The Smithian ontology and epistemology of need in Sen’s Capability approach: the Sen-Townsend debate re-examined

Yamamori, Toru (2016). 'The Smithian ontology and epistemology of need in Sen’s Capability approach: the Sen-Townsend debate re-examined' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract This paper is on ‘philosophical and ethical foundation and implications of the capability approach’, among the topics the conference organizer listed in ‘call for papers’. The paper’s principal aim is to elucidate the nature of Sen’s concept of need and its commonality with Smithian concept of need. Amartya Sen and Peter Townsend debated on the nature of poverty and need on the Oxford Economic Papers (Sen 1983, 1985, Townsend 1985). There while Sen focused on what he called ‘absoluteness’ of ‘relative need’, Townsend misunderstood that Sen argued for so-called absolute poverty. While both Sen and Townsend claimed their understanding of need is the same as Adam Smith, the debate itself ended up with highlighting the difference between them, especially the difference in language they deployed.  The author argued about ontology and epistemology of need in Adam Smith (Yamamori, forthcoming). With this elucidation, the paper starts with examining whether Sen and Townsend has some commonality in ontology and epistemology of need in their theories. Then the debate will be evaluated as Sen’s argument shed light on the underdevelopment of ontological enquiry on the nature of so –called ‘relative poverty’. Finally it will be argued that the ontological features of Sen’s concept of need depicted in this paper has significant connotations to history of economic thought: First, finiteness of need makes capability approach close to classical political economy as surplus theory, rather than to neoclassical economics as scarcity theory. In other words, Sen’s Smith is Kirkaldy Smith, not Chicago Smith (Evensky 2005). Second, inter-subjectivity of need makes a room for questioning the dichotomy between subjectivism and objectivism prevailing in academic literature in history of economic thought. Added to the contributions to scholarship on history of economic thought described above, with this paper the author wishes to contribute in following three academic discussions: First, it could contribute to further theorization of concept of ‘relative need / poverty’. The term ‘relative poverty’ is much used either in academic literature or in policy documents. While theorization of it started with Peter Townsend in 1970s and culminated in the debate He and Sen exchanged, it seems stagnant since the debate took place three decade ago. The author believe ontological research which this paper tries to make could contribute to further theorization of relative need / poverty. Second, it could contribute to capability literature on difference between Sen and Nussbaum. It could be argued that one of differences between them is on how far a theory can decide inter-subjective needs. It could be argued that they have different views on epistemology of inter-subjective need. Third, it could contribute to social ontological research. While social ontological research is generally sidelined or marginalized in social sciences, two different endeavors is currently taking place. The one is by Tony Lawson (1997, 2003, 2015) and by the Cambridge Social Ontology Group, and the other is by John Searle (1995, 2010) and by the Barkley Social Ontology Group. They share much in common, but significant differences remains. My case study on ontology of need could elucidate both commonalites and differences between them.

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