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Amartya Sen: “Learning is always an act of imagination”

The philosopher and Nobel Prize winner on identity, decolonisation and how to change the world.

By Gavin Jacobson

The history of economics owes many of its greatest contributions to the philosophers. Like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Friedrich von Hayek, Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, has a formidable reputation both as a world authority on development, welfare and famine, and as a distinguished theorist and moral philosopher. Born in Bengal in 1933, Sen’s life has been one of border-crossings – geographic and intellectual – as well as the rejection of narrow identities. He is, as he once put it:

An Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or Great Britain resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a non-religious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, a non-believer in an afterlife, and also, if the question is asked, a non-believer in before-life. This is just a small sample of diverse categories. There are a number of other categories which can inform and engage me.”

Home in the World (2021) is a memoir of an intellectual life, one that trades inner revelation for sharp scholarly observation and social insight. Humbly recounting his upbringing and then his career as a young academic, the book charts Sen’s peregrinations through the key imperial quarters – India, Burma, Cambridge – as well as offering elegant disquisitions on those thinkers who helped shape his own work and world-view.

Amartya Sen recently spoke from his home in Cambridge Massachusetts to the New Statesman’s ideas editor, Gavin Jacobson.  

Gavin Jacobson: One of the most enjoyable parts of your memoir Home in the World is the way in which your intellectual life has been about breaking down the divisions between academic disciplines. Why do you think that is so important and do you think that your early background in the sciences helped prepare you for working on philosophical problems?

Amartya Sen: I think you are right in thinking that my early involvement in the sciences has been helpful for my interest in philosophical issues, particularly in epistemology. In an odd way, the sciences also helped me to think a bit more about ethics. It has been important to be able to question the false distinctions that are often made, generating unnecessary hostilities. It is hard to decide what has been helpful, since one’s earlier knowledge, to the extent one can be sure of it, tends to be so merged together with one’s contemporary understanding.

GJ: Another key feature that seems to define your life is the breaking down of the division between thinking and acting, between ideas and praxis. This seems to hark back to earlier conceptions of philosophy, embodied by Rabindranath Tagore but most famously associated with Marx’s adage that the point “isn’t to interpret the world, but to change it”. Do you think intellectuals and philosophers today have forgotten the art of converting theory into practice? And if so, do you think that retreat into pure contemplation has helped enable the various political and social crises we’re now facing?

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AS: We do live in a world that values actions as well as contemplation.  And that combination is certainly important as you are rightly pointing out. Karl Marx was indeed emphatic on the need to combine the two. But it is important to recognise how much of a theorist Marx remained even when he was involved with assessing the types of action we needed. For example, in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (1891), in which he is very critical of the German Workers’ Party (SDAP), Marx detects in the writings of the SDAP a confusion between payment according to work and that according to need. He also emphasises the importance of “nature” in production (not just labour and capital), and particularly on the need to see distinctly each of the different identities any person contingently has. I do agree with you on the need to have clarity in linking together ideas and praxis, but one of the things that I find quite striking in the works of Marx, but also of Tagore, is the extent to which the clarity of ideas is powerfully used to illuminate the type of practical actions that are needed.

GJ: Tagore looms large in the memoir, and although he is one of the most important thinkers in the history of philosophy he is perhaps not as well known in the West as he should be. Do you think the way we teach the history of philosophy has obscured thinkers from the non-Western world? If so, do you think university curriculums need “decolonising”?

AS: The need for “decolonising” is certainly important in our general understanding of the world, and also (as you say) in university curriculums, but this has to be a two-way relationship. I am not sure I have done it very well in my own work, but it is a concern that has been present in my mind.   

GJ: I want to turn now briefly to the situation in India. What is your view of the Modi administration, especially its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic? Do you believe that the idea of inclusiveness and unity championed by Tagore can withstand the current ascendency of Hindu nationalism?

AS: I am afraid I think Narendra Modi’s record as a political or administrative leader of India has been a big disappointment. The reasons for his failure are not hard to see. First of all, his mode of thinking is strictly sectarian, focusing on a very narrow version of Hinduism, and no less importantly entertaining a deep-rooted hostility against Muslims. It is hard to think that in a country where Hindus and Muslims have lived very well together over hundreds of years and who have both welcomed and cheered India’s secular constitution, Modi can, at will, bestow certain privileges (including in matters of citizenship) to the Hindus, and arbitrarily deny them to Muslims. But on top of that, Modi’s inclination to help the rich and not feel particularly sympathetic to the very poor is also a huge handicap. When, in four hours’ notice, Modi produced his version of a “lock-up” in response to the spread of Covid, he apologised to people with nice homes, saying that he was sad to curtail their freedom of movement, but he overlooked the severe handicap of people without a decent home to live in or work from. The poor working people very often lacked even a tiny shelter to work from, or to do a job from to earn an income (which they very often lacked). They could not also travel back to their original home location when they were far away from there as migrant labour. You are absolutely right that this is very far removed from the idea of inclusiveness and unity championed by thinkers like Tagore and also, in these respects, other leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.

GJ: Given the political direction India has taken in the last few years, does that make you think differently about the country’s founding and the nature of its constitution?

AS: This is a very interesting question, and we have to think about the history of India and, as you say, the nature of its constitution. India has of course been a country with divisions between different castes, and of course between the rich and the poor. The constitution, led by Dr BR Ambedkar [who headed the committee drafting the constitution after Indian independence in 1947], did pay special attention to inequality and made attempts to introduce various provisions of affirmative actions. But the connection between economic inequality and social divisions did not get the kind of attention it could have. This would not have mattered so much had Indian history not been as fragmented and divisive for centuries, but while the constitution was basically fine on its own, it did not go far enough with remedial arrangements (also, despite the historical presence in India of thoughts directed towards the removal of inequality, the politics of Hindu revival has tended to take the shape of positively and supportively focusing on divisions of caste, privilege and religion). Tagore did his best to focus on equity and the spirit of solidarity in Indian historical thinking, but that was not enough to subdue the ancestry of inequality and its revival in Hindu politics in the shape that modern India acquired over time.  

GJ: In the memoir you write about your time in Burma. What’s your view on what happened to Aung Suu Kyi’s leadership? Is she a cautionary tale about the fragility of liberal ideals against the cold realism of politics? And what are your thoughts on the coup d’état that took place there in February 2021?

AS: Suu Kyi, whom I knew first in Delhi and then in Oxford, is a disappointment to me since she seemed like such a fearless leader of all Burmese people, using her privileged ancestry to try to build an independent and free collective of people. I don’t think her downfall reflects “the fragility of liberal ideals against the cold realism of politics”. At least I don’t believe so. The success of a political leader facing a ruthless enemy depends both on courage and self-sacrifice, but also on the ability to undertake far-reaching political analysis. It is not surprising that like many people in Burma, Suu Kyi did not fully grasp how integrated the Rohingya community was in Burma and she tolerated – and supported – big inequalities. The military was in effect smarter than she was and decided to surround Burmese thinking with a strong cultivation of racist history. They were able to produce a nasty but very powerful racist mentality across the country aimed against the Muslim Rohingyas.

By the time Suu Kyi would have considered encountering it, it was just too late, with a propaganda-driven population lacking in sympathy for the minority group of Rohingyas. Once the propaganda had taken effect, Suu Kyi could not support Rohingyas without losing her standing among others in Burma, and without having weakened the sense of national solidarity, after her neglect not only of Rohingyas but also of other tribal groups. It is not so much the fragility of liberal ideals but the weakness of a divided population that made it very hard for Suu Kyi to stand against the military, and when she was displaced recently she did not have the strength that could have helped her to take on the military.

GJ: Who are the living writers and thinkers that you read to make sense of the world?

AS: There are a great many people whose writings illuminate and inspire me. They vary from literary writers like the South African writer Nadine Gordimer to political thinkers of various persuasions. I wish I could find one great writer who could guide my thinking comprehensively, but unfortunately for me the wisdom that I need has to come from different sources, and sometimes different countries. I also have a strong need for thought experiments. For example, I would like to understand how Nelson Mandela would have approached divisions within Europe or between communities in America. It is useful for me to think about actual leaders in circumstances they did not in fact face. I don’t know whether I make a mistake in going into such thought experiments, but learning for me is always closely related to imagining.

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