HowTheLightGetsIn: A weekend review


Walking through Hampstead Heath I had little knowledge of HowTheLightGetsIn, owing perhaps more to the scattered nature of my own mind than the ample information available in my email inbox and, indeed, online. Walking, as I was, amidst the organised runners and dogs who must sleep in plush Hampstead conservatories, one would never know that an assortment of the most powerful minds in the world littered the gardens of Kenwood House on this fine Saturday morning. 

As instructed, I headed straight for a talk on how The New School for the Anthropocene intended on ‘Revolutionising the Academy’, with students and facilitators ‘learning together’ through shared experiences and conversations. When paired up to discuss the experiences that really shape us as learners, I found myself being regaled by none other than the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, on how one teacher turned her young attention to lungfish and sparked a lifelong fascination. We posited that a teacher’s role is to direct the energy and enthusiasm of the student towards the proper channel, before the channel changed to a debate on Privilege and Freedom. Right out of the gate there were shots fired as Lowkey lay into Lord Peter Lily, the takeaway being that what we need is to democratise universities and challenge the elites that currently run them for their own gain. Eventually I found Lord Lily, and put it to him that “privilege is the freedom to do as you please”, with which few are born and far more earn. He replied that “Everybody should have the right to do as they please within a fairly liberal framework” (an answer which, I must admit, surprised this leftie loony!), and we shared some unexpected laughs about ‘Yes, Minister’ and Lord Lily’s colourful tie.

Later I caught ‘The Trouble with Truth’, a talk given by Hilary Lawson on the problem of defining what is objectively true. I got my question in at the end: “Isn’t it the case that while facts are objective, truth is subjective? For example, two plus two will equal four in whatever language it is spoken”. While he agreed with me in principle, Professor Lawson had me stumped with his musings that two plus two may indeed not equal four (maths is a language I can barely speak, so I just wilted in my chair and got a little annoyed at George Orwell). Then a wise and well-dressed drunk, champagne bottle in hand, translated for me: “what we are doing is chasing the probable, for truth is a pathless land…[and]…true religion is [nought but] total attention”. I hoped beyond hope I would see him again, to glean more of his wisdom from a clearer head.

I left the grounds for my weekly meeting to discuss an Achilles heel, with an ache in my muscles but a spring in my step!



They say that we forget a name when we see ourselves in the person before us, and I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the well-dressed wise man I met the evening before, whom I saw again as I walked around Kenwood House for the next and sadly last instalment of How the Light Gets In. After my much-needed morning coffee I followed my feet into a large tent where philosophers and political experts were talking ‘Playing with Fire’, a discussion on the role of risk in our post-COVID world. The assembled panel discussed the things we as people prioritise when, as has happened, our lives and livelihoods are threatened. It occurred to me that we each prioritise what we value most highly. I, for instance, readily accepted all the vaccinations offered to me in order to fly and see my ex-partner. That, to me, was freedom, while for others freedom is the absence of interference in how they live their lives. Pretty pleased with my diagnosis of society at large, I waited to catch the speakers as their conversation turned to the parasitical potential for government ministers to profit from public policy. When I did catch one of the speakers (whose name, dear reader, is another that eludes me for the best possible reason-I hope!) afterwards, I asked her how we the people might keep the profit motive from corrupting public policy. She sang the hymn that is ‘proportional representation’, adding that, until politicians are held to account, “the democratic process is ill”. Amen.

From there I wandered about ‘Alien Thinking’, a talk on what it means to have a mind; “For an entity to have a mind, there must be something it is like to be that entity”. We all have experience, or “inner life”, and we all have agency - “the ability to do things”. Then, of course, things took an existential turn, as the speaker hit us all with this truth-bomb: “Our minds exist to free us from our hard-wiring”. There I was hoping for child’s play with aliens! Serves me right for not checking the program enough…

There were a great deal of highly political talks and, as Caleb remarked to me, the festival made full use of former Lib Dem leader Vince Cable; for a few hours it seemed he was in every tent! I caught sight of him discussing ‘The African Dream’, alongside others who had perhaps made more impressive contributions to its realisation (if only the powers that be would listen). It seemed that the African dream is one of ‘collective self-reliance’ which attends to the legacy of all of Africa while ensuring its industrial development. I could not have agreed more, not least because I know shamefully little about such an important topic. 

I sought some refuge from all of this realpolitik in an art exhibition; a real-time documentation of our polar ice. However, I quickly became worried about what was coming next, and so I ran towards the sound of music; all throughout the festival there were two stages dedicated to displaying the musical talents of some very deep and emotional beings baring their souls towards gleaming pairs of eyes. 

As intended, after losing myself for a while in dulcet tones, I listened to a talk on ‘How to Lose Your Head’. This speaker, more open to the direct experience of life than, I dare say, a great many of the great thinkers present, directed us all in some simple exercises; with our eyes we followed our fingers round the room which, we were told, we were not in, but was within us. As each of us did exactly as we were told, like pre-verbal babies we became stress-free.

The next talk I attended was a lot more stressful; I learned that, contrary to popular opinion, ‘The Philosophy of the Senses’ holds that humans actually have anywhere between 22 and 33 senses to be attuned to. Through some exercises that felt quite silly (as they, and we, should), we all learned that these senses work collaboratively to give us the picture of the world that we see. 

That, and the fact that The Philosophy Foundation has given me the chance to work with such great thinkers, inspired me to seek some sound bites from the most unfettered minds of all-children. One young man, in a strikingly suave yellow jacket, had this to say about the festival: “It’s good, and I like listening, but when people start asking questions it gets less interesting”. Determined to seek more sage advice and yet wary of running around looking for little ones, I decided to ask for more takeaways as the festival wound to a close. Millie in the gift shop said “unfortunately I haven’t seen anything, but I enjoyed my cardboard box” (she was sitting on it; she wasn’t insane). While I unfortunately did not hear him speak, I was able to thank Peter Tatchell (stalwart and later critic of Stonewall), who summed up HowTheLightGetsIn as “a coming together of people and ideas to spread information and awareness”.

I caught Hilary Lawson again as he walked into a tent for some food (the nosh, by the way, was top-notch throughout, from sweet treats to pizza and street food, gin and stouts). I was politely informed, to my utter embarrassment, that the entire festival was the brainchild of the man stood before me, and has been held for the last ten years; “Philosophy got lost in a conversation about the meaning of words…we’ve tried to return it to big picture stories of how we make sense of the world. We are trying to encourage a genuine conversation about the big issues we all face”.


By James Stokes 

Posted by Lucia Araniyasundaran on 20th October 2021 at 12:00am



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