohistorical antecedents, Freire maintains humans can shed history’s shackles through
critical historical analysis. By and through this historical analysis, individual and social
transformation is possible. This is in part the reason Brookfield (2000) argues Freire is a
“constructivist and pragmatist” (p. 38). In order to be critical, people must be aware of the lenses
(e.g. past events, philosophies, and beliefs) that shape their view of the world. Sartre would,
therefore, argue that until people are aware that their focus is distorted by their perceptions, they
cannot perceive the world as it really exists. Moreover, they cannot make rational, informed
decisions about their futures.
The role of adult educators
In The Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle maintains everything has a function or a form. A
knife’s function, for example, is to cut and to cut well. A dull knife looses its function. Its
unrecognizable past extends to the ore from which it came. It owes its existence to the human
who gave it form. Its form gives it its essence. But according to Aristotle, a knife cannot
contemplate whereas a human’s function is contemplation. Contemplation allows humans to
reason from previous experiences and creates a present and potential future. The ultimate
present for humans is happiness. According to Hyslop-Margison (2002), Aristotle maintained
the epitome of the human condition is intellectual virtue (e.g., eudaimonia) or human happiness.
It is the natural function of persons to exercise their natural cognitive faculties, most importantly
the faculty of reason. So, according to Aristotle, happiness consists of activity in accordance with
reason. (p. 5) Unfortunately, humans too can become dull; dull in the sense that they lose their
ability to function or to think critically. In many instances, their ability to be contemplative is
stolen by their sociohistorical experiences.
The role of an educator is, therefore, to help students analyze and discuss ideas; to help
them find their truth or their role in the world. By way of the critical educator, a moral
education is possible. Moral in the sense that everyone encounters their essence and place in the
world. A moral education would lead to good habits, which demands critical reflection.
Critical analysis reveals cause and effect relationships. Armed with the ability to reflect, man’s
intellectual life leads to practical wisdom, which produces rational behaviors. This reflective
practice allows humans to act responsibly toward other humans.
The ability to critically reflect leads to consistent, moral practice. To deny another
human his/her right to enjoy the essence of humanness denies everyone his or her humanness.
Freire argues that anyone who denies another person his or her human essence has not achieved
what it is to be fully human. Thus, they are ignorant to the concept of what it is to be human.
Their education is, therefore, not complete. They lack the ability to reason in a manner that
elevates others. They have not achieved their true essence by denying others the right to their
With this in mind, Sartre argues that the existentialist perspective allows humans to be
redefined. In order to do this, people need to be aware of the experiences that have shaped their
worldview. Until people are aware that their existence is shaped by prior experiences, they will
continue to make decisions based on experiences created and valued by others. By
understanding and realizing that choices and decisions are shaped and created by past experience
of others, “it confronts man with the possibility of choice” (Sartre, 1960, p. 263).
Suddenly, people are cast into a new world; one in which they are required to think for
themselves. This new existence is difficult and fraught with difficult decisions because most
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people view themselves from the perspectives created by others. Their concept of themselves is
largely based on the previous experiences constructed by others whose primary motivation is to
maintain a position of power. Thinking critically requires more than just an individual’s
perspective on their humanness. According to Sartre, “When we say every man chooses himself,
we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing
for himself he chooses for all men” (p. 264).
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Gore, J. (1993). The struggle for pedagogies. New York: Routledge.
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Wilson & E. R. Hayes (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 147-160).
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London: Zed Books.
Merriam, S., & Brockett, R. (1997). The profession and practice of adult education. San
Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (2nd
ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sartre, J. P. (1960). The transcendence of the ego: An existentialist theory of consciousness (F.
Williams & R. Kirpatrick, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang.
Sartre, J. (1957). Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism and human emotions. New York:
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John A. Dale, Doctoral Candidate, Ball State University, 506 Secretariat Circle, Kokomo, IN
Presented at the Midwest Research to Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and Community
Education, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, October 8-10, 2003.