Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Argumentative Indian - Amartya Sen

Notes on 'The Argumentative Indian' - Amartya Sen


The Argumentative Indian is a book written by Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen. It is a collection of essays that discuss India's history and identity, focusing on the traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism. Martha Nussbaum says the book "demonstrates the importance of public debate in Indian traditions generally."

The Argumentative Indian has brought together a selection of writings from Sen that outline the need to understand contemporary India in the light of its long argumentative tradition. The understanding and use of this argumentative tradition are critically important, Sen argues, for the success of India's democracy, the defence of its secular politics, the removal of inequalities related to class, caste, gender and community, and the pursuit of sub-continental peace.

The book takes the form of four sections containing linked essays: "Voice and Heterodoxy", "Culture and Communication", "Politics and Protest", "Reason and Identity". The first section looks at the general culture of pluralistic debate within India, dating back to Buddha and kings such as Ashoka. The second section seeks to restore the reputation of Rabindranath Tagore as an intellectual polymath, combining spiritual and political ideas, and explores India's relationship to other cultures, including the West and China, especially the peaceful and intellectually rewarding cross-fertilising relationship between the two great Asian cultures. The third section looks at conflicts of class and criticises inequalities in Indian society and arguments that have been used to justify them. Finally, the book explores modern cultures of secularism and liberalism in an Indian context.

Amartya Sen's own political agenda is clear for all to see and is wholly admirable. Given the virtue of Sen's position, to which nearly all of us would subscribe, it is hard to have to say that "The Argumentative Indian" proves on close reading to be a flawed book. This is because Sen does not go beyond stating self-evident truths. Although nicely written, and with many points of interest, there is a thinness and superficiality about the whole that displeases. [...] My greatest disappointment with this book is that its use of history is as unscrupulous and trivialising as that of those Sen wishes to bring down. "The Argumentative Indian" is not sufficiently thoughtful and serves as a forceful reminder that history is constantly being used in a dangerously naive way.