ENTERTAINMENT

Hilary Lawson On How The Light Gets In 2013: 'The Best Conversations Can Be Had On The Dancefloor' (INTERVIEW)

02/05/2013 14:14 BST | Updated 14/05/2013 14:26 BST

The annual meeting of minds that is the How The Light Gets In festival returns to Hay-on-Wye this month, once again providing audiences with the chance to engage with life's big questions.

The founder of the festival, philosopher Hilary Lawson, is busy preparing for the 450 events that will take place from Thursday 23 May to Sunday 2 June, involving talks from the likes of politicians, scientists, cosmologists and even subatomic physicists.

"We have philosophers from every part of the world, we have novelists - every conceivable facet of intellectual life is represented", says Lawson of the world's largest event of its kind.

The Huffington Post UK is a proud media partner of this year's festival and we spoke to Lawson to find out why he thinks music and philosophy go hand-in-hand. Read the interview below, in which he explains why "everybody is a philosopher" and why we need to stop leaving intellectual conversation to Parisian taxi drivers...

hilary lawson

What is the theme of this year’s festival?

The theme for this year is 'error lies in adventure'. Most of the time we try to pretend we haven't made an error. Politicians don't usually say 'oh I've made an error', and generally there's often an avoidance of identifying errors. Identifying errors of what you've thought and what you've done allows you to think of how it could be done differently - that's where the adventure is.

How do you chose who you want to speak each year?

We have the theme and intellectual idea that we are exploring throughout the festival. We therefore divide that idea into different areas and then we decide what we think are the most edgy and contemporary issues addressing that idea and we put those together. Then we talk about who we think would be appropriate for these areas. We're looking for new ideas that have bearing on the issues that we're trying to address.

Are there a lot of young voices or is it older people that dominate the space?

I think it's a good mixture, actually. We're always looking for new voices and big new ideas but they don't appear in large numbers. There are always lots of people who want to put forward their opinion, but people who've got a genuinely new idea are harder to find. We're not driven by celebrity - although we obviously have lots of famous names. We don't have people on just because they are someone we've heard of, they have to have something to say... it doesn't matter who people are, all that matters is the strength of the idea.

Have you managed to find more women speakers for this year's festival?

We always try to ensure that we include as many women as we can... we have got a little bit of a higher representation of women this year. But it remains the case that there's a smaller pool for us to pick from and in their different fields they tend to get lots of invitations.

What's the best sort of environment to be in to be able to think about things in a different way?

On a personal level, I need to be cut off from any distractions. I've never been able to work in London myself. I need to be in the middle of nowhere so I'm not tempted to go out and socialise.

So an office isn’t the best place for people to work in and be creative?

I couldn't possibly do anything genuinely edgy in an office. I can do a great deal of quick thinking, and you can be inventive and work with other people, but if you're going to come up with something genuinely original that pushes the boundaries on some area of thought, then personally I can't do that in an office. Nor can I really do it in London; I need to be sitting on the mountainside.

Do really outspoken people - such as George Galloway who is on the 2013 line-up - make the best speakers?

We're a radical organisation in a sense. The world tends to be driven by institutional positions and the nature of what we're trying to do is introducing big ideas into cultural life. There's a strange phenomenon in Britain where no one seems to take intellectual ideas seriously, we leave it to Parisian taxi drivers to form intellectual conversations. We just get on and do things in Britain... so in a way we want to put big ideas back in the public space. We don't go for controversial figures because they're controversial, we go for people who've got an idea that in some way takes things on or challenges something... so that we get out of a space where it looks as if everything is known or agreed.

Is philosophy a closed off world for the general population? How would you sell the festival to the public?

I don't think we need to - everybody is a philosopher. Everyone wonders about his or her life, it's a really bizarre experience. And it's only a result of a strange characteristic of British cultural life that philosophy sort of turned into a joke, a Monty Python joke. Instead what we're trying to do is put big ideas back where they should be. They matter to everybody and always have... the idea that it is some technical area or just a facet of the craziness of the way philosophy has been thought of in recent times... we don't dumb down anything, we just ask people to talk honestly.

Do we need to have philosophical talks more often in day-to-day life?

Of course, and it's crazy that we don’t. But I think there is a question as to why we don’t. Maybe it's partly because people are siloed in their particular disciplines and constrained by their careers and their peers into being very careful about what they say, as if they want to keep their nose clean.

As a result it's harder to be vibrant and open minded and so forth. Human beings are social animals so if you are operating in an institution, you don't want to be different from your peers and that of course is the death of any real vibrancy to ideas and originality.

Even at university people are training to be something now and are taught to be very career minded…

Universities have become more like that; maybe UK universities have lost the best talent. There was once a time when the best students would become academic. No doubt the lack of funding has meant it’s not always attracting the best people and also it has become more institutionalised so that people think 'I have to get a number of papers out, I need to get my next book out in order to progress my career'. They're not going to do anything that's too challenging to that..

After the festival each year, do you have people tell you about the epiphanies they've had? Or the talks that have helped them make a huge decision?

From the outset it's been a pleasure to hear from people about what a dramatic impact it has on their lives. There are people who come back to the festival year after year and find it an invigorating and refreshing experience, one that they can't find anywhere else.

The festival is just one part of what we're doing. We have IAI TV, which is like a European version of TED but more challenging at taking on institutional ideas. We are focused on that outside of the festival and it pulls a larger audience year round.

So, the festival sounds pretty interesting already, why have music there too?

One of the reasons we do that is because talking about ideas tends to usually be in a lecture hall. The problem with a lecture hall is it has all the status associated with it about who has the right to speak. One of the reasons music is important at the festival is because it softens the whole atmosphere. If you're having a debate about the nature of the universe, sometimes in a lecture hall if you're not careful everyone is posing rather than actually talking. This musical side of the festival somehow changes that atmosphere, so some of the best conversations can be had on the dancefloor. Talking about this stuff is fun, not something you feel you are doing dutifully. It generates an atmosphere that is a festival and not a series of lectures.

I do often end up talking to strangers about in-depth things at music festivals…

Exactly. I'm a big fan of musical festivals and we had Michael Eavis the founder of Glastonbury last year talking about the nature of festivals, which he called The Paradise Hunters. It was about that very idea 'why don't we do this in our daily lives?'. You're sitting there having a chat in a muddy field and it's very possible that it's quite philosophical and that's why the two fit together.

We have all the latest bands in just the same way as any music festival… I remember having a conversation with one of the philosophers last year and we were shouting over the music, keeping up the conversation we'd been having earlier in the day… it gets people out of their institutionalised nervousness. Everyone is pretending, everyone is pretending all the time. That pretense gets in the way of having a properly exciting conversation about something.

To find out more about How The Light Gets In and see this year's line-up click here.

A glimpse at How The Light Gets In