I spent the weekend in Malmesbury Wiltshire at the second Hobbes Festival organised by The Philosophy Town initiative started by cultural entrepreneur, Mike Cuthbert.
Malmesbury was the birthplace of 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes author of Leviathan who famously described the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Cuthbert’s aim is to make Malmesbury The Philosophers Town just as Hay-On-Wye is the Book town. The idea will be to have a number of events throughout the year culminating in an annual Hobbes Festival.
The first Hobbes Festival was in 2008 but the 2009 event was cancelled because of the Swine flu threat. So this year was the second such event and took place over the weekend of the 15th-17th of Oct.
The festival is aimed at interested members of the general public rather than professional philosophers; presumably the same audience that reads Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine and Think.
This year the format was mainly limited to fairly dry talks or panel sessions led by academic philosophers, but there are plans for a much wider range of events in future years including Philosophy Walks, All Night Talk-Ins and even dramatisations of key texts.
I am sure the event will benefit from this more diverse approach because although there were some magnificent speakers this year the success or failure of this lecture format depends entirely on the presentational skills of the speakers, and to be frank this year some were better than others.
I would also say that the sessions were too short with speakers speaking for too long thus limiting the opportunity for the audience to engage – which is when the sessions really came alive.
For me the highlights were Quentin Skinner’s session on Hobbes himself, Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne and Mathew Taylor from the RSA on his concept of a 21st Century enlightenment, all of which were amusing, stimulating and genuinely illuminating.
The main panel session on Sunday afternoon with popular philosophy stalwarts Julian Baggini and Angie Hobbs was also fascinating as academic philosophy itself took a bit of a bashing only to then be passionately defended by some members of the audience.
The Hobbes Festival’s specifically philosophical perspective gives it a USP that distinguishes itself from weekends like the Festival Of Ideas in Bristol and the Battle Of Ideas in London, it also has a delightful venue within a picturesque setting. But if it is to compete against the more established events it is going to have to up it’s game in terms of variety of content, marketing, presentation and consistency of speakers. Mike Cuthbert is well aware of this and it is exactly what he intends to do. This year’s festival was a modest delight – next year could really put the Philosophy Town on the map.
Audio Interviews with speakers, organisers and audience will appear in November (tbc) on my radio show, Agitpop.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society