By Duanne Ribeiro
The author of Paulo Freire mais que nunca: uma biografia filosófica (2019), the philosopher Walter Kohan rereads Freire with five “principles” in mind: life, equality, love, errantry and childhood. Through these concepts, Kohan shows that Freire realized his thought in a way of living – it is philosophy as a way of life, as the thinker Pierre Hadot would define it. It thus arises as an integral part of existence in a practice marked by engagement with social justice, by affectivity focused on the other, by a capacity for discovery that does not fear making a mistake, and by unflagging curiosity. We asked Kohan to kindly grant us an interview where we could treat on these notions in his own career, maintaining the dialogue with Freire and indicating to the reader how to exercise these Freirean ideas.
Do you also seek to realize philosophy as a way of life as you point to in Freire? What are the differences and the proximities between your activity and his? In the book, you talk about how you abandoned a certain model of philosophy more bound up with erudition. How was the process of leaving off from that sort of thought and what steps can one take to go beyond it?
Yes, I seek that. It is a self-imposed requirement and a struggle to live as one thinks, and as we think differently about this demand, this leads us to live differently. It is a challenge. The comparisons are always inconvenient… Histories, times, very different contexts … Yes, I abandoned a certain way of relating with philosophy to open another: there were various inspirations, such as two creators of a program of philosophy for children, Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp, who were important because they showed me practically another way of doing philosophy.
And then we go walking and opening the path to encounters. There are no steps to go beyond: as Paulo Freire said, taking inspiration from Antonio Machado, the path is made by walking. It is perhaps necessary to feed one’s own curiosity, one’s uneasiness, that is, one’s own childhood, which is a good companion for walking… And to have a certain dissatisfaction with the world. Here in Brazil we have many reasons to be dissatisfied and uneasy with the world in which we live.
Do you believe, as Paulo Freire did, that errantry is a “method”? I would like for you to comment on how this takes place in the Freirean work and in your career, and for you answer this question: in a society so intensely focused on success, how does one allow error, learn to err?
Errantry is not a method. I do not like methods. I prefer to think, at first, about the directions to walk in. You know that the word method comes from a Greek word meaning “path.” There is no path before the walk. It is necessary to walk with certain companions: the desire to want to leave somewhere; sensibility and attention to what appears before us along the way and to meanings that help us to walk without anticipating the walk’s destination. The most interesting walks are those whose endpoints we do not know, before we take that walk. Good company is likewise important.
Paulo also said that he did not have a method, although he had written about his method. He furthermore said: that each educator is his method, which is equivalent to saying that there is no method. Paulo Freire did not have a method, but he had curiosity and was politically committed to the oppressed people. This is nonnegotiable, but the path is open. Of course it is very difficult, nowadays, to live without a method, but part of the walk to confront a society that is destroying itself. How does one learn to make mistakes? By making mistakes. How does one learn all the other things – by experiencing them. When you discover a liking for making mistakes and for relating affirmatively with errantry – in both its senses, of erring and wandering – then every society will convince you that it is good to err and to wander.
You have described Paulo Freire as a “boy philosopher,” you talk about an eternal childhood that characterizes his personality. The definition of childhood that you give is: “Childhood as a way of experiencing time, of dwelling in the present, of presenting oneself as a curious, doubting, attentive, restless, questioning, expectant presence.” Do you believe that you have managed to incorporate this attitude, and how does this idea operate in you? What suggestions would you give to someone who would like to learn this way of being?
I try, I try… And very much… I take care to maintain my childhood alive, that childish time. As you said, it is not easy in our institutions, but I try. I work at the Rio de Janeiro State University (Uerj), where we created, more than 20 years ago, the Center for Studies of Philosophies and Childhoods. It is a group, in a public university, that carries out research, teaching and extension. And of course the group’s activity partly involves very adult processes such as calls for action, selection processes and accords. But I would say that the fundamental condition for participating in this group is precisely a certain relationship of intimacy with childhood. Of course childhood is something plural, this is why we are a center for childhoods, and each person cultivates and finds childhood in his or her own way… I would say, as a suggestion, to try to listen to and pay more attention to the childhoods. We can begin with the children, to pay attention to their way of inhabiting the world, to their relationship with things and beings, to their questions…
In the same sense as the previous questions, in another passage you say that you find yourself in a “state of learning,” which you learned with Paulo Freire and others. I would like you to talk about this state, how Paulo Freire helped you to arrive at it.
I believe that Paulo Freire refers to this in other ways, such as “being more,” “the brand-new viable thing,” “to have hope”… By “state of learning,” I want to say, especially to educators, that we have a tendency to think that we have things to teach; it is worthwhile to see ourselves as beings always open to thinking in another way, being in another way, living differently… Something akin to perceiving that we are very small beings, that our knowledge is very small in relation to the things we don’t know and that life can be an extraordinary learning adventure.
For two of the principles that you work with, love and equality, to me it seems difficult to pose questions like the previous ones: in those I asked about how to learn errantry, childhood, but in this case I do not know if these others can be taught. It is perhaps the old question of the Socratic dialogues (“Can virtue be taught…”). So, it is as though Freirean love and equality could only reach those who already believe in them even before reading him. Is that right? Or can we build bridges to these concepts?
It is an excellent question… It is difficult… Perhaps what we can do is to situate these principles in different places. Because equality is something that many say that we want to achieve in education. And of course it is important to struggle for some forms of equality. But there is a sort of equality that is necessary to situate at the beginning, as a starting point, if we want to affirm an education politically different from the established one. Something like believing that “any human being can learn anything if we offer the conditions for it,” that is, to confront the logic of those who are more and less able, those who put forward more and less effort, which is a logic that legitimizes and reinforces a society that lives on inequalities, exclusions, injustices.
It is necessary to believe in the equality of the abilities in order to talk as equals on the same level with our students. Love is also very complex… What is love? A feeling? Yes, but also a force, an energy, a belief, as stated by [French philosopher] Alan Badiou, that one can always be born into a new world, that difference exists before identity… Clearly your question still remains: can these things be taught? Can they be grasped? How?
Paulo Freire says that we should not follow him, but rather reinvent him. In a quotation that you include in your book, he even uses a stronger word: that we should destroy him. Beyond the immediate effects of these words, it does not seem simple to know what this means. What would you say is meant by reinventing the philosopher? How can one destroy Paulo Freire?
Some people have taken this in an excessively literal way [laughter]. Your questions are very interesting. And for that very reason, difficult to answer and interesting to be left open. And to accompany them with other questions: reinvent him to what end? To what extent does this reinvention help us to face the challenges of the moment we live in? You know the word invent comes from a Latin word venire, which means “to come,” coupled with in, meaning “into”; an invention is what we create, but also what arrived inside. So that something comes in, it is necessary to open the doors, the windows of the house, to make space and to give a time… So I don’t want to destroy Paulo Freire, but to live with him; so that he can help us to think and help us to discover who we are.
Finally, I would like you to comment about paths that you believe are open for whoever wants to work with Paulo Freire. In your book, you talked about the principles that make us return to Paulo Freire today. Perhaps the question here would be: how to think about Paulo Freire tomorrow? In your own work, have you carried out something in this sense?
It is very difficult to think about another time that is not the present. I feel that today the life and work of Paulo Freire have an extraordinary power; they are very generative… The problems that we face today are updated versions of some problems that Paulo Freire already faced, but tomorrow is very far away… How can we know what we will face tomorrow? We dream, this is what we can do in the present, to have hope, to dream, to love… We must leave tomorrow to tomorrow; we already have enough in today.
Walter Kohan is a professor with the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj). In philosophy, he holds a post-doctorate degree from the University of Paris 8, in France, a PhD from Iberoamericana University, in Mexico, and a BA from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), in Argentina. He is dedicated to philosophy of education, childhood and the teaching of philosophy, among other themes. Other works of his can be seen on the website of the Autêntica publishing house. Also see the interview “Why Read Paulo Freire in Times Of Pandemic,” on the Agenciamentos Contemporâneos channel, and the masterclass “What It Means to Think (Today) with Paulo Freire,” given by him at the College of Education of the University of São Paulo (FE/USP).