Philosophy is a non-negligible part of being a human being: Amartya Sen

In an exclusive interview, the Nobel laureate, economist and philosopher talks to Roshan Kishore about his memoir, Home in the World, released this week.
Amartya Sen, 87, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1998, “for his contributions to welfare economics.” He is currently Thomas W Lamont university professor, and professor of economics and philosophy, at Harvard. (AFP via Getty Images) PREMIUM
Amartya Sen, 87, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1998, “for his contributions to welfare economics.” He is currently Thomas W Lamont university professor, and professor of economics and philosophy, at Harvard. (AFP via Getty Images)
Updated on Jul 09, 2021 04:07 PM IST
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* This book is more of an intellectual trajectory of Amartya Sen than his personal account, isn’t it? You do not even mention being awarded the Nobel Prize here.

Well, yes. It is mainly about the issues that worried me or excited me or interested me. It is really that. I don’t think the Nobel was in the top of the horizon there. But I hope you found something of interest in the book.

* You credit “the little work you have been able to do in your life” which can be divided into “abstract reasoning” and “rather earthly practical problems” to the foundation of your school education at Santiniketan. Is it even possible to scale up this model of education today? Or was it just Rabindranath Tagore’s brilliance which you happened to gain from?

Well, we were lucky in Santiniketan, partly because of personal guidance from Rabindranath himself, but also because of association with other great scholars who were there. Not every school will be exactly like every other school, but the standard of school education can be very substantially improved in India, and I think that is the direction in which we ought to go. The tendency to regard it as just a mechanical reading, writing, arithmetic thing, I think we should get away from focusing just on that. Those are important training of course, but we have to go beyond them. Taking an interest in the country, what India stands for, what the world is like, what the problems of unfortunate disadvantaged people are. We ought to get an inkling of those things in school. I don’t think we can make exactly the same kind of excellent school everywhere, but we could certainly make much better schools than we have at this time.

* There is a tendency in India today to claim false achievements such as plastic surgery and aircraft in ancient India by evoking mythological examples. You have always argued that making false claims about India’s cultural and scientific achievements, which are very significant, is a disservice of sorts…

Yes indeed. There are several problems here. First of all, making any false claim, which is really like a lie, is a bad thing to do. Secondly, rather than elevating India’s standing in the world, such false claims make the country rather ridiculous, to say that we were flying aeroplanes and had wireless in ancient times. The sad thing is that India had a lot of unusual achievements, and by concentrating on fantastic achievements as opposed to unusual achievements, you undermine the importance of what we actually did achieve.

Take mathematics. People talk a great deal these days about Vedic mathematics. There are even universities where you can get a degree in Vedic mathematics. Vedic mathematics is not an uninteresting subject, but the mathematics that occur in the Vedas is really quite limited. The really exciting things in mathematics and science that happened very early in India began with Aryabhata in the fifth century AD. Aside from pure mathematics, he was also doing many other scientific things, like analysing diurnal motion of the earth, the causation of lunar eclipses through the shadow of the earth and solar eclipses through the obscuring of the sun by the moon. Aryabhata, and his follower Brahmagupta, even worked on the existence of something like the force of gravity, arguing that because the earth is spinning and yet things are not being thrown out, some force is pulling small objects towards the large object of earth. This was around about 500 AD.

I think it is very important not to ignore the astonishingly original claims that were made in India and many of them were vindicated. In order to give them the importance they deserve, you ought to withdraw from making fantastic claims which do not really stand up to scrutiny.

* Your grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen had an important role in shaping your intellectual worldview. He was a highly motivated scholar. His knowledge of Indian tradition wasn’t acquired for a professional motive. Isn’t such pursuit becoming increasingly difficult in today’s world? Are we not losing something because of that?

I think that’s a very good question and a very difficult one. In many ways, education tends to be linked with its relation with job opportunities, so you cannot detach it from what professionally useable skills your schooling generates. On the other hand, there are also many other things that should influence your schooling. For example, having a good idea of India is important.

What was remarkable in the case of my grandfather was that he had a very broad multi-religious, multi-cultural vision of India, though his basic education was as a Sanskritist. A lot of people who go in that Sanskritic direction tend to be rather limited in being disparaging of other parts of Indian civilisation like the traditional scholarship of Muslims. He was very interested in, and respectful of, different traditions in India. Also, he did not treat the Sanskritist tradition as just a religious tradition. Certainly, you had to learn what the religious claims were. On the other hand, when I told him that religion did not fascinate me, he was not in the least disturbed, and drew my attention to the huge materialist literature in ancient Sanskrit documentation.

You don’t need to have a belief in God in order to be able to decide what things are good, what is right and what is wrong. I think the broadness of his approach is something that I was very happy with, and this I got very early. I could read, on one side, the Upanishads and the Gita and parts of the Vedas, while I was reading at the same time, the ancient materialist literature, like Lokayata and also Sanskrit writings on maths. Often people forget that Sanskrit has a larger agnostic and materialist literature than you can find in any other classical language.

* You write about being “much impressed by the intellectual reach of Marxism, without being tempted to become a Marxist”. These were times when you recount your teacher and a Marxist Maurice Dobb being branded a sell-out by his fellow Marxists for teaching a course of welfare economics. How important is the virtue of intellectual appreciation without being ideologically aligned, in academia, in general?

I think it is very important to have your independence and not be carried away by any fixed school of thinking. Actually, the word ideology is used even by Karl Marx, mainly pejoratively. A blind belief in any ideology is not taken to be a good thing in this context.

Now, Maurice Dobb was a very interesting thinker. I came to know his work, first as a student in Calcutta, and later felt very fortunate that he was one of my teachers in Cambridge. Welfare economics — it is very interesting to think about it and I am glad you have raised the question — is mainly about how well are people’s lives going, and why?

Somehow in parts of later Marxist thinking, that line of enquiry about well-being was taken to be not quite in line with “proper” Marxism, dialectical-materialism, and so on. Marx’s last book, Critique of the Gotha Programme, and his earliest book, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, these all discuss issues about what makes human lives better. There is no conflict between welfare economics and Marxian lines of reasoning.

And learning from Marx does not close down for you the possibility of learning from other writers as well. Indeed, I have learnt a lot from Marx, without being a Marxist. Also, there are other things within his writings which I thought were mistaken. If you begin as a “no-nonsense” Marxist, then you may have difficulty admitting that he could make a mistake. And then you may end up having to defend the indefensible.

* You remember one of your teachers Tapas Majumdar as having taught you about how to question something. When you look back, as a legendary public intellectual and having been a teacher for so many decades, do you think you have been questioned enough, especially by your students?

That’s a very interesting question. Obviously, many questions that anyone asks may not occur immediately even to that person. I think it is possible that some of these things which I took initially to be more immune to questioning than I should have. For example, in the debate between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, I took Tagore’s side very much. But later it became clear to me that I was being in some ways unfair to Mahatma Gandhi. Some of Gandhiji’s priorities were not based on the kind of reasoning that we associate with science, but he had important values as well. For example, he wanted to join hands with hard-working people in doing things with old technology when he could have reduced the toil by choosing better — less exhausting — technology. There is some value here in solidarity with others. Wittgenstein, the great philosopher, expressed a preference somewhat similar to Gandhiji’s values. I discuss the issue fairly extensively in my new book.

* What about being questioned by your own students?

When I have students who take a different view, do I adequately encourage them to pursue it? I think I certainly try to do that. For example, when I came to the Delhi School of Economics (D-School) in 1963, social choice theory was a very limited subject. Only ten or fifteen people in the world knew enough to pursue it comfortably. When I started teaching social choice theory in a fairly large way in D-School, there were a number of students who quickly became proficient in it. The most skilled of them, Prasanta Pattanaik, would say, “You say that, but why should that be true? Something very different could be true,” and he would point out an alternative. I had to challenge him by asking, “Prasanta, why don’t you show me how an alternative will work”. And he would try to show me that, quite often with huge success. That may generate an alternative way of thinking about the problem.

So I felt that that part of Tapas Majumdar’s inclination to question things I was able to follow. I think many of my students such as Prabhat Patnaik, Kaushik Basu, Siddiq Osmani, Ravi Kanbur and others, were very critical of things that they found were taken for granted. So they had reason to pursue contrary reasoning. I too benefited from encouraging them to question established ideas.

* You keep coming back to how the lack of personal freedom in Communist regimes made you critical of organised Left politics. What are your views about violence in politics, not based on identity but, say, class?

I am horrified by violence, for three different reasons. Violence in itself is a bad thing; I am in line with Gautam Buddha there. Secondly, violence is often imposed by the privileged on the underprivileged, like upper caste people on Dalits or Adivasis. So, violence also reflects the use of the stronger power of the fortunate against the lack of power of the unfortunate. So violence can go with inequality, which is a bad thing too. And thirdly, violence is often used as a substitute for reasoning. Instead of reasoning your way and convincing your adversary, you may just try to win through force. And that too can be a very unfortunate thing.

* The book does not talk about your views on India’s post-independence economic trajectory.

I think it does to the extent we could adequately discuss it in a memoir that stops in the early 1960s. There are certain things, two in particular, about the post-independence economic approach — going back to early days but now much sharper, much nastier — which I find quite unacceptable. Economic planning in India paid very little attention to the economic bondage that is created by deep divisions between people’s ancestral backgrounds, including class and caste and gender. Even though the Constitution pays a lot of attention for the disadvantage of being lower caste, particularly being an “untouchable,” it was mainly a political move. The economic implications of these inequalities have not received that much attention. Another problem was the fact that it took education and healthcare not sufficiently seriously and focused much more on the formation of physical capital and economic growth based on expansion of physical capital. I think that was also a mistake. The early neglect came from traditional nationalist parties in India, including the Congress. But these neglects have become much stronger — and quite disastrous — under the new ruling parties and groups linked with Hindutva.

* You’ve called your memoirs Home in the World, taking a cue from Tagore’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World). Millions of people who came to India from what is today Bangladesh, like you did, are being branded as foreigners in our country, their home, today. You recall a conversation with Oskar Lange about a steel factory in Poland to argue how identities adjust to circumstances in your book…

I think the Bangladesh case is very different from the case of Nowa Huta near Krakow in Poland, about which I was arguing with Oskar Lange. As far as the situation in Bangladesh was concerned, there was something rather unnatural about characterising minorities and the weak in both sides of Bengal. If you look at the history, even in the elections of 1937, the sectarian parties, whether it was the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha, did not do very well. The Muslim League actually won one election only on its own, in 1946, and the next year the country was partitioned. And within four or five years, people were debating whether language is more important than religion. The partition occurred in very uncertain circumstances.

There were many people who did not move from Bangladesh to India at the time of partition, many Muslims of course did not move from India to Pakistan. That was partly because of Gandhiji’s leadership and encouragement of other leaders like Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and even Vallabhbhai Patel and others. It did not look like Hindus and Muslims are two nations altogether. Though that was the thesis not only of Jinnah but before that MS Golwalkar had already floated that divisive thesis from the Hindu side.

Winning an election is a very odd way of judging long-term popularity because lots of things happen during elections. Elections are affected by temporary excitement like a war. Mrs (Margret) Thatcher in Britain was about to lose an election but then the Falklands War came and suddenly she became much more popular and turned the tables. I think to some extent the war with Pakistan (the Balakot air strikes) did influence to a considerable extent the vote in the last general election.

I think one has to consider, when you are dealing with identity and where a person’s future does possibly belong, you have to take a more long-run view. For example, in West Bengal it looked recently as if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been so successful in campaigning about Jai Shri Ram and so on that they had converted the people. But when the results came out it turned out that it was not at all the case. These are difficult questions.

* You have had as much engagement with economics as with philosophy. In your view, is it possible to be a good social scientist without engaging with larger philosophical questions? Is something like class bias or just adherence to a rigorous method not enough?

I think on the method question, I have some scepticism, not because method is unimportant; it is important. On the other hand, it is often very difficult to identify what exactly is the method that you are using. I think it could be an enormous waste of time.

On the general question of philosophy, I think at many different levels it is very important to ask, what ultimately your values are. What do you think is really important? That way there is an ethical importance that we cannot deny. Secondly, it is very important to ask how we relate to another human being, namely what is the connection between one person and another. Is it a minor connection or is it something that to a great extent determines who we are and what we can do and what we cannot? There is a further issue that we have to explore. How do I identify myself? This is a question that Marx himself raised in Critique of the Gotha Programme where he complains that the Gotha Programme takes workers only as workers and nothing else, whereas they are also human beings and have many different aspects.

I do think that philosophy is a non-negligible part of being a human being. Antonio Gramsci says somewhere that we have been taught that philosophy is a subject that some specialists, technically competent people, tend to pursue. But, in fact, philosophy is something which every human being does. Anyone who uses language already is doing some philosophy. I agree with Gramsci.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021