Amartya Kumar Sen

Economist and Philosopher

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Born in 1933 in Santiniketan (West Bengal, British India), Amartya Sen is one of the most respected economists in the world. Sen was born on a university campus and has lived on one all his life. His father was a chemistry professor at Dhaka University and his mother was a student at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati, a school he would later attend. As a child, Sen was always excited by Sanskrit, mathematics, and physics. But he pursued his bachelor’s in economics, along with a minor in mathematics, at Presidency College (Calcutta); followed by another bachelor’s degree in pure economics from Trinity College at University of Cambridge. While he was pursuing his Ph.D., Sen was offered the position of professor and head of the economics department at a newly created university in Calcutta. He took up the offer (1956-58). Since he was elected to the Prize Fellowship, Trinity College gave him a break for four years. Sen used this extra time to pursue philosophy. From a young age, Sen was attracted to philosophical thought and teachings. He reasoned that his overall knowledge of economic disciplines will greatly benefit with an injection of philosophical thought.

Sen’s childhood has played a direct role in morphing his intellectual identity. From an early age, he observed the divisiveness that can be engrained in communitarian politics. He also noticed the misery that can ensue in the co-presence of economic ‘unfreedom’ and extreme poverty. Even as a young college student, Sen acknowledged the inescapable plurality of cultural identity and the need for unobstructed absorption. Such nuanced and refined thinking made him believe that political toleration was not just the liberal political arguments that emerged in post-Enlightenment Europe and America, but also a general tolerance of plurality that had been championed across different cultures over centuries. Its perhaps unsurprising that Sen developed a natural affinity towards welfare economics; economic inequality and poverty; and the scope and possibility of rational, tolerant and democratic social choice. Having developed this advanced and organic understanding of socio-economic thought, coupled with his interest in philosophical thought, Sen made one of the most important contributions to the theory of ‘social choice’. His Ph.D. thesis on ‘The Choice of Techniques’ was influenced by Kenneth Arrow’s path-breaking study of social choice, Social Choice and Individual Values, which was published in New York in 1951. Sen put Arrow’s ‘impossibility theorem’ into broader context, outlining the conditions for its applicability, and thereby spreading and enriching the theory of social choice. His results have become the standard in social choice theory and welfare economics.

Sen’s natural interests made him gravitate from pure theory of social choice towards more ‘practical’ problems. He started focusing on economic and social appraisals: measuring poverty, calculating economic inequality, evaluating projects, analyzing unemployment, exploring gender disparity, etc. Sen was quick to admit that accurate results can only be obtained by expanding the informational base to foundationally secure any study. He was cautious of erroneously assuming events and impossibilities, which could be exposed on deeper analysis. The final results were compiled (as Choice, Welfare and Measurement and Resources, Values and Development) and published in 1983. Sen authored works on ‘poverty, famines and deprivation’, too. His 1981 book (Poverty and Famines) was a benchmark for the World Employment Programme. He also explored ‘individual advantage’. Here, he analyzed the lives people manage to live. The basic premise was to study individual capabilities, which depend on physical and mental characteristics, combined with social opportunities and influences.

All the toil and perseverance (not to mention the countless papers, journals, chapters, books and lectures) were recognized by the Nobel Foundation 1998. The following year, the India government awarded Sen the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award. In addition to these, he has been bestowed with high-ranking awards from the UK (Order of Companion of Honour), Mexico (Order of the Aztec Eagle), France (Commander of the French Legion of Honour); he holds more than 40 honorary degrees; and has been often been enlisted as one of the top 25 global living legends in India and one of the top 100 thinkers who have defined our century.

Sen’s accomplishments know no bounds. For someone who has collaborated with the leading experts, not only in economics and philosophy, but also in history, public health, government, ethics and literacy studies and gender studies; taught at institutions like Delhi School of Economics, Cambridge, LSE, Oxford, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin, and in countries like Belgium, Japan, Israel, Australia, Russia; no words can do justice. Sen fuels his curiosity instead of focusing on competitive excellence. His grasp on real-world intricacies is remarkable and his demeanor, modest. Sen is easily the smartest person in any room he walks into. But that’s accredit not to the abundance of knowledge in his brain, but the appetite for more.

 

References

“Amartya Sen – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Ed. Tore Frängsmyr. Les Prix Nobel, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

“Amartya Sen.” BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE. Department of Economics, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

Sen, Amartya. “Universal Healthcare: The Affordable Dream.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.

“Amartya Sen.” (2013): 1-30. Harvard University. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

“Amartya Sen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

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