Book Reviews

Paulo Freire: A Philosophical Biography by Walter Omar Kohan (Jason Wozniak & Samuel D Rocha, Trans.), New York: Bloomsbury, 2021[Record]

  • Silas C. Krabbe

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  • Silas C. Krabbe
    University of British Columbia

It is hard to overstate Paulo Freire’s influence on educational theory. Whether defended quantitatively – for example, through Bloomsbury’s claim that Pedagogy of the Oppressed has sold over a million copies, or the tens of thousands of citations of Freire’s work in multiple languages – or argued qualitatively – for example, through his influence on scholars such as bell hooks and Henry Giroux – Freire’s influence on the field of education is gigantic, as is the corpus of Freire-related literature which seems to balloon endlessly. Within such a plethora of works, it may be tempting to skim over some of the less well-known contributions. Yet, the philosophical biography of Freire by Walter Kohan – recently translated into English – may be of interest specifically because Kohan writes from a Brazilian context, and his insights are less shaped by some of the dominant Freirean voices in the North American academy. Kohan’s project takes up the “thought and life” (p. 7) of Brazil’s most famous educator to understand their “educational and philosophical value” and “to think with Freire on the specificity of the political value of the task of educating” (p. 9). Kohan does so through a fivefold thematization of principles, which, he painstakingly clarifies, are to be understood as beginnings or initiations or gestures through which to consider and think with Freire. Those beginnings are: life, equality, love, errantry, and childhood/infancy. If one comes to this text looking for merely an exegetical treatment of Freire’s texts distilled into philosophical concepts, one will be disappointed. Instead, the reader will find the thematization drawn from Freire’s corpus offered as conceptual tapestries interwoven with the events of Freire’s life, which in turn are put into conversation with other thinkers, resulting in a polyvocal dialogue with and around Freire – a dialogue thickened with five appendices including interviews, conversations, and essays. The five thematizations that constitute the majority of the text are offered as thick principles. The thickness of these beginnings results from Kohan’s attempt at non-reductive synthetization. Rather than creating “thin” principles or concepts that may neatly contain one clear and delineated idea but would not reflect the breadth of Freire’s life and work, Kohan elects to retain the large scope of Freire’s somewhat unwieldy corpus by developing five principles, each of which contains multiple ideas. I found the duality of Kohan’s aims – achieving brevity by reducing his themes to five principles, while retaining complexity within each principle – at the same time frustrating and generative. Perhaps my frustration was derived from approaching the text expecting clearly defined conceptual arrangements, and instead encountering conglomerate formulations of principles/beginnings or “births” (p. 12). Thus, if the reader comes with the expectation of exploring conglomerate principles and assemblages, they may elude the frustrations I encountered, thereby enabling a reveling in what is offered rather than being disappointed in what the text is not. For the richness of Kohan’s offering is precisely in the conglomerate nature of the thematization. The first principle is that of life, wherein Kohan brings together biological life, philosophy, education, school, and thinking as being intertwined, and reframes this corpus as existence, which he argues is its own political and philosophical education. Second, equality is used to expand somewhat on the first principle, as equality is that of equality of life potential. In dialogue with Rancière, Jacotot, and Freire, Kohan builds out the meaning of equality beyond equality of intellect and toward ontological equality of a person’s life potential. Third, Kohan assembles a sweeping principle of love that brings together several facets of love: love as inhabited, love as expansive, love as a …