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  1. Wealth
July 23, 2010

Setting Hay on Fire

By Spear's

Spear’s was a media partner for HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s first philosophy and music festival. Bianca Brigitte Bonomi reports back from some incendiary intellectual clashes

Spear’s was a media partner for HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s first philosophy and music festival. Bianca Brigitte Bonomi reports back from some incendiary intellectual clashes
FOR HAY-GOERS BORED with authors on promotional tours, The Guardian’s over-zealous branding and 500-deep queues for book signings, there was another option on offer this year. Hay’s latest — and most cerebral — success story is HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s first philosophy and music festival.  

Bringing together philosophers, writers, academics and musicians for thought-provoking interdisciplinary debate, incisive talks and infectiously danceable music, HowTheLightGetsInthis year welcomed the likes of Mary Midgley, Raymond Tallis, Michèle le Doeuff, Will Hutton, Roger Penrose, Phillip Blond, Jesse Norman, Mary Warnock, Helena Kennedy, Zygmunt Bauman, Bonnie Greer, Frank Furedi and culture minister Ed Vaizey, who proclaimed, ‘This is the new Hay and it’s going to be enormous.’

The festival, which attracted more than 12,000 visitors over the course of ten days, showed us that consensus across political divides is possible, that science isn’t infallible, that celebrity is out and debate is in.

Its success can be linked to the UK’s new festival landscape. Festival season is no longer about scaling walls at Glastonbury or cavorting drunkenly backstage with ageing rock stars. Events are broadening in scope, ambition and innovation. In addition, our relationship to philosophy is starting to change. Whereas in France philosophy is very much a part of everyday discourse, in the UK it has been seen as abstruse and inaccessible.

The festival’s desire to get philosophy out of the academy and into people’s lives is shared by the pop philosophy brigade, including Simon Blackburn, Robert Rowland Smith, Julian Baggini and Nigel Warburton. Their brand of ‘everyday’ philosophy demonstrates the subject’s usefulness and relevance; challenging the notion that philosophy is about thinking too much and doing too little.

From Vaizey laying out his vision for the future of culture in Britain and Warnock, Christopher Hamilton and Blackburn asking whether rationality is the illusion and our emotions the truth, to anti-ageing expert Aubrey de Grey discussing whether knowledge of our mortality is essential to being human and radical French feminist philosopher Le Doeuff explaining the real purpose of the boob job (to make everyone else’s breasts look smaller), debates were wide-ranging and accessible.

In ‘After the Storm: A New Economics?’, a debate focused on how a new and more just idea of human nature might feed into a more versatile economics, left-wing economist and newly appointed head of the review into public-sector pay Will Hutton, Conservative rising star Jesse Norman MP, the LSE’s Richard Bronk and Spear’s William Cash formed an unlikely alliance, giving audiences an indication of the conversation to come over the next few years in a political climate shaped by new allegiances.
DESPITE ACCUSING THE new coalition government of committing ‘strategic mistakes’, Hutton and the Conservative Norman, an economist theorist of Cameron’s government, occupied a strange and unfamiliar new space. Norman’s assertion that ‘we need to take economics off its pedestal and stop being so enslaved by it’ and Cash’s claim that ‘we have lost the connection between performance, reward and effort’ were met with agreement from Hutton.

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Elsewhere, consensus was replaced by controversy. In ‘The Individual: An Endangered Species?’, Blond, a Red Tory and founder of think-tank ResPublica, accused provocative Times columnist and leader writer Oliver Kamm of being ‘intellectually weak’, ‘illiterate’ and ‘unimpressive’. The public spat, which occurred during a debate on the idea of the individual and the community, shocked and delighted festival-goers. Kamm’s opening gambit left the audience in little doubt as to the fractious relationship: ‘I hope it is not the case as was stated in the introduction that David Cameron listens to Phillip Blond.’ He branded Blond’s ideological direction ‘deeply damaging to society’.

Blond retorted, ‘Oliver gets it wrong. He gets the world wrong and he gets human history wrong. He thinks that the only players are states and individuals.’

A furious Kamm interjected, ‘This is the reason that Jonathan Raban at the London Review of Books called you a crank, Phillip, and pointed out that you draw intellectual sustenance from two English thinkers, Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton, both of whom admired Italian fascism. This is fascism with a fatuous face.’

Blond responded,  ‘It [Raban’s] was an illiterate review, which is why it resonates with you.’ Meetings of minds are not always without sparks.

Photograph: William Cash and Will Hutton

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