A Philosophical Conversation between Professor Sen & Dr Roy
First published in The Sunday Statesman, “8th Day”, May 14 2006
ROY: …The philosophers Renford Bambrough and John Wisdom would have been with you at Cambridge….
SEN: Wisdom I knew better; he was at my College; but you know my philosophy was not an important thing at the time. Among the philosophers there, it was C. D. Broad with whom I chatted more. But Wisdom I knew, and he mainly tried to encourage me to ride horses with him, which I didn’t.
ROY: You went to Cambridge in …
SEN: I went to Cambridge in 1953.
ROY: So Wittgenstein had just died…
SEN: Wittgenstein had died.
ROY: Only just in 1952 (sic; in fact he died in 1951).
SEN: But I knew a lot about the conversations between Wittgenstein and Sraffa because Sraffa was alive; I did a paper on that by the way.
ROY: Well that’s what I was going to ask, there is no trace of your work on Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinians.
SEN: I don’t know why. My paper was published in the Journal of Economic Literature a couple of years ago. Now mind you it’s not a conclusion, just an interpretation, what was the role of Gramsci in the works of Sraffa and Wittgenstein, what is it that Sraffa actually did in intermediating between them.
ROY: In your book Identity and Violence, I was curious to find you call yourself a “dabbler” in Philosophy yet at the same time you are an eminent Professor of Philosophy at Harvard for decades. The question that arose was, were you being modest, and if so, truly or falsely?
SEN (laughs): I think if you make a statement which you suspect might have been made out of modesty and then I said it was because of modesty I think I would have eliminated the motivation for the statement as you identify it. I am not going to answer the question as to what I think.
ROY: But surely you are not a “dabbler” in Philosophy?
SEN: I am interested in Philosophy is what I meant, and whether I am a dabbler or whether I’ve succeeded in making some contribution is for others to judge. But not for me to judge.
SEN: As for me, the right description is that I am a dabbler in Philosophy. But then that diagnostic is… mine, and I won’t go to war with others if someone disputes that. But it’s not for me to dispute it.
ROY: Would you, for example in reference to our discussion about Wittgenstein, say that you have contributed to Philosophy in and of itself regardless of Economics?
SEN: Most of my work on Philosophy has got nothing to do with Economics. It is primarily on Ethics, to some extent on Epistemology. And these are not “economic” subjects. I have never written on the “Philosophy of Economics” at all.
ROY: How about Ontology? I mean the question “What there is” would be…..
SEN: I am less concerned with Ontology or with Metaphysics than some people are. I respect the subject but I have not been involved.
ROY: You have not been involved?
SEN: Well, I have read a lot but I haven’t worked on it. I have worked on Ethics and Political Philosophy and I have worked on Epistemology and I have worked a little bit on Mathematical Logic. Those are the three main areas in which I have worked.
ROY: Why I say that is because, if the three main philosophical questions are summarised as “What is there?” (or “Who am I?”), “What is true?”, “What should I do?”, then the question “Who am I?” is very much a part of your concern with identity and a universal question generally, while “Is this true?” is relevant to Epistemology and “What should I do?” is obviously Ethics. Morton White summarised philosophy in those three questions. It seems to me you have in this book had to look at…
SEN: At all three of them.
ROY: Well, some Ontology at least.
SEN: But you know I agree with your diagnostic that the second question “What I regard myself to be, is that true?”, is a question of Epistemology, because that’s the context in which “Is it true?” comes in. The second is primarily an epistemological question. The third is, as you said, primarily an ethical question, though I do believe that the dichotomy between Epistemology and Ethics is hard to make. On that subject I would agree with Hilary Putnam’s last book, namely when he speaks of “the collapse of the fact-value dichotomy” which is sometimes misunderstood and described as the collapse of the fact-value distinction, which is not what Hilary Putnam is denying, he’s arguing that the dichotomy is very hard to sustain, because the linkages are so strong, that pursuit of one is always taking you into the other. But the first question you are taking to be an ontological question, “Who am I?”, and at one level you can treat it as that, but there is a less profound aspect of “Who am I?”, namely what would be the right way of describing me, to myself and to others, and that has a deep relationship with the second question. If the separation or dichotomy between the second and third raises some philosophical questions of significance, the dichotomy between the first and second would too. So “Who am I?” can be interpreted at a profound ontological level but it could also be interpreted at a level which is primarily fairly straightforward Epistemology. And it is at that level that I am taking that question to be. Namely: Am I a member of many different groups? Do I see myself as members of many different groups? If I do not see myself as members of many different groups, am I making a mistake in not seeing that I belong to many different groups? Is it the case that implicitly I often pursue things which are dependant on my seeing myself as being members of other groups than those which I explicitly acknowledge? These are the central issues of the “Who am I?” question in this book.
ROY: Well you haven’t used the word “identity” here but when you speak in your book of people having a choice of different identities, you are plainly not referring to multiple identities in the sense of the psychologist; are you not merely saying that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to his or her life, and is required to play different roles at different times in different contexts? Or is there something beyond that statement in your notion of “choice of identities”?
SEN: What I mean by “multiple identities” is, at one level, the most trivial, common but, at another level, most profoundly important recognition that we belong to many different groups: I’m an Indian citizen, I’m a British or American resident, I’m a Bengali, the poetry I like is Bengali poetry, I’m a man, I’m an economist, I belong to all these groups. Nothing complicated about that, and the multiple identity issues of the psychologist that you’re referring to indicate a certain level of complexity of humanity, and sometimes even of pathology perhaps, but that’s not what I am concerned with here, it’s just a common fact that there are many different groups to which any person belongs. And it’s on that extraordinarily simple fact that I am trying to construct a fairly strong, fairly extensive set of reasonings, because that forces us to see the importance of our own choice, our own decisions in deciding on how should I see myself, how would it be correct to see myself given the problems I am facing today, and given the priorities that I will have to examine.
ROY: But if we don’t use the word “groups” just for a minute, then we are not too far wrong to just say that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to their lives, so one dimension could be nationality, one dimension sexuality, one dimension one’s intellectual upbringing, then any person, any character in a novel would have different dimensions….
SEN: The difficulty with that, Subroto, is that in the same aspect we may have more than one…
SEN: Well dimension tries to capture in a Cartesian space a rather more complex reality, and you know I don’t think this is a metric space we are looking at, so dimensionality is not a natural thought in this context. One thing I am very worried about is when something which is very simple appears to people as being either profoundly right or profoundly mistaken. I’ll try to claim that it is right and it is not very profound but that it is not very profound does not mean people don’t miss it and end up making mistakes. In terms of the aspects of my life which concern my enjoying poetry, there may be many different groups to which I belong, one of them is that I can appreciate Bengali poetry in a way that I will not be able to appreciate poetry in some language which I speak only very little, like Italian poetry for example. But on the other hand, in addition to that, in the same aspect of my appreciating poetry, there may be the fact that I am not as steeped into historical romance which also figures in poetry or patriotic poetry and these are all again classifications which puts me in some group, in the company of some and not in the company of others, and therefore an aspect does not quite capture with the precision the group classification that I was referring to does capture.
ROY: Well, groups we can quarrel about perhaps because groups may not be well- defined…
SEN: Don’t go away Subroto but that does not make any difference, because many groups are not well-defined but they are still extremely important…
ROY: Of course there are overlapping groups…
SEN: Not only overlapping, but you know that is a different subject on the role of ambiguity, that is a very central issue in Epistemology, and the fact of the matter is that there are many things for which there are ambiguities about border which are nevertheless extremely important as part of our identity. Where India begins and China ends or where China begins and India ends may not be clear, but the distinction between being an Indian and being Chinese is very important, so I think that this border dispute gets much greater attention in the social sciences than it actually deserves.
ROY: Well, one of the most profoundly difficult and yet universally common dilemmas in the modern world has to do with women having to choose between identities outside and inside the home. Does your theory of identity apply to that problem, and if so, how?
SEN: I think the choice is never between identities, the choice is the importance that you attach to different identities all of which may be real. The fact of the matter is that a woman may be a member of a family, a woman is also a member of a gender, namely being a woman, a woman may also have commitment to her profession, may have commitment to a politics…
ROY: Does your theory help her in any way, specifically?
SEN: The theory is not a do-it-yourself method of constructing an identity. It is an attempt to clarify what are the questions that anyone who is thinking about identity has to sort out. It is the identification of questions with which the book is concerned, and as such, insofar as the woman is concerned… indeed the language that you use Subroto, that what you have to choose between identities, I would then say that what I am trying to argue is that’s not the right issue, because all these would remain identities of mine but the relative importance that I attach to the different identities is the subject in which I have to make a choice, and that’s the role of the theory…
ROY: They are all different aspects of the same woman.
SEN: Yes indeed. If not explicitly then implicitly, but that is part of the recognition that we need, it is not a question that by giving importance to one of those compared with the others you’re denying the other identities. To say that something is more important than another in the present context is not a denial that the other is also an identity. So I think the issue of relative importance has to be distinguished from the existence or non-existence of these different identities.
ROY: Well, you’ve wished to say much about Muslims in this book….
SEN: That’s not entirely right. I would say that I do say something about the Muslims in this book….
ROY: … yet one gets the impression that you have not read The Quran. Is that an accurate impression?
SEN: No, it’s not.
ROY: You have read The Quran?
ROY: In English, presumably?
SEN: In Bengali to be exact. Not in Arabic, you probably have read it in Arabic.
ROY (laughs): No, just in English. Is it possible to understand a Muslim’s beliefs until and unless one sees the world from his/her perspective? I had to read The Quran to see if I could understand — attempt to understand — the point of view of Muslims. Does one need to read The Quran in order to see their perspective?
SEN: Well it depends on how much expertise you want to acquire. That is, if you have to understand what the Quranic beliefs are, to which Muslims as a group – believing Muslims, who identify themselves as believing and practising Muslims – as opposed to Muslims by ancestry and therefore Muslims in a denominational sense, yes indeed, if you want to pursue what practising and believing Muslims practise and believe then you would have to read The Quran. But a lot of people would identify themselves as Muslim who do not follow these practises or for that matter beliefs, but who would still identify themselves as Muslims because in the sense of a community they belong to that. I mean even Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not follow many of the standard Muslim practises, that did not make him a non-Muslim because a “Muslim” can be defined in more than one way. One is to define somebody who is a believing and practising Muslim, the other is somebody who sees himself as a Muslim and belongs to that community, and in the context of the world in which he lives that identity has some importance which it clearly had in the case of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
ROY: Well, Muslims like Jews and Christians believe the Universe had a deliberate Creation; Hindus and Buddhists may not quite agree with that. Muslims will further believe that the Creator spoke once and only once definitively through one man, namely Muhammad in the 7th Century in Arabia. Would you not agree that no person can deny that and still be a Muslim?
SEN: I think you’re getting it wrong Subroto. It said Muhammad was the last prophet, it does not deny that there existed earlier prophets. Therefore it’s not the case as you said that God spoke alone and uniquely and only once.
SEN: No, no, Muslims believe that it was definitely spoken at each stage — as a follow up, like Christians misunderstood what message the prophet called Jesus was carrying and they deified Jesus, there was a need for turning a page, that’s the understanding; it’s not the case that’s what Muslims believe, that is not the Quranic view at all, that God spoke only once to Muhammad, that’s not the Quranic belief
ROY: True, true enough..
SEN: But you said that Subroto!
ROY: What I meant was “definitively”, the word “definitively” meaning that…
SEN: Definitively they would say that at each stage there was a memory, and the memory and the understanding got corrupted over time and that’s why they were also so wild about idolatry for example
ROY: Well the Ahmadiyas, for example, are considered non-believers by many Muslims because they claim that there …
SEN: That also brings out the point I was making, that Ahmadiyas see themselves as Muslim….
SEN: …and in terms of one of the definitions of Muslim that I am giving you, namely as a person who sees himself as a Muslim, or herself as a Muslim, and regards that identity to be important is a Muslim according to that definition; another one would apply a test which is what many of the more strict Sunnis and Shias do, namely, that whether they accept Muhammad as the last prophet, and insofar as Ahmadiyas don’t accept that, then they would say then you are not Muslim…
ROY: Well they do actually…
SEN: Well they do, but in terms…I think what I am telling you is that in terms of the Shia-Sunni orthodox critique they say that in effect they don’t accept that, that is the charge against them, but those who believe that would say that on that ground Ahmadiyas are not Muslim. So I think there is a distinction in the different ways that Muslims can be characterised….