When philosopher Hilary Lawson came up with the idea of a ‘philosophy festival’ in 2010, people told him that nobody would come.
"I’d always been aware that philosophy had become something of a joke subject, walled in by rather technical terms," he says.
"If you told someone you were a philosopher, they’d laugh nervously and move onto another subject, assuming they had nothing interesting to say."
Undeterred, the director of the Institute of Art and Ideas went ahead and the event attracted 150 people. But over a decade later, the How The Light Gets In festival is now the largest philosophy festival in the world, attracting over 30,000 to its last live event.
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"It grew and grew because at heart, everyone is a philosopher," says Lawson.
"It’s a pretty strange thing this ‘being alive’ and we have to work out what we’re doing, particularly at the moment.
"There is something about lockdown that has pushed people into a situation where they’re trying to make sense of what’s going on. Big ideas are very much in people’s minds and so philosophy touches people more than ever."
This Saturday (20 February), the 'Winter Revel' in partnership with Yahoo - will be their third online festival during the pandemic. Ground-breaking technology will enable festival goers to explore six stages, 40 events and see 100 speakers ‘virtually’.
Like so many events, the twice-yearly festival had to make the decision in 2020 to cancel or go online. They gambled on the latter and it paid off - pre-sale tickets sold out in a record 76 seconds.
"When the pandemic struck we had to think quickly as to what we would do and whether we could put it online," says Lawson. "We wanted to convey the feeling of a festival, so we had different events at different times and you could interact with people.
"But now, we’ve gone one step further and we’re really excited to try our new virtual reality format.
"It’s organised more like a video game. You arrive in the foyer, go through to the entrance which has a giant staircase and choose which room you want to go into.
"You can wander around the site and bump into people on chat and arrange to meet them ‘in person’ in video form.
"It’s far more interactive than simply clicking on a series of menus and joining a debate."
The event this year has attracted some leading names with speakers including political satirist Armando Iannucci, BBC North America editor Jon Sopel, journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, comedian and actress Helen Lederer and journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart.
Academic speakers include Nick Lane, Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London, Walter Gilbert, Nobel laureate biochemist and physicist and Tara Shears, Professor of Physics at the University of Liverpool.
With titles such as ‘The Paradox of Radical Change’ and ‘The Anti-Universe’, some debates may intimidate the novice philosopher, but Lawson insists that the most difficult topics often draw in the largest audiences.
"You don’t have to be an expert if you’re listening to people debating the topic," he says. "I remember one we did called ‘Bang Goes the Big Bang’ which raised the question of whether the Big Bang theory might not be correct. It was quite a technical topic and the panel included a cosmologist, particle theorist and mathematical physicist but the audience was absolutely packed.
"I’m sure not everyone understood every word but because it’s a debate between experts, you understand what the issues are and it’s more accessible."
As well as the discussions and speeches, festival goers will be able to attend ‘live’ music and comedy. Towards the end of the one day event there is even a disco.
"It’s different of course, but it does work," admits Lawson. "People dress up and put lights in their background, they chat to their friends and sit with people in our virtual lounge area.
"At the last online festival we had people from 45 countries around the world joining us and it was wonderful. We're really excited to see how this one compares."
The How The Light Gets In ‘Winter Revel 2021’ takes place for the full day from 10.30am on Saturday 20 February 2021. Tickets available here - https://howthelightgetsin.org/festivals/winter/festival-passes
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