A Festival that Pushes the Edge: An interview with Hilary Lawson

By Annie Webster

HL blog post


I have been living in the beautiful countryside near the river Wye for a year now, brining philosophy to schools in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Just up the river from me is Hay-on-Wye, a market town on the Welsh boarder very well-known known for its bookshops. And with summer just around the corner the small town of Hay is preparing for the biggest philosophy and festival in the world: HowTheLightGetsIn.


With only a few weeks to go I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Hilary Lawson, director of the Institute of Art and Ideas that hosts the festival. He shares with me the underlying purposes and aspirations of the festival and his beliefs around philosophy and education.



More about HowTheLightGetsIn: the world's largest philosophy and music festival, can be found here. The Philosophy Foundation is delighted to partner with the festival, taking place 2-5th June on the River Wye in Hay. With over 450 speakers and performers, including Yuval Noah Harari, Richard Dawkins, Andrea Elliott, Roger Penrose and Slavoj Žižek, it's not one to miss.


What's more, readers get 20% off using promo code PHILFOUND20, with Advanced Tickets and Flexi Day Passes now on sale here!


A Festival that Pushes the Edge


Me: I've looked at the programme and the speaker list looks incredibly diverse and there's obviously a lot to talk about from the last couple of years. I ran a small Thinking Week in Oxford for a few years, and one of the biggest challenges was choosing who to get to speak and what topics to cover and then whether you have an overarching theme for the entire festival. So how do you do that. And how have you done that this year?


Hilary: Well, we always have a theme that is the issue at root. When we started, there was no grand plan. It started because I live in Black Mountains and Hay-on-Wye is a well known small town where people gather for festivals and things. And so, I thought maybe we can do something around philosophy. And at the time, some people said to me 'how are you ever going to get people to come to a philosophy festival?' Because it had the image of being more of a joke than being anything serious. Certainly, as I ever was foolish enough to say that I was a philosopher at a dinner party, people would smile sweetly and change the topic of conversation because they assumed this was going to be a technical, logical conversation about meaning words. That all struck me as being ridiculous. Philosophy ought to be about the big questions that we all face, whether we like it or not, and therefore, possible to create a space where people can actually talk about those big questions, which a lot of the time, certainly in British life, there's a sort of snootiness about big ideas which is all just hot air. So, the festival was initially just trying to get a space where people could actually talk about those big questions. And I think the Academy of Philosophy in universities had, in a way, sort of dug itself into a hole, it wasn't really talking about the big questions. It had got rather lost in language philosophy, and therefore, was reinforcing the public perception of what was going on here. So, we started out with trying to provide this space where one could talk about the big ideas directly. And that remains the idea of what we understand philosophy to be about. To talk about the big questions, which underlie the key issues about what we are doing, where we are going, how we should act, and so forth.


Now, because we're talking about the big questions, they're not eternal. No doubt some of those questions have been around for a very long time, but they are the ones that we are facing at any point. As you rightly point out, the current situation is alive with all sorts of questions that we are facing that we weren't facing just a few months ago. We are always wanting to be at the edge thinking about what does it mean now? How does this apply? What are the consequences of whatever the bigger underlying questions are. And to help us do that, for each festival, we have a theme which helps us frame the topics. For this festival our theme is 'dreams and jeopardy'. At the time that we formulated this theme we thought we were coming out of COVID and the pandemic and therefore the big question was 'where we were going to go?', 'what jeopardy do we face?' and 'how should we handle the risks that were attached with coming out?' And use that to apply to all of the topics that we're dealing with. But events move on and the whole horror of the events in Europe and Ukraine is clearly a central question and we had to rethink to see how we should incorporate this into the ideas that we were already looking at.


Me: I find it interesting you have drawn a distinction between how universities are doing philosophy these days and then how you're approaching it in the festival. Could you say more about that?


Hilary: Well, certainly. I grew up in language philosophy. Before I got to Oxford I read AJ Ayers  'Language, truth and logic'. I was really inspired by this so I arrived thinking this was the future. We are going to sweep away the nonsense metaphysics of the past and there was a bright future basing thought on analysis and logic combined with science. I pursued the analytic project and the attempt to provide an account of the relationship between language and the world. And the more I pursued it the more I became less confident that this was possible. And indeed, I got to the point of thinking that it was not possible. In fact, now I would argue Wittgenstein did demonstrate it wasn't possible within about ten years of the project being formed. No theory that is trying to describe the relationship between language and the world can work because it has to describe itself and it can't ever catch sight of its tail. And of course, various people have had a go at trying to provide a solution, but I came to view that none of these explanations work. They're just a fudge, and that you can't actually provide an account of the relationship between language and world that is based on a realist vision, that language somehow points to facts in the world, or even less likely, things. So, I then thought 'what do you do about that?' And I've tried to put forward a framework which might try to address that problem, but that's a whole other story.


I think that question has indeed echoed through the 20th century of thought and is right on top of us now. All of the questions about truth, about different perspectives, about whether there is an objective perspective, and if there isn't how you choose between them. These are all absolutely hot topics of contemporary culture now, but they are deeply philosophical at root, and it's my view that you can't hide from them. You've got to get in there and talk about the detail and try and come up with an account, whether we like it or not. We've got to come up with something and try and come up with an account which is as good as we can make it.



Me: So one way in which you do this, from what I have seen so far, is you get a bunch of people to come together and talk about it.


Hilary: Yes, I think that, of course, in the end that's all we've got anyway, isn't it? I think we frame debates and then we think who are the right people to take part in them. So, we are not about collecting celebrities, as it were. In fact, I have a rather hatred of celebrity culture, and I think that it's not conducive to talking about ideas. And indeed, the whole way that we run the festival is trying to make sure that the ideas come first, and that's what we're talking about.


Now, of course, it's the case that there are many names in our lineup that you will have heard of, and we do fortunately find that the biggest names in the world do want to come along. But I think the reason that they want to come along is because they get an actual conversation, a real conversation about the topic, not a marketing exercise to promote their view or their next book. That's what we're about. So, the debates are a way of taking an issue which is a contemporary issue, and then finding people who will express different points of view with the aim of trying to both explore that point of view and get to somewhere that is interesting. We're always trying to push the edge and to challenge things that we take for granted.


To give you an example we did a debate about six or seven years ago which was called 'Bang goes the Big Bang'. The idea was we take the thought that the universe started with the Big Bang for granted, but there's lots of reasons why there are potential holes in the theory and perhaps we shouldn't take it for granted, maybe we've got complacent. We think, 'well, we've got to the end here' and actually we have not got to the end at all, it's just a temporary sticking plaster on a theory which is looking a bit threadbare around the edges. We did this and we had some of the leading people in that debate. We had Roger Penrose, who is back in the coming festival now with his Nobel Prize. We discussed this question of whether perhaps there was a flaw in the idea of the Big Bang. Well, since we did that, it's now much more acceptable to question whether the Big Bang is right or not, and more people are coming out saying that perhaps there are alternatives we should consider and there are things that are wrong with it. And that is therefore an indication of the way that we go about things, which is we're always trying to look to the edge.


Our editorial teams are doing that. They're the ones who are thinking about what our topics should be. We're not just scouring what's out there, but we're also trying to puzzle ourselves 'where's the edge?’ And where should we be going? What's the next move?'. And then framing a question so that we can get at that and find the best people to speak about that particular topic, who has something to say. It doesn't really matter to us whether they are a world leading thinker or whether they are a recent graduate with a great idea. We just want great ideas and then we talk about them.



Festival as an Educational Tool


Me: Another function of the festival which I want to talk about, is that it is an educational tool as well. That is also different from how schools and universities do things these days, which still focuses on this objective scientific view and just passed down content. I wonder if you have anything to say about that and what your opinions are on philosophy and education overall?


Hilary: Yes. There are lots of layers to that, aren't there? I think that you're right, that the educational paradigm is that the teacher knows the answer and they are telling you and you make notes. I have three children. There are many things when children are growing up where you want to say, 'look, this is how it is'.  But as we get a better handle on the way that people understand the world from the outlook that we've grown up in, we're in a better position to consider what outlook we should ourselves be holding. And in order to do that, we need to see the advantages and weaknesses of different perspectives, not just be told 'well, this is the correct one'.


I've given so far, an example of science. And I think probably because in terms of mainstream culture, the overall story about the world that is promoted is science. It is the philosophy of the 20th century, and I say 20th century because I'm not quite sure whether we are shifting away from our aberration of science now. It certainly was and to a large part is our philosophy.


So, it's not like science is in one place and then there's philosophy over here that talks about ideas. Science is philosophy and indeed I think the best scientists are only too aware that their current perspective is temporary, that there are all sorts of issues with it and that there isn't a received set of wisdom. I think it was Feynman who said 'being a scientist is to recognise that there are no experts', i.e. nobody knows anything. So that's where we are placing ourselves. Therefore, when it comes to education, I think, you have to convey to people the different potential outlooks that involves teaching them what those are. But I think the paradigm of imagining that education is about the educator knowing everything and they're telling the pupil or the student is a mistake. It makes education less interesting and isn't very helpful when the student gets to a point where they're really researching themselves, because it encourages the idea that there's an answer somewhere that they've missed, which is probably not right. There are probably advantages of different perspectives for different things, and that involves a really quite different way of thinking about education.


So as far as our output is concerned within the IAI, and in the IAI Academy, we encourage our lecturers, who are Nobel Prize winners and others, to express their points of view, their opinions. Universities usually don't do that. They usually try and encourage their lecturers to do the opposite, which is to hide their point of view and pretend that it's all objective. And indeed, you talk to most academics, and they will be thinking about, 'Well, I've just done this paper. I really wanted to say this. I couldn't quite say that, so I framed it like this', but we're not interested in all of that, manoeuvring. There isn't an objectivity in the end.  It's much better to say this is my opinion and this is why I think it works, rather than to somehow provide a historical account which makes it look as if your account is objective and this is how it really is, when of course, there can be someone else who have a radically different version of that history.


So, we encourage the idea that you should be opinionated in the presenting of your position, and that's true for all the people who take part in IAI. We want them to get off the objectivity soapbox and down into what do you actually think about whatever it is, and then to argue for what you think. The rather fascinating thing is that it is much easier to follow a debate between two people with radically different perspectives who are open about their perspectives than it is to follow a conversation in which everyone is pretending to engage in this objective speak, which is not actually a rendition of where they really are.



Music and Philosophy


Me: That's also got me thinking that you're dealing with the content a little bit better and in a more genuine way as well. You're also making it more human, it's humans dealing with these problems, it's not just facts dealing with problems. It's much, much easier when you're listening to a human say something rather than a science textbook.


Hilary: Exactly. And it's one of the reasons why people often ask 'Why do you involve philosophy with music?'. It seems a bit of a strange combination. I have a couple of responses. The first of which is, music and philosophy were quite closely linked from early on. Pythagoras thought that music and philosophy were one of the same things, and Plato had a similar sort of idea. Music is mathematically based and they're not so far apart, really. At a more immediate level, I think that one of the great things about music is that it's a very good leveller. So, if you're listening to some music, it doesn't separate people out in the audience. I think that lectures traditionally are set up to give authority to the speaker and there's a sort of status game here. So, some people feel they can talk, other people don't. Also, in an academic context, there's sometimes a desire to look complicated, to look clever, none of which is of remote interest to anybody. If you're listening to a conversation about whatever the topic is in a tent at the festival and some extraneous music drifts in a bit from a neighbouring tent, I think it just helps the conversation. It stops everyone getting too obsessed with that status game. In the festival we don't have an area for VIPs, so the Nobel Prize winners can't sit around just talking to other Nobel Prize winners.  We say 'No, go get your coffee in that tent over there. You'll have an interesting conversation with somebody in the queue.'  And they love it!


Me: Yes, they do. This is so true.


Hilary: They love it. The idea that VIP spaces are enjoyable is not true, they're absolutely horrible most of the time. I think that having a situation in which people actually interact, they have conversations and so forth, is a bit more real. I think that really makes a difference to the atmosphere and music is an important part of it, interestingly.


There’s an anecdote which is relevant to this in terms of my own experience with philosophy, which was I was taking part in a conference a long time ago now. Richard Rorty, the American philosopher, was present and we are standing in the back. I got to know him a bit as he'd taken part in some other things that I've been involved in. We're standing in the back and somebody has given this talk. I don't remember what it was about. And he just finished, and people were asking questions from the floor and I turned to Dick, as he was known, and said 'I have to say, I didn't understand any of that'. And he turned to me, 'Yeah,  I didn't understand any of it either'.


And we both sort of smiled because it was pretty obvious that the questions that were being asked from the floor, which were apparently understood everything and were asking some for sort of interesting point, were in fact a sort of Emperors-in-New-Clothes questions. That is, the whole thing was pompous intellect that people pretend to understand,  and empty of anything truly helpful or meaningful. And he then turned to me and said, 'You know, I've been going to these conferences all my life and I hardly ever understand anything that people say in their talks'. We sort of knew that in this moment this hushed conversation at the back of the hall that we had called ‘Emperor's New Clothes’ on the whole game. He was one of the leading philosophers in the States at the time, controversial, but leading and that sort of summed it up. I think from then on, I thought, I'm just not going to play this game. I do not see the point of it.

So, that's what we're about. You want to talk about ideas straightforwardly, and if you don't understand it, you say to someone 'I don't understand that'. There is no advantage in being incomprehensible. It doesn't get anyone anywhere.


Children and Philosophy


Me: It resonates with what we try to do at The Philosophy Foundation with the children, which is we get them to sit in a circle and talk about a philosophical topic by just asking a question. And as facilitators, we step out the circle just try and guide them to speak. Something magical really happens when you do this, because the children realise it's okay to say stuff that you disagree with, or it's okay to say anything, if it's backed up with an opinion. It's okay to disagree with the facts or question the facts. It is kind of similar to what you witnessed at the festival. There's a lot more going on here when we push past the limitations of objectivity and the science and we let them go for a bit.

Hilary: That's exactly how it is. We haven't actually done it, but I'd like to be able to do something where the children try and create their society, as it were, that you start off with nothing, you say, 'okay, well, who's going to run this and how are they going to run it and who's going to decide when laws are broken and then who's going to decide about the laws' and just use that as a basis for actually trying to explore all of the questions that are dealt with in political theory, usually. And it sounds fantastically complicated, but are just basic.

Me: Yeah. It is really effective, you can do this with children just by giving them a cake and ask them how to split it up to see how they would theorise about this. Interestingly enough,  The Philosophy Foundation, ran a similar project to that in a school in London last year. We pretended the children were stranded on a deserted island and had to survive and work it out. It was a really wonderful experience. The kids loved it. Philosophy really has a role here.

Hilary: Absolutely. It's a strange thing that in Britain, Philosophy is not really taught in schools to younger children, and yet younger children, I think, are sort of natural philosophers. Of course, they're trying to put together their story of the world and they are fascinated by it.

Me: So you agree with this idea that we should go in and promote that and nurture that and bring it out in the best way possible?

Hilary: Yeah. I think encouraging children to realise that the framework that they're operating in is something that they have a part in. They can decide on these things as well. It's really important.


Would you die for Philosophy?


Me: Can I ask you the very last question, which is the same question my twelve-year-old student asked me? I started teaching this student about Socrates, the great questioner in ancient Greece and we're talking about the hemlock he decides to drink when he is sentenced for his deep desire to get people to keep questioning. And then the kid asked me, 'Would you drink the hemlock?'  I was like, 'Whoa, that is a question' and I found it was quite difficult to answer. So, I was wondering how would you answer it?

Hilary: This is like 'Would you die for what you relatively believe in?'. I think being open to the world is a vital thing. It seems to me it's very closely not just a tool to intervene in the world, it's somehow where we find life at all. And so, I think I would certainly do all that I could to promote openness and to have the potential to therefore talk about what we might think or what we might do or what we might believe. And if somebody sought to close that off and insist on a closed world, then I would certainly be at the barricade defending it. I don't think any of us would ever actually choose to die for anything, but we might find ourselves in situations where we happen to do so in defence of something we believed in.


Posted by Lucia Araniyasundaran on 5th May 2022 at 12:00am

Category: Philosophy


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