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Hilary Lawson On How The Light Gets In, A Philosophical Revolutionary

by Melanie Gow

20 years ago Hilary Lawson, creative director of How The Light Gets In Festival, was at an ICA Conference with Richard McKay Rorty, a leading philosopher of the last 100 years.

“We were standing at the back when it ended. I turned to Richard and said I didn’t understand any of what we had heard at all. Richard said he had been going to conferences all his academic life and he hardly ever understand what was being said.”


Today How The Light Gets In festival is in its fifth year, with the vision to break philosophy free of the academic walls and have the ideas keep people “propping up the bar at 10 o’clock at night having an argument.”

It has grown from one venue and a handful of guests to 410 events, on 6 stages, with 165 speakers and 150 bands, cabaret, film and live art, taking part in a 10-day extravaganza celebrating philosophy and music.

Wherever I have travelled in France, Spain, other parts of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and India philosophy is a part of the everyday fabric of conversation, I don’t feel this is true for Britain and I wanted to interview the man behind this revolution.

“I think it was a failing of the institutions, we got ourselves into a mode of talking about philosophy in a certain way. Philosophy had been reduced to a joke, a Monty Python Philosophy Football Match.

With HTLGI expecting 35,000 visitors this year I asked Hilary why Britain is ready for a festival like this now?

“I don’t believe it’s a matter of timing, this could have happened at any time. Most people imagine themselves philosophers at some level. I think people are lost, they are looking for intellectual guidance, or help and are interested in the questions raised. We are providing something people want and always want.”

‘Phallogocentric’ is always a word that comes up at these times as the line up of speakers is male dominated, however more than 1 in 2 women turn down the invitation to speak, whilst most men take up the invitations, suggesting it’s not a question of a shortage. Does the line up reflect what we want or the landscape?

Hilary explains, “It’s due to a combination of things, if you played chess you would find the top 100 chess players would be men. Unfortunately the current situation stands that more men hold positions and are writing in the field, in general this is not true for music as our bill demonstrates.

Consequences are we try to get as close to a balance as possible without playing the positive discrimination game. But there are fewer women in the arena and therefore they get more invitations to speak throughout the year and by and large, because there are more men, they are eager for a opportunity for a platform to air their views.”

Having said that the festival opens with The F-Word: Who Wants to Be a Feminist? In this documentary, Germaine Greer, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, explore the meaning of feminism a century after the first International Women’s Day. A controversial film in that it largely focused on white, middleclass celebrities and issues, never-the-less it is showing and offered for debate.

The festival has a reputation for careful consideration of all the details, from the programme to well considered choices of the chairs of the discussions. I myself was put through a considered process, that I welcomed, to get granted this interview. I wanted to know how much Hilary is involved in the decisions?

“I have a sizeable editorial team, and I think it works because we bring a lot of energy to it. We borrow techniques from current affairs, and the combination of media experiences I’ve had to do this.

I wondered, in that case, could Hilary have launched this festival 20 years ago when he had that fateful conversation with Richard Rorty, before  he had racked up more than 200 credits as producer, director, writer or presenter.

“Probably not”

As it is the things he has done in the meantime that have given him the experience necessary to make this festival a reality.

Perhaps it is not that Britain is ready for the festival of philosophy but more that the time is right for Hilary, as it is all the things he has done in the meantime that have given him the experience necessary to make this festival a reality.

Certainly there are few people who could have brought philosophy into the same arena as music and literature, which are largely considered entertainment and part of our leisure time pursuits


“It’s very deliberate combination, to have a proper conversation about big ideas you need to have a framework people feel relaxed in. People feel nervous, they feel they need to know a great deal to join in – this is an illusion.

To some extent for a subject to engage it has to be understood, it had become an academic game that was empty, an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ situation. It is not about status, conscious social or intellectual standing. We need to create an atmosphere in which we can sensibly talk about things, where speakers can’t hide behind jargon and playing games. You’ve got to be confident about the real questions.”

In a game of Sophie’s Choice which would you keep, your rational mind or your imagination?

“I don’t think of rational or imagination as being different, the rational can encourage you into the imagination, but rational requires imagination.

The thing that really motivates me is the new, and I’m more drawn to the places imagination can take me than the rational, which is playing with the counters on the table.”

What is it that really motivates a man capable of so much activity, TV shows, writing, video painting or festival directing?

“I am motivated by thinking, I am a philosopher at heart. I want to understand what it is to be alive, that’s what makes me feel alive”

It is always interesting to know what people think their legacy will be?

After a short, modest laugh, Hilary said, “maybe it is something I have yet to do.”

He reminds me of something I heard once, “Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk.” Hilary Lawson is the philosophical revolutionary, a thinker who doesn’t just talk, he walks the talk and gets things done.

How The Light Gets In Festival runs from 31st May to the 10th June 2012

All the debates, solo talks and performances are filmed live and uploaded onto the Institute of Art and Ideas website, where they are available to watch and share.


Hilary Lawson is post-postmodern philosopher, filmmaker and video artist. Born and brought up in Bristol, England, he is known for his theory of Closure, which marks a post-Derridean return to metaphysics.

Disenchanted with the academic world he left to start a broadcasting career in Yorkshire Television’s Science and Documentaries department, he currently has more than 200 credits as producer, director, writer or presenter, and he is currently the Creative Director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, founder of the Artscape Project, director of TVF Media, a documentary and current affairs production company and HTLGI and Crunch.


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