Making Sense of the World

Philosopher, filmmaker and Director of the Institute of Art & Ideas, Hilary Lawson discusses the rising popularity of philosophy in everyday culture
Extract from a dictionary: "Philosophy 1. The academic discipline concerned with making

One summer afternoon, I found myself sitting in a room listening to renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose and author, playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer, explaining how creativity has helped us to unlock the undiscovered country of the mind and the mysteries of the cosmos. The audience was a real mix – old academics sporting horn-rimmed spectacles, students cramming for finals, tweed-wearing locals and even a few Dalston hipsters. Despite their vaying backgrounds, they all shared one common attribute: an inquisitive mind. They listened before joining in the discussion, asking what allows mankind to confront the universe and whether imagination is more important than knowledge.

The growth in thought organizations is reflected elsewhere: Rosie Boycott’s series of soirées entitled 5×15, global conference giant TED, and Alain de Botton’s School of Life are all testament to the public’s renewed interest in ideas.

So where has this movement come from?

We live in a period of material richness, but also one of over-consumption. The old certainties that came from religion have been shaken off, and their demise has left us confused and lost in our postmodern, relative, world. At a number of points in the history of science, it has looked as if the final description ofeverything was almost within grasp.

It’s still early days, but I feel that there is already more engagement with ideas in our culture. The ‘emperor’s new clothes’ model of academic philosophy, in which everyone is busy trying to pretend to be clever, is being slowly dismantled. At How The Light Gets In, we try and encourage real debate, asking straightforward questions in straightforward ways, because in reality, you don’t have to understand jargon to appreciate what life is truly about.

By offering a space in which emerging thinkers are given a voice alongside more established names from across disciplines – where ideas, not celebrity, is the prerequisite for participation – we are helping to make philosophy more accessible.

“Truths that once appeared ‘untouchable’ because of their place in a system of assumptions built and defended over centuries are now being called into question”

That was four years ago. The event was How The Light Gets In, a philosophy and music festival held in Hay-on-Wye that I started with the help of a small group of people. As a philosopher and broadcaster, I liked the idea of taking philosophy out of the academy and into people’s lives. What I couldn’t have predicted, however, was the breadth and depth of support for such a venture.

We started small, with only one venue – a converted Methodist chapel in the centre of Hay – and a handful of events. Five years on, we’re the biggest philosophy festival in the world. This May, we’re expecting over 35,000 visitors to attend How The Light Gets In across ten days, participating in 410 events across 6 stages; listen to 165 speakers and 150 bands, solo talks, debates, film screenings, comedy and parties.

Increasingly, however, science is being seen as an elaborate system of metaphors. In combination, these metaphors can be immensely powerful. But they are not a final description of how things are – nor will they ever be capable of being so.

Truths that once appeared ‘untouchable’ because of their place in a system of assumptions built and defended over centuries are now being called into question. There are other options, at every level of account, from the tiniest detail to the most general theory; options that would draw attention to different patterns and different connections, and which would as a consequence offer different ways of intervening and to different purposes.Philosophy is one such strategy. With so much upheaval in the world, it is of no surprise that people are looking to it to tackle life’s big questions. Quite simply, it matters.

The sense of impending global crisis has motivated us to ask what it is to be human, why we are here and how we might live. Where can we look now but to philosophy to try and make sense of the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves?

Hilary Lawler is a philospher, filmmaker and visual artist. He is the Director of the Institute of Art and Ideas. How The Light Gets In runs from 31 May -10 June