HowTheLightGetsIn: The world’s largest philosophy and music festival to ask life’s big questions

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HowTheLightGetsIn Festival (themancphotographer.co.uk)
HowTheLightGetsIn Festival (themancphotographer.co.uk)

“The unexamined life is not worth living”. These are the much-repeated words of Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher widely regarded as the founder of Western philosophy.

But this is a mantra which is routinely overlooked and neglected. Instead, philosophy is often relegated to the ivory tower of academia or the annals of history. However, Hilary Lawson has long been on a mission to change this.

“In Britain and the US, philosophy is often seen as something of a joke and more associated with Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Football match,” Lawson, the founder of HowTheLightGetsIn, the biggest philosophy and music festival in the world, tells The Independent.

“We would rather associate philosophy with Parisian taxi drivers than engaging ourselves. We are all philosophers. We have all got to come to terms with the strangeness of life. The idea of discussing these things openly and directly was thought to be unnecessary. This strikes me as being ridiculous.”

Lawson, an English philosopher, said his initial inspiration for the festival was to tackle the dearth of philosophy in daily life. The festival has massively grown in influence, with millions of viewers now visiting their website.

“We touched a nerve,” he adds. “It is called HowTheLightGetsIn. After the Leonard Cohen song. There are always cracks in everything and that is where the light gets in. We are exploring the cracks in our thinking, in order to change how we think and how we change the world”.

Lawson, who is the director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, which hosts the festival, argues philosophy should not be deemed a technical exercise confined to academia and must be integrated into day to day life.

“To make sense of the society and culture we are in and work out where we are trying to go,” the philosopher, who is famed for his theory of closure, adds. “One of the reasons we have found ourselves in this situation is people often assume philosophy is focused on the narrow meaning of words and the logic of language and people feel this has no bearing on life.”

HowTheLightGetsIn festival is centred around the idea that we must discuss and shine a light on the big and contentious issues in life rather than simply hiding away from them. The event, which started back in 2008, strives “to get philosophy out of the academy and into people's lives”.

It 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, renowned academic, Brian Eno, English musician, Ed Milliband, former Labour Party leader, and Philip Pullman, 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.

“We have music and comedy to stop the event from becoming a status game,” Lawson chips in. “People are a bit more real when there is some music drifting into the tents. We are about the ideas. We are not about the celebrity of the speakers. We don’t have VIP areas where the speakers are all huddled together and don’t talk to the public.”

He said the festival attracts a broad range of people, ages and genders - adding that half of the speakers this year are women.

Paul Mason, a British commentator who specialises in economics, Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour Party politician and barrister, Peter Tatchell, an LGBT+ activist, Lowkey, a London-based rapper, among many others, will be talking at the festival this year.

One of the debates, which I myself, The Independent’s Women’s Correspondent, will be speaking at is titled Cracking Girl Code. The debate will explore whether women should support other women irrespective of their viewpoints and perspectives.

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“In public and personal life according to 'girl code' no woman can be wrong and women must support other women to prove their feminist credentials,” write the festival organisers. “But while some celebrate any woman in power, whether Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel, or Amy Coney Barratt, Sarah Palin and Priti Patel, others argue that, like men, women must be judged on how they use their position. The gap between the girl bosses and the activists is widening.”

HowTheLightGetsIn festival is being held at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath in north London from 18 to 19 September 2021

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