x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

What does it all mean?

The first philosophy and music festival is held at the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye. Our correspondent asks what took so long.

This month, visitors making their annual literary pilgrimage to the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye were treated to a new addition: the UK's first philosophy and music festival held at The Globe, an innovative gallery space that houses the Institute of Arts and Ideas. Aptly titled "How the Light Gets in", the festival included detailed talks by the Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, Simon Blackburn, the academic AC Grayling and the eminent economic commentator Will Hutton.

As a first, expectations were high, but I found myself wondering why, when the UK is so adept at staging literary, music and art festivals, is philosophy still playing catch-up? "People think of philosophy as a bit of joke," says the festival director Hilary Lawson. "In the UK, we are deeply anti-intellectual and probably for very good reason, because philosophers and intellectuals tend to lock themselves away in academies talking a form of language that doesn't really have a bearing on us. We need to get away from this and to show that philosophy affects the way we operate and that it matters. I'd like to see philosophy escape from the academy into people's lives," he said.

A seemingly impenetrable philosophical language has rendered the subject inaccessible to many and people have been put off by its esoteric quality. As a nation, the British are suspicious of individuals who are "too clever". The teachings of toga-wearing ancient Greeks appear distant from modern reality and contemporary philosophers are indiscriminately branded cigarette-toting continentals or hippyish wasters; questioning everything and doing nothing.

The dichotomy between the "Kants" and the "can'ts" was reflected in the diversity of visitors to The Globe, comprising both seasoned intellectuals and a nervous crowd of opportune passers-by. As I surveyed the room - a student carefully scribbling down, editing, and re-editing a question on a scrap of paper, a woman silently pleading with her husband not to ask a question, I realised that Britan's uncomfortable relationship to philosophy is not just about being cautious of the overly cerebral, but, and perhaps more so, the desire not to look stupid. It isn't the clever we are frightened of, but the possibility that others might discover our silliness. In the world of big ideas - Plato, Sartre and Marx -one is easily undone.

In recent years, philosophers have attempted to address this problem by making the subject more accessible to a wider audience. In the UK, books such as Simon Blackburn's Think and Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed and AC Grayling's Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge and Ideas That Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century, as well as literature by Alain de Botton, Stephen Law, Nigel Warburton and Julian Baggini, aim to open up the field and to re-educate readers on the importance and relevance of the subject. In China, the publication of Yu Dan's Confucius From the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World in 2006 was greeted with virtual hysteria. Pitched as a self-help book for the masses, the work attempts to steer readers away from social ills and on to a path of happiness, filling a spiritual void. In China, over 10 million copies have been sold and it remains an ever-present feature on the bestseller list. The book was published in the UK earlier this month.

If public perceptions of philosophy are slowly changing, so too are attitudes in universities. Whereas practitioners once upheld elitist leanings and favoured disengaging moral philosophy over that of political thinkers, they are now more ready to embrace students' concerns with the "real world". This change of direction is grounded in pragmatism: with high student fees, courses need to prove that they are relevant to contemporary life or risk losing out.

The professional sphere is also reconsidering its bias against philosophy graduates. Students of the subject are subverting the "bone-idle thinkers" stereotype and are becoming increasingly employable. Companies, particularly those in the finance, property development and business sectors, are seeking out philosophy graduates who can think around issues, demonstrate an analytical mind, question assumptions and be innovative - abilities which are key to the subject.

We may still be living in the dark, but at least with events like this at The Globe, we are guaranteed some form of enlightenment. "In a way, everyone is a philosopher" says Lawson. "Everyone is trying to work out what their life is about. We shouldn't be frightened of it."