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May 17, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:44pm

Weapons of Mass Deduction

By Spear's

From literary festivals in Cheltenham, to salon style 5×15 events, TED Talks and Intelligence Squared it seems the public’s appetite for ideas has never been greater. At the forefront of this movement is the Institute of Art and Ideas, a global forum for debate and discussion, whose HowTheLightGetsIn festival takes place later this month.

The world’s largest philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn is held annually in Hay-on-Wye and runs alongside the Literary Festival. A kind of younger, edgier cousin, it’s less about publicizing new books and more about promoting real debate. With an unashamedly high-brow programme tackling the latest theories in everything from philosophy and art to science and politics, it’s put paid to the idea that the public want dumbed down culture. This year over 20,000 visitors are expected, attracted by the combination of the intellectual and the hedonistic in a radical new mix.  

From documentary screenings with the likes of BBC Four and TVF International, to challenging solo talks from Ted Honderich, Rachel Armstrong, AC Grayling, Bonnie Greer (right), Aubrey de Grey, Athene Donald and Mary Midgley, parties with Mount Kimbie, The Correspondents, Camille O’Sullivan, Ghostpoet, singer of the moment Ana Silvera, Ewan Pearson and Man Like Me, and debates based on the theme of New Gods: Icons and Ideas in a Changed World, the festival expects its audience to engage fully with the programme and mix freely with speakers and performers on site.

Highlights include Business Secretary Vince Cable on the coalition’s vision in a post-crunch era, Hollywood screenwriter and Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth on England’s mythic past, Muslim convert Lauren Booth on Islam’s success, sociologist Steve Fuller and neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield on the limits of science, Demos founder Martin Jacques on what the rise of the East means for the West, columnist Polly Toynbee and Richard Sennett on whether politics and big ideas have become irreconcilably separated, author Philip Pullman on fantasy, Shadowlands screenwriter William Nicholson on the meaning of self-worth and psychologist Susan Blackmore, columnist Peter Hitchens and philosopher Edward Skidelsky on drug culture.

“HowTheLightGetsIn offers speakers a unique opportunity to debate the issues that matter in today’s society,” says UK Business Secretary Vince Cable. “Audiences are given the opportunity to put their questions to politicians, writers, academics and philosophers and this level of participation makes the event all the more special for those taking part. I’m hopeful that the programme of debates at this year’s blossoming event will not just respond to the cultural and political agenda, but help to shape it.”

Like other successful arts organisations, the IAI is about making the festival relevant, stimulating and fun. The team is keen to dispel myths about the stuffiness or inaccessibility of philosophy. Debates and talks take place in Bedouin tents, yurts and a converted 18th century chapel which has hosted exhibitions from the likes of The Museum of Everything and Open Gallery. Audiences are diverse in age and background, free acoustic music lifts the site throughout the day and parties end each night with a bang.

“Everything begins with an idea,” says playwright and festival speaker Bonnie Greer, “whether we are conscious of this or not, whether a society calls itself “practical” or not. An idea is the brain at play, and art is the hand at play, and so the coming together of both, for me, makes the best kind of festival – a playground.”

The School of Life, co-founded by philosopher and author Alain de Botton with the intention of introducing practical philosophy into everyday living, will also have a presence at HowTheLightGetsIn. Encouraged by the festival’s lively and diverse audience, the London-based organisation will be holding philosophy breakfasts throughout the ten days. Hosted by the likes of Robert Rowland-Smith and Mark Vernon, the breakfasts are a high impact early morning session designed to offer stimulation for those keen to get the most out of the day ahead.

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“The world is in transition,” says philosopher and festival founder Hilary Lawson. “People feel increasingly unsure of where they are going, what it means to be human, whether an impending crisis looms. They are looking for meaning. This year we’ll be asking whether the great narratives that have built and sustained the West are under threat and, if so, what are the new gods that will replace them?”

“The festival creates a space where real human interaction can take place”, Lawson continues. “It sounds easy. But it’s rare. Our venues are intimate. Our speakers mix with our audience and go to the same parties. We talk, dance, play and bring life to the world of ideas and maybe just a little meaning to our lives in a world that is so often rather emptier than we would like.”

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