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Putting Philosophy on the Map in 2012

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A few years ago, something about the UK's cultural landscape struck me as odd. We are world leaders at staging literary and music festivals like Cheltenham and Glastonbury, but philosophy was completely excluded from the festival circuit. It was seen as a trifling aside, a bit of a joke, rather than a subject worthy of a significant event.

As a nation, we can come across as deeply anti-intellectual and probably for very good reason, because philosophers and intellectuals tend to lock themselves away in academies talking a form of language that doesn't really have a bearing on us. For some, philosophy is seen as embedding a male mode of thinking, a phallogocentrism that discourages women. For others, it is part of an exclusive cultural framework that works to intimidate through bullish debate and a seemingly impenetrable linguistic code.

I wanted to get away from this; to show that philosophy affects the way we operate and that it matters. I wanted to see philosophy escape from the academy and into people's lives. That's why I founded HowTheLightGetsIn, a philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye. I wanted to create a space where real human interaction could take place. A space whether emerging thinkers could be offered a platform alongside more established names from across the disciplines; where ideas, not celebrity, would be the prerequisite for participation.

We started small, with only one venue, a few events and a handful of inquisitive people. Five years on, we're the biggest philosophy festival in the world. This year, we are expecting over 35,000 visitors to come along over ten days to enjoy a range of events that will include solo talks, debates, film screenings, comedy and parties.

If public perceptions of philosophy are slowly changing, so too are attitudes in universities. Whereas practitioners once upheld elitist leanings and favoured disengaging moral philosophy over that of political thinkers, they are now more ready to embrace students' concerns with the "real world". This change of direction is grounded in pragmatism: with high student fees, courses need to prove that they are relevant to contemporary life or risk losing out.

The professional sphere is also reconsidering its bias against philosophy graduates. Companies, particularly those in the finance, property development and business sectors, are seeking out philosophy graduates who can think around issues, demonstrate an analytical mind, question assumptions and be innovative - abilities which are key to the subject.

HowTheLightGetsIn has put paid to the idea that the public want dumbed down culture. With an unashamedly highbrow programme tackling the latest theories in everything from philosophy and art to science and politics, this year we'll be focusing on our new theme, 'Unchartered Territories' and asking our audience to consider whether the founding principles of western thought are still useful to us or whether we should be seeking out alternative narratives to give us direction.

In a way, everyone is a philosopher. We're all trying to work out what our lives are about. In this period of economic, environmental, and political transition, that is surely something worth embracing.

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