Philosophy conjures up images of academics quarrelling over semantics and technicalities in university lecture halls. However, when you strip philosophy back to the basics, it is a far simpler beast. “Philosophy is the study or creation of theories about basic things such as the nature of existence, knowledge, and thought, or about how people should live,” Collins Dictionary’s definition reads.
It is this definition of philosophy which Hilary Lawson, the founder of HowTheLightGetsIn, the biggest philosophy and music festival in the world, subscribes to. Lawson explains the festival is an explicit attempt to overhaul the widely-held perception that philosophy is an elitist, inaccessible, ivory tower exercise.
“We want to change the notion that talking about ideas is for the elite and beyond the realms of the normal person,” Lawson tells The Independent. “In some sense, everyone is a philosopher. We are all in this strange situation of being alive – there are lots of puzzles and things we need to make sense of.”
Lawson, a philosopher himself, explained his festival is centred around an express attempt to “return philosophy to the big ideas” as he warned philosophy has been “lost in technical arguments over words which almost have no meaning” to outsiders looking in.
“It became almost a joke,” he adds. “No one thought philosophers would have anything to say about a topic or the assumption would be that you wouldn’t be able to follow what they were saying anyway. The professionalism of philosophy undermined what it was really about.”
And HowTheLightGetsIn Festival has something of an all-star line-up this year, with speakers including Yuval Noah Harari, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Zizek, Tulip Siddiq, and Roger Penrose, while Groove Armada, among other musicians, is performing.
Lawson noted the festival is being held in Hay on Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend, stretching from 2 to 5 June. “The main thing about HowTheLightGetsIn that is unique is that we focus on the big ideas,” Lawson, who is the director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, which hosts the festival, explains. “The debates cover a whole range of topics: philosophy and science and so forth. It is not just a literary festival, there is music and parties. There are a whole range of world-class names and lots of new people with exciting ideas.”
The philosopher, who is famed for his theory of closure, explained this year’s festival theme is “dreams and jeopardy” – explaining each of their events examines the jeopardies we are facing and how might we overcome them.
“When we started, people said we will never get a philosophy festival to work,” he recalls. Almost a decade and a half later and it is clear that the defeatism of these naysayers’ turned out to be wrong. The festival is hosted twice a year. In May, the event is held in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, while in September, the festival is at Kenwood House in north London.
Noam Chomsky, a renowned academic, Brian Eno, an English musician, Ed Milliband, the former Labour Party leader, and Philip Pullman, a best-selling author, are just some of the people who have previously given talks at the festival. While musicians, Clean Bandit, and Hot Chip, and comedians such as Sarah Pascoe have also performed.
One of the debates, which I myself, The Independent’s Women’s Correspondent, will be speaking at is titled “The weaker sex?”. The debate, which will be streamed live online, will be centred around the following questions: “Should we see it as blinkered prejudice to regard women as weaker and in need of defence by men? Should women be called up to fight? Or would such a transition be not only misguided but profoundly detrimental to women?”
At its core, HowTheLightGetsIn, which started back in 2008, is about disrupting and ultimately destroying the “status game” which often characterises “academic debate”. For those who do not make it to the festival, both Saturday and Sunday’s events will be streamed live so people can watch lively debates from the comfort of their own homes.
“The reason people come is to really engage in things that really matter to them,” Lawson reflects. “We don’t have a VIP area for the speakers. We shoo them out into the festival. You could join the coffee queue and be standing next to a Nobel prize winner. We don’t cotton wool our speakers. We encourage everyone to be there – that is why the speakers love it.”
Interestingly, the festival is making waves in the very domain which it is striving to extricate and liberate itself from, with universities subscribing to their events. “We are beginning to change the academy as well,” he concludes. “Slowly, slowly, slowly”.