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One of the hallmarks of an enlightened, civilised society as postulated by thinkers such as Habermas, was the construction of a public sphere; a venue for free debate. The existence of agoras, speakers corners etc. have historically been to stimulate public discussion on philosophical and political issues.

Yet as Michael Sandel recently noted, the evolution of market economy to market society over the past twenty years has tied public debate even closer to political special interests. A 21st Century UK public sphere might resemble the clusters of think tanks, but given their lack of engagement outside Westminster, and their limited remit – well, they’re not exactly public. It is no surprise that one of the Occupy Movement’s central tenets is to ask for dialogue, to try and open up society to these debates. But it can be hard to have a debate when trapped in the dominant political and economic paradigms of 21st Century thought. Is the lack of creativity in policy due to an inability to link questions of today’s society with the philosophies and principles of our past?

To return to the naïve idealism of the public sphere as suggested by Jurgen Habermas would in actuality be a replication of the current system whereby important debates outside parliament only involved narrow sections of society; paid to opine and to debate. Instead we need a public space which gives individuals the opportunity to think outside dominant paradigms, to formulate new thought and most importantly to share them with others inside, but crucially, outside academia. Yes the market society has given rise to private night schools and philosophy institutes where you can pay to learn – but learning is not necessarily the core aim of the public sphere.

Enter How the Light Gets In (HTLGI) – a relatively young philosophy and arts festival unparallelled in modern academia or culture. A ten-day festival running alongside the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, HTLGI brings hundreds of influential philosophers, politicians such as Matt Hancock MP, musicians and artists to debate topics which are directly relevant to society but not intimately connected to the ten second sound bites of Question Time. HLTGI allows for the free flow of ideas and themes sometimes virgin to philosophy itself as 2012’s Uncharted Territory title attests. This year’s festival had topics ranging from the possibilities for robotic technology in human bodies, to busting the “green and pleasant land” myth of popular histories of England. Unlike Philosophy 101 courses, HTLGI presents modern philosophers to bring newer, more expansive thinking into the mix as well as grounding much in classical philosophy.

The festival is not-for-profit and its charitable status is becoming more assured. Refreshingly free of big corporation sponsorship, the festival has instead tied to smaller brands and media outlets such as the Huffington Post. Where to now? The direction the festival takes in the next few years could see expansion out of a single Hay format into other events and discussions. Again, one of the key advantages of the festival is that it does not seek to teach, but offers its visitors the chance to be participants and to debate well into the small hours of the morning with others. If the HTLGI can continue to develop and engage with participants across the UK and perhaps the continent, it may prove fertile ground for a philosophical social movement.

Bianca Brigitte Bonomi is the Head of Press Relations for HTLGI Festival

Follow Bianca on Twitter: @HTLGIFestival 


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