Having referenced Amartya Sen over thirty times in my final University Exams, I was trembling with excitement to hear and see this rather unorthodox hero of mine here at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He is not quite the usual Superman or David Beckham hero of today’s youths! Amartya Sen as I am sure you all know is a world renowned Mathmetician and Social Economist, I think the fact that I studied theology however and he was found throughout my studies reveals, that he is much more than that.
Mr Makinson remarked in his introduction of Dr Sen that he has a “storytellers gift”. This gift was demonstrated throughout his conversation this afternoon with us – the ‘brain food’ hungry crowd on the Front Lawns here at the Festival. He spoke with real presence and tremendous humility. As Dr Sen explained to us that having a global audience did not damage the nuances of his writing, I can vouch that nor did the fact the Front Lawns were past bursting point at all damage his narrative.
The themes that were covered in the conversation included economics, mathematics, social choices, freedom and theology. I think however that it is the actual interconnectedness of these topics that best demonstrates the theme running through Dr Sen’s address. Although never a religious man (aside from a stomach ache as a child praying for a miracle!), Dr Sen explained that there is a natural movement between politics, religions, social systems, moral ideals and mathematical theory.
We learned that all worlds should be open to others. Referring to heaven he asked the question “Is the world available to me if I adhere to no belief?” The answer is yes, through thought and reasoning. Amartya Sen explained that if he had read The Bible or Qu’ran at school rather than the Ramayana he would not have lost the ambiguity that comes with aspects of Hinduism. That being of a different belief does not prevent involvement, pointing here at Gallileo – the Christian astronomer.
Dr Sen is more than a mathematician and economist, his writing filters down through all subjects. He today pointed to Adam Smith as a huge influence on him, who also closely linked morality and economics. However he also said that “morality should make no compromise with what you can empirically discover.” It is this grounding in mathematics and reasoning that makes Sen’s approach to social and political change so important. The mathematics needed in social issues is not necessarily the very numerical sort of maths that we all associate with long days in the classroom, but of “ordering and ranking”.
To summarise, Amartya Sen certainly lived up to all my expectations, and revealed to me that although a Mathematician (he professed today that “I love maths, I am biased!”) and Economist by nature, his work is relevant across all aspects of study, politics and living. Perhaps surprisingly he also revealed that his favourite subject at school was Sanskrit so you can never be too sure where he will next turn his pen…
By Ivan de Klee