Ideas festival: Great minds think and drink alike

Charlotte Cripps considers the philosophical attractions of HowTheLightGetsIn, an ideas festival with a difference

Most people go to Hay-on-Wye for the annual literary festival – not to ponder profound existential questions. But this year, more than 7,000 visitors will arrive for the world's largest philosophy festival.

HowTheLightGetsIn was founded in 2009 by the philosopher Hilary Lawson, whose aim is create a festival-like atmosphere, in which to discuss issues that make us tick. The festival is named after lyrics found in a Leonard Cohen song, "Anthem"; ("There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in"). Philosophical debates, this year including Philip Pullman discussing the role of fantasy in his novels and life, are combined with live bands, film screenings, comedy and all-night parties.

"I'm not a geek, interested in intellectual puzzles," Lawson says. "I'm interested in philosophy because it's about understanding the world and our lives. When we started the festival three years ago, philosophy was more likely to appear in Monty Python. It was a laughable matter, it was technical and analytical – not about our lives. Our aim is to overturn the current intellectually conservative environment, where ideas and philosophy are not valued or taken seriously. Our goal is to create an open, vibrant, intellectual culture which combines innovative thought with rich experience."

The festival, which is partnered by The Independent, has tripled its audience every year. "Ticket sales have grown tenfold since we started," Lawson says. "This is because people are desperate for an environment where they can talk about things that concern them or interest them in an atmosphere that is fun."

The theme of this year's festival is "New Gods: Icons and Ideas in a Changed World". The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, will speak on the Coalition's vision in the post-crunch era and the Independent columnist Johann Hari will speak about Wikileaks. Hari says: "HowTheLightGetsIn provides an amazing forum to discuss serious philosophical ideas. In a culture where there are so many pressures to be quicker and shallower and stupider, it's a space where you can think and reflect more deeply." Cable says: "I'm hopeful that the programme of debates at this year's event will not just respond to the cultural and political agenda, but help to shape it."

Pullman, whose "The Great Escape" will include the film-maker Mike Figgis and novelist Gwyneth Jones, says: "The subject is perennial, which means there is plenty to say about it, and that it goes to the heart of what fiction is and is for. I hope we'll manage to cover a lot of ground."

A talk by the poet Ruth Padel, "Verses from Eternity", will ask if the true nature of poetry is philosophical. "Poetry and philosophy matter in everybody's lives," Padel says. "They are not the precinct of the few or belong only to specialists. The more precisely and deeply we can all engage with them both, the better."

The Independent columnists Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mary Ann Sieghart will also speak and there will be music from Mount Kimbie, The Correspondents, Man Like Me, Camille O'Sullivan and Richard Strange, who will compere a Cabaret Futura night.

The singer Ana Silvera, who has performed at the festival since its inception, says: "There's a really great atmosphere and it's a surreal joy to see some of the world's leading thinkers chilling out with a cider and enjoying music by established and emerging talent."

Lawson adds: "Most of the time we think the world is known and understood but this is a mistake. It is as if we live in a corridor and do not realise that a whole world lies beyond. It is by finding the cracks in the corridor of our current thoughts that we are able to catch sight of the world as a whole."

HowTheLightGetsIn, which is partnered by The Independent, runs from 26 May to 5 June (

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