Adventures in deep thought at Hampstead’s philosophy festival

Hilary Lawson thinks we have a problem.

And it’s not climate change, or Brexit, or growing inequality. It’s the fundamental inability to wrap our heads around how everything could have gone so horribly wrong.

Just a few decades ago things seemed to make sense. The world was a difficult place but we had the feeling in the West that we were on a steady train of progress- ever so slowly gaining knowledge; championing equality; and building better, more democratic societies on solid moral ground. 

Skip forward to today and the idea that progress is inevitable is almost laughable. 

People no longer trust that things will be better in the future. They are hungry for meaning; lost and looking for answers in a world that’s changing faster than their Twitter feed can keep up with. 

So what happened?

According to Lawson, a post-realist philosopher and founder of the Institute for Art and Ideas, we were intellectually lost as a society well before the recession hit and we knew anything about carbon levels in the atmosphere.

‘Philosophers have been talking about the disintegration of the Enlightenment fantasy for decades,” Lawson explains. “Now what we’re seeing is that academic realisation hitting the mainstream. We are all living this puzzle daily and people are talking about philosophy again.’

Well, they certainly are on Hampstead Heath. 

It’s a curiosity for the fiddly discipline of philosophy and a shared quest for sense-making that’s brought me and hundreds of others here to Lawson’s festival HowTheLightGetsIn on a sunny afternoon in late September. Celebrating its tenth year, this ambitious philosophy/music/comedy festival seeks to bridge the gap between ivory tower philosophy and the big questions of everyday life.

This is the second time that the festival has made an appearance in the city after years of success in Hay-on-Wye

Comfortably nestled in the stately shadow of Kenwood House, there’s a distinct absence of festival grunge on these well-manicured grounds. It’s got a champagne bar, £35-a-head lunch, and long garlanded tables with rustic candlesticks that say much more ‘wedding’ than ‘Woodstock.’

But despite the upper-crust garden party aesthetic, the substance of the festival – an array of stimulating debates on occasionally mind-bending topics – definitely delivers.

This year’s theme is ‘Uncharted Territory’ and the roster reads like a (very well curated) TED Talk playlist. Scanning my programme, I struggle to choose between concurrent programming: a workshop on building human connection or a debate on whether science and religion can coexist?

Most of the subjects are highly topical – gene editing, environmental collapse, broken economic models. Others are questions we’ve been grappling with since the beginning of humanity- the nature of free will, the existence of truth.

When I arrive, a group of stylish millennials are talking excitedly outside the dining tent waiting for the next debate on the meaning of freedom. Looking every bit the existentialist in a trench coat over a black turtleneck, Kenzo flew from Austria to be here this weekend. 

‘When I saw it advertised I knew I had to come,’ he says. ‘It’s a really unusual idea for a festival and combines a lot of my interests. It’s nice to meet people who also care about these topics because they can be hard to find back home.’

The others nod in agreement. All five of them came here on their own and none of them live in London. Making the jump from the virtual conversation around these topics to ‘real life’ is a strong draw of a festival like this allowing visitors to mingle with the intellectual celebrities and academics they’ve been following online for years. 

Yasmin, a 20-something from Syria by way of Birmingham, came specifically for Rupert Sheldrake, who’s giving a talk on science and spirituality.

‘He’s amazing. Controversial, but amazing. I’m really excited to see him in person.’

Lucky for Yasmin (and the rest of us) there’s little separation between the speakers and the audience here. After panels, even big names linger at the back of their tents, brows furrowed in concentration as they struggle to pull themselves away from discussions before eagerly queuing up themselves for another talk. 

When I run into two panelists from a debate on nature versus nurture at the bar, I feel a little nerdy thrill at being admitted to this senior common room of experts across so many fields of thought.

Hilary Lawson says they have been careful to select open-minded speakers who are willing to have their positions challenged.

‘There are plenty of literary festivals that have a series of talks but the core of our programme is debates rather than talks. We have a rule that we won’t give anyone a solo talk unless they are willing to take part in a debate.’

It’s the conversations sparked from these debates that really bring the festival to life. The format serves as an unusually effective intellectual ice-breaker for delving into deep topics with strangers. 

When Bad Boys, a particularly divisive debate about modern masculinity, ends without consensus among the panelists the atmosphere on the festival grounds takes on an almost fervent quality as departing audience members grab the nearest person, stranger or not, to urgently demand what they thought of that last point. 

Not all discussions are so accessible. While the festival aims to bring philosophy to the masses, it’s not dumbing anything down any theories – a fact I am acutely aware of during ‘A Crack in Everything.’ 

Condensation is starting to form on the plastic windows of the main tent where people of an astonishing variety of ages have packed in for the panel debate that includes founder Lawson and Slovenian heavyweight Slavoj Žižek.

‘Is paradox an unavoidable consequence of the limits of the human mind?’ the moderator posits.

As I watch Žižek ruminate on the nature of paradox through a crystal clear Skype connection on the screen, I’m distracted by his fridge magnets. He’s slouched at his kitchen table, the dishevelled academic personified. Don’t world famous philosophers have their own offices?

‘Paradox is proof that we have made contact with reality,’ he says. 

‘But reality is in some sense ontologically unfinished.’ counters Lawson.

I can feel my intellectual feet struggling to touch the ground. 

‘He’s such a fascinating man,’ gushes the guy to my right.

Like most of the people I’ve spoken to, the two men next to me met earlier this afternoon, bonded by their shared scholarly devotion to Žižek’s YouTube lectures. They assure me his talks are usually easier to follow but I don’t mind. I’m enjoying the show.

As the sun sets over the heath, the venues transition from speakers to musical and comedy acts. I wander to a tent selling books where the playful melodies of a ragtag band called Tugboat Captain offers a refreshing balm to my over-stimulated mind. Two women seated at a table in the crowd are poring over their programme, making annotations and circling talks for the next day. The elderly man next to them smiles as he watches a boy dance near the stage.

I may have more questions and doubts than answers about what’s happening to our society after this weekend but I leave more certain of one thing – that I am not alone.

Book your tickets to HowTheLightGetsIn 2020 here – early bird tickets available now

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