Limit Situations, Double Binds & Transformative Learning

Freire & Bateson

Freire & Bateson

Something familiar struck me about a passage I crossed in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed the other day:

Humans, however, because they are aware of themselves and thus of the world—because they are conscious beings—exist in a dialecti­cal relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.”

Gregory Bateson talks about this moment of “transformative learning” (Level III Learning) arising out of the double bind:

“Bateson (1973:276) refers to being `driven to level III by `contraries’ generated at level II’; `The “problem” to which third-order learning is a “solution” consists of systematic contradictions in experience’ (Bredo 1989:35). This matches what we have called elsewhere `dilemmas of participation’ (Tosey et al 2005).”

To Dr. Paul Tosey, confronting the limit-situation is a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.”

I think Freire would have agreed:

Once perceived by individuals as fetters, as obstacles to their liberation, these situations stand out in relief from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a given reality. Men and women respond to the challenge with actions which Vieira Pinto calls “limit-acts“: those directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively ac­cepting, the “given.”

As critical percep­tion is embodied in action, a climate of hope and confidence devel­ops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations. As reality is transformed and these situations are superseded, new ones will appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts.

It is with the creation of the critical perception which is at the heart of progress, and where we may find the essence of the arts. As we move between Bateson’s Levels of Learning, he:

emphasise[s] the significance of the aesthetic in apprehending the patterning between levels; `I have suggested elsewhere… that art is commonly concerned with… bridging the gap between the more or less unconscious premises acquired by Learning II and the more episodic content of consciousness and immediate action’ (1973:279).

Creativity is necessary to participating in Freire’s critical consciousness:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings. Because—in contrast to animals—people can tri-dimensionalize time into the past, the present, and the future, their history, in function of their own creations, develops as a constant process of transformation within which epochal units materialize.

For Freire, we must create a critical consciousness that can apprehend the themes that shape our present “epochal unit,” as well as imagine the conceptions that will allow us to transcend it:

An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude. The concrete representation of may of these ideas, values, concepts and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independent, disconnected, or static; they are always interacting dialectically with their opposites.

With a number of different – historical, social, political, economic – forces driving local and global communities toward further and further polarization, it is easy to see the consequences of Freire’s “universe of themes in dialectical contradiction” in that:

persons take equally contradictory positions: some work to maintain the structures, others to change them. As antagonism deepens between themes which are the expression of reality, there is a tendency for the themes and for reality itself to be mythicized, establishing a climate of irrationality and sectarianism. This climate threatens to drain the themes of their deeper significance and to deprive them of their characteristically dynamic aspect. In such a  situation, myth-creating irrationality itself becomes a fundamental theme.

The solution perhaps lies in discovering our cultural moment’s “opposing theme,” and cultivating

the critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.