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What’s the big idea?

Dan Carrier talks – and listens – to philosopher Hilary Lawson

13 September, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Hilary Lawson

HOW we as a society speak – and listen – to one another is the starting point of understanding the world around us, says philosopher Hilary Lawson. So why have we become so unable to hear the views of others if they don’t fit in with our own image of how the world works?

The festival he curates, How The Light Gets In, is the annual philosophy and music event that runs each May in Hay on Wye. This month it decants to Kenwood – and its broad programme of Nobel Prize winners alongside politicians, artists, writers, academics and scientists take their cue from the event’s subtitle – Tribal Truths and New Wisdom.

“We chose this theme because it is obvious the world has become more tribal in its thoughts and practices,” says Hilary, who has written about philosophical theories and is also a journalist, documentary-maker and the founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas.

“The question is looking at why we think there may be a correct view of the world, and how we consider alternative perspectives? We want to look at things that individuals are convinced of, ask why we do this, why we hold certain views, why they are prevalent in a culture and what we can do – and why we should – challenge them. It is a way of somehow prising open the terrible differences we see around us.”

As political discourse becomes more fractured the ability to critically evaluate others’ points of view is needed more than ever, he adds. Yet an ingrained British approach to philosophy leaves us lacking in terms of the tools we need to have national conversations, he claims.

“I am a philosopher, and one thing you notice is if you are eating a meal with other people and they ask what you do, and you tell them, people can react politely but nervously. People used to say, oh, I don’t really know much about that, and there was an assumption that you couldn’t really talk about it. That to me seems absurd, because everyone is a philosopher, everyone has to deal with the complete and utter strangeness of being alive, and therefore the idea of being nervous about philosophy – the process of considering yourself and your surroundings – is ridiculous.”

He believes HTLGI has helped re-shape our approach to philosophy.

“Ten years on from starting HTLGI, people are not so embarrassed – they refer to their own ‘philosophy’ and realise we need to talk about big ideas. What interests all of us is learning a way to discuss opinions. We can all look up ‘facts’, but we do not need to know the facts. We need to know how we use what we learn, consider such ideas. We need to be able challenge them, weigh opinions up. That is what philosophy is about. If someone holds a view, and there is another view, how do you choose between the two?”

From Brexit to austerity, how we shape the national debate has real-life connotations. It isn’t just about trees falling down in woods and making a noise if no one is there to hear it. So can we be better at considering these topics?

“Teaching philosophy in schools would be of great benefit – and that is a shame that it is not the case,” he says. “We have to be able to think about the ideas of the moment. “I do not say you need to start with Plato – though of course he is vital, and valuable. Instead, I would go with Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, starting at the great philosophical figures over the last 100 years. It is interesting that most universities actually avoid teaching this.”

With this in mind, wasn’t it brave – or stupid – to attempt to establish a festival that is based on ideas?

Not at all, says Hilary.

“When I started HTLGI it was specifically to try and do two things,” he recalls. “There was a general sense that big ideas and philosophy is the sort of thing we should leave to Parisian taxi drivers and we in Britain should not really take seriously.

“The English are suspicious of big ideas. And I felt philosophy had become something of no real value to anyone – it was full of people simply arguing about the meaning of words and not much bearing in terms of everyday life. It felt to me that it had been taken over by a linguistic sect, with a more general sense that we had a culture that avoids big ideas. This was a motivation.”

And the range of people booked to speak shows the umbrella of sometimes clashing thought he wants to put up: from writer and activist Tariq Ali and equal rights and libertarian Peter Tatchell, to Times columnist David Aaronovitch and Labour MP Angela Eagle, this will be no echo chamber.

And profound questions are also on the table. Mathematician Roger Penrose will be joined by physicist Sean Carroll and cosmologist Laura Mersini Houghton to discuss whether the Big Bang theory, which explains the beginnings of our universe, is still the best account we have of the beginning of our place in time and space – or whether it requires a more theological narrative.

He says that there was a time when a philosophy get together was seen as being arcane.

“What happened,” he explains, “was we did it in a way that is about big ideas, not people pretending to be really clever but actually not saying very much, and it works.”

How the Light Gets In is at Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, Highgate, NW3 7JR, from September 22-23.


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