Sen argues in his new book that conflict and violence are sustained today, no less than the past, by the illusion of a unique identity. Indeed, the world is. Profound and humane, Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny examines some of the most explosive problems of our time. Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny, by Amartya Sen. In , when he was a boy of 11, Amartya Sen witnessed first-hand some of the.

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Similar experiences can produce very different philosophies. Witnessing the Russian revolution as a child in Petrograd, Isaiah Berlin saw a crowd dragging off a struggling man, pale and terrified, to be killed. He used to say that the episode gave him a life-long horror of violence, and it undoubtedly bred in him a suspicion of theories that suggested a radiant future could be realised by the use of force. The experience did not make him a pacifist – he served as a government official in the second world war – nor did it lead him to condemn all revolutions.

What it did was implant in him a deep sense of the fragility of freedom. Unlike most liberal thinkers, Berlin understood that, while freedom may be a universal value, it is far from being an overriding human need. Humans want freedom but they also fear it, and in times of insecurity they tend to retreat into closed, hostile groups.

Reason can help us understand this process, but it cannot be reasoned away. Amartya Sen had a parallel experience, when as a child he witnessed an thr man stumbling violecne the garden of his parent’s house, bleeding heavily and asking for water.

Thinking out of the box

Sen shouted for his parents, and his father took the man to a hospital, where he died of his injuries. The victim was a Muslim day-labourer who had been stabbed by Hindus during the riots that occurred in Bengal in the last years of the British Raj. Sen continues to be not only horrified but also baffled by the communal violence he witnessed at that time. As he puts it in Identity and Violence: How could the poor day-labourer be seen as having only one identity – as a Muslim who belonged to an “enemy” community – when he belonged to many other communities as well?

It is not particularly easy for a still bewildered elderly adult. Identity and Violence is his attempt to overcome that bewilderment. As an economist Sen has been hugely influential, helping found the new discipline of social choice theory and winning the Nobel prize for economic sciences in Through his seminal studies of famine and his theory of freedom as a positive condition involving the full exercise of human capabilities, he has done more to criticise standard models of economic development than any other living thinker.


In his new book he writes more as a liberal philosopher than as an economist.

Impassioned, eloquent and often moving, Identity and Violence is a sustained attack on the “solitarist” theory which says that human identities are formed by membership of a single social group. Sen believes this solitarist fallacy shapes much communitarian and multicultural thinking, as well as Samuel Huntingdon’s theory of “clashing civilisations”. In each case it involves the fallacy of defining the multiple and shifting identities present in every human being in terms of a single, unchanging essence.

In Sen’s view the idea that we can be divided up in this way leads to a “miniaturisation” of humanity, with everyone locked up in tight little boxes from which they emerge only to attack one another. The solitarist view of human identity is plainly false, and it can also be dangerous. Sen notes astutely how Huntingdon’s crude theory has been used in the “war on terror” to entrench the perception that Muslims are defined only by their religious identity, itself supposedly defined in “anti-western” terms.

Here, and at several points in Identity and Violence, Sen mounts a timely critique of the contemporary politics of identity. Yet his critique is undermined by a pervasive lack of realism.

He attacks the multicultural view of society, contrasting it with Gandhi’s “far-sighted refusal to see a nation as a federation of communities and religions”. In effect, Sen’s alternative to multiculturalism is a species of liberal nationalism. Unfortunately he fails to ask how nationhood is achieved, and at what cost. The emergence of modern nations has done much to emancipate individuals from the tyranny of local communities, but this freedom has come at a heavy price. Nearly everywhere, large-scale violence has been an integral feature of the construction of nation-states.

The communal slaughter that accompanied Indian independence is in no way exceptional. The US became a modern nation only after a devastating civil war, France only after Napoleon.

In Africa and the Balkans the formation of nations has gone hand in hand with tribal conflict and ethnic cleansing, while the welding of China into a nation that is under way today involves the ruthless suppression of Tibetan and Muslim minorities. Even in its liberal, “civic” varieties, nationalism has spawned violence on a vast scale. In comparison, multiculturalism – the chief target of Sen’s critique – is a sideshow.

There is a deeper unrealism in Sen’s analysis, which emerges in his inability to account for the powerful appeal of the solitarist view.

He tells us “there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful, given the extraordinary naivete of the thesis in a world of obviously plural affiliations”. Here we touch the heart of Sen’s continuing bewilderment. Along with many liberal philosophers, he seems to think human conflict is a result of intellectual error.


But if the error of solitarism is so blatantly obvious, why do large numbers of people continue to believe in it and act on it?

Sen refers repeatedly to manipulation by malevolent propagandists. Or is the failure of understanding actually in the liberal philosopher? Writing of sectarian conflict in post-Saddam Iraq, Sen observes: But human divisions are not the result of any simple fallacy.

Their causes are many and tangled, including conflicts of interest, rival power structures and competition for resources.

Book review: “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny” by Amartya Sen

Iraq is a post-colonial construction whose populations are divided not only by ethnic and religious allegiances but also by rival claims on its oil reserves. Toppling Saddam’s tyranny meant destroying the state and plunging the country into chaos. Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are not at one another’s throats because they have a mistaken view of human identity.

Trapped by the brutal logic of anarchy, they are locked in a battle for survival that could go on for generations. It has become fashionable to argue that the solution lies in partition, but if smaller and more viable states do eventually emerge in Iraq it will only be after a long period of mass slaughter as horrific as any that occurred when India was partitioned.

Andd Sen, as a good liberal rationalist, it is an article of faith that the violence of identity is a result of erroneous beliefs. Irentity cannot accept that its causes are inherent in human beings illsion. But as Berlin perceived, when freedom and order break down it is not because of mistakes in reasoning.

The people who knifed the day-labourer in Bengal and who dragged off the man to illusioon death in Petrograd made no error. They did what they did from fear, desperation or cruelty.

Such atrocities express deep-seated human traits that are not going illusoin be removed by the kind of conceptual therapy offered by Sen.

If he cannot accept this fact it is because it suggests that illusiln the world of identity-driven violence is going to be infinitely more difficult than he would like to believe. Higher education Philosophy books reviews.