How the Light Gets In: The festival of ideas that rocks

Festival goers chat at the real-life version of the experience
Festival goers chat at the real-life version of the experience

Philosphy isn't the first thing you think of when you hear the words 'huge summer festival'. But according to Hilary Lawson, philosopher and founder of How The Light Gets In, "we are all philosophers!

"It's not just something that academics debate in universities, it's simply about asking the big questions in life and growing your understanding."

Perhaps that's why what started back in 2010 as a modest gathering of thinkers has snowballed to become the world's largest festival of ideas, philosophy and music, now partnered with Yahoo! and with over 80 events, 10 virtual stages and more than 100 world-renowned speakers and artists packed into a single day on May 29.

It's not how you'd imagine a philosophy festival to be...
It's not how you'd imagine a philosophy festival to be...

While pre-pandemic, the festival was held in various locations, since last summer it's been virtual - though Lawson hopes there will be a return to 'real life' in September this year.

For now, though, the extraordinary festival site (in both senses) is open to anyone with a ticket, across the globe at

"Our virtual reality space is really quite unique," says Lawson. "Lots of people have done online events during lockdown, but they're generally just recorded, then linked together.

"Our festival is like the real thing - you arrive, you can choose between different venues by clicking the signpost, you can take part in numerous social interactions with other people in the festival lounge, go to a music or comedy gig - you can even order food to arrive in your living room!"

While last year's summer festival was hastily taken online when the real one was cancelled at the eleventh hour, "it wasn't a fully fledged version," says Lawson now.

The real-life site, which is currently recreated virtually online. (
The real-life site, which is currently recreated virtually online. (

"But we did a global festival in September and another in February - we're trying to make the virtual experience more and more like the actual thing."

At this year's "immersive reality" ideas extravaganza, there's gigs in the music tent that include Mystery Jets, singer Izzie Walsh, Pattern Pusher and DJ Max Galactic, while comedy fans can wander in to see sets by Bridget Christie and Ahir Shah, along with Comedy for the Curious - an interactive comedy/science mash-up involving audience participation.

There's even a disco, which sounds unlikely to flourish online - but according to Lawson, it's surprisingly successful.
The site at night, lit by brainpower (HTLGI)

"At the first one we did, there were people in Australia who'd got up at dawn for it - they dressed up and put lights in the background and they were dancing around!"

Read more: How the Light Gets In: The virtual music and philosophy festival

It certainly doesn't sound anything like the dry philosophy debates of academia.

"When I founded the festival, it was partly because I had the experience of people being rather nervous of philosophy - 'oh, that sort of thing is best left to Parisian taxi drivers' and so on," he laughs.

"But everyone has to come to terms with the big questions in life, whether we want to or not. So we aimed to create a setting where people could enjoy examining them."

How the Light Gets In is as far from a dry academic conference as a Wimbledon centre court match is from a first-year tutorial.

There are exciting debates and arguments between key figures in news, politics, economics and media, on topics as diverse as Technology: Saviour or Threat? A Voice For All, on democracy with former MEP Claire Fox, Alive in the Universe, on alien life with Harvard Scientist and New York Times bestseller Avi Loeb, and a debate on ecology with ex MP and economist Vince Cable.

Festival-goers discuss life, death and helter-skelters
Festival-goers discuss life death and helter-skelters

Diverse speakers include legendary psychotherapist Susie Orbach, rapper and activist Lowkey, experimental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, MP Bim Afolami and activist Peter Tatchell.

The next festival will be live again, held at Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath on September 18 and 19 this year. A ticket for May 29 is free with a September ticket, so it's well worth buying now if you're planning to go.

Lawson isn't worried about high-faluting debate putting anyone off.

"We don't take the difficult ideas and dumb them down," he insists. "Instead, we get people to argue about interesting issues, and even if you don't know anything about it, as soon as you've got people disagreeing, you see what's at stake.

Putting the fun into philosophy
Putting the fun into philosophy

"We often find some of the most technical subjects are the best-subscribed," he adds. "And you've got music drifting in, and other people to chat to about what you've heard.

"It's not po-faced or elitist, and unlike some academic conferences, it's not about professors, or hushed silences - there's often a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' going on in those situations."

At How the Light Gets in, he says, "we don't need all that. We just need interesting people, talking about big, fascinating ideas."

Meet you by the dance tent.

Click here to buy tickets

The virtual arena where talks take place
The virtual arena where talks take place
Get money off, book now!
Get money off, book now!