battle of ideas 2007 battle of ideas 2007

Keynote controversies

Innovation in an era of caution
Creativity – just another mantra?

Is morality making a comeback?

Reassessing the Enlightenment
The humanist project in the 21st century


Characterising contemporary culture

In parallel with the six Battle of Ideas strands, five keynote sessions and two provocation lectures will grapple with some broad cultural trends that cut across all six strands. These have to do with how we think about the future and the things we value, and how these questions are shaping political, cultural and scientific discussion, so that apparently familiar debates often take on very different meanings.

There is today a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future. We find it difficult to imagine that things will ever be very different from how they are now, especially in the field of politics, where there is grudging consensus on issues that once divided society, and little in the way of big ideas. At the same time, we are increasingly nervous about change that seems to be beyond our control, whether it is global warming, the onward march of technology, or war and terrorism. Attitudes to the values of the past are ambivalent, with the notion of progress in particular regarded with suspicion. Much contemporary debate is really about how to reconcile the desire for individual fulfillment with our fears about the consequences for society and the planet.

These five sessions look at how this tension shapes the way we think about innovation, creativity, the legacy of the Enlightenment, authority, utopias, morality, and the ‘humanist project’.


Saturday 29 October 2005

10.30 – 12 noon

Innovation in an era of caution

Innovation – ‘the successful exploitation of new ideas incorporating new technologies, design and best practice’ (DTI) – is trumpeted in every sphere of life, from the boardroom to the laboratory and the designer’s studio. Recently we have witnessed scientific breakthroughs such as the human genome project, while technological innovation means millions of people now use the internet, and we are closer to solving complex medical problems. At the same time, however, the ‘precautionary principle’ – which urges us not to venture into the unknown – is being institutionalised throughout society. The very features of modern society that have contributed to our longevity and quality of life, from childhood immunisation to food additives, increasingly cause anxiety. Even beyond the research and development sector, risk assessment exercises and the health and safety regulations place restrictions on everything from experiments in school science to how doctors treat patients.

With caution and safety established as prime cultural values, how can society make new discoveries? Will ambitious research survive? Has society lost its nerve, leading us to exaggerate dangers because we are afraid ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’? What does society’s nervous attitude tell us about the contemporary attitude to change and the future?


Dr Eliot Forster Vice President of Development, Pfizer Global Research and Development, Europe
Mick Hume editor of online current affairs publication spiked; columnist, The Times
Dr Norman Lewis Director of Technology Research, Wanadoo
Andrew Nahum Visiting Professor, Vehicle Design, RCA and Senior Curator of Aeronautics, Science Museum.
Chair: Tony Gilland science and society director, Academy of Ideas 


1.30 – 3pm

Creativity – just another mantra?

sponsored by Arts & Business

Creativity is a modern mantra: creative cities, the creative economy, creative industries, and so on. Britain is rebranded as a creative hub, and the excitement not confined to those who work in culture. The government-backed Creative Partnerships is to get involved in the national curriculum, ‘the sciences as well as the arts’, while the DTI wants business to harness the creative potential of design. It might seem the arts’ time has come. Where once corporate involvement in the arts was confined to philanthropic patronage, the new relationship is more intimate. Corporations use arts practice to tap the creative potential of employees, and hire consultants to teach executives what Shakespeare had to say about leadership. For business, the creativity tag offers a new sexiness in a context of broad cynicism and hostility to corporate culture.

But are there dangers in making ‘creativity’ an orthodoxy? If the official definition of creativity is so plastic as to include everyone, might the arts as distinct disciplines be lost? While the new mood emphasises social utility, can art survive as an end in itself? And is the new ideology of creativity in enterprise a substitute for genuine technical innovation? What does creativity really mean?


Venu Dhupa Fellowships Director, NESTA
Phil Mullan economist, author and writer on economic, demographic and business issue; non-executive director, Easynet Group Plc
Professor Jeremy Myerson Professor of Design Studies and director of Innovation, RCA, and codirector, Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, Royal College of Art
Professor Paul Robertson Director; The Music Mind Spirit Trust
Colin Tweedy Chief Executive, Arts and Business
Chair: Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas 


3.30 – 5pm

Is morality making a comeback?

For a long time people assumed modernisation meant secularisation, that material progress could cohere society without religion or prescriptive public morality. More recently, it is argued that the very stuff of modern society, like material wealth and human reason, has created a moral vacuum. Commentators saw the wave of grief following the death of Pope John Paul II as an indication that people crave spiritual leadership, and the growth of Islam is seen as a rejection of an empty Western way of life. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins stand accused of underestimating the popular hunger for meaning. President Bush is said to have won the 2004 US election on issues like gay marriage and stem cell research, while Tony Blair began his third term this year with a call for more respect in British society. The search is on for alternatives to consumerism, whether Richard Layard’s happiness quotas or greenish, ‘ethical living’. Is morality – in various guises – making a comeback?

Is a popular desire for shared values enough to support a new morality as opposed to vague sentiment? Can there be consensus on common ‘values’? Does religion have the answers, or is there a secular solution to the moral malaise?


Dr Dylan Evans author of Emotion, Evolution and Rationality
Professor Frank Furedi professor of sociology at the University of Kent
Professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn American cultural historian
Chair: James Panton co-director, The Battle of Ideas


Sunday 30 October 2005


11am – 12.30pm

Reassessing the Enlightenment ?

The Enlightenment, commonly understood as the 18th century offensive on behalf of human reason against religious dogma and unquestioned tradition, has long been regarded as more than an historic event. It has become a fiercely contested concept in its own right, and a cipher in contemporary debates about the modern world. The Enlightenment is taken to stand for such contested ideas as reason, progress, universalism, secularism, humanism, modern science, democracy and freedom of speech. It is variously celebrated for placing man centre-stage in history, or charged with having paved the way to Auschwitz in its cold rationalism and disdain for the constraints of tradition.

Ideas like reason and progress are themselves contested, but arguments about the political consequences of their implementation tend to reveal certain recurring rifts. Is there a tension between rationality and humanism, for example? Is ‘Enlightenment universalism’ a cloak for a particularly Western worldview? And is the Enlightenment model of human progress responsible for devastating the environment? Rather than accepting or rejecting a pre-packaged version of ‘Enlightenment thought’, can we critically engage with it, and reassess its legacy in terms of our own needs and aspirations?


Professor Brian Barry author of Culture and Equality: an egalitarian critique of multiculturalism
Professor Simon Blackburn professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick medical journalist and commentator
Professor Todd Gitlin professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University Graduate School
Chair: Dolan Cummings co-director, The Battle of Ideas


4 – 5.30pm

The humanist project in the 21st century

sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Throughout history people have asked what it means to be human, and different historical periods have generated distinct narratives, attributing human beings with more or less control over our destiny. Advances in neuroscience now suggest the possibility of a greater biological understanding of humanity, but whether we interpret this fatalistically, or see it as an opportunity to have more control over our lives depends on wider cultural attitudes. Grander or more heroic notions of humanity are today considered not only wrong but dangerous. The Holocaust serves as an enduring reminder of the dark side of the human potential, and many see environmental problems as further evidence that human hubris must be checked. What does it mean to affirm humanism at a time when we are as unsure about the legacy of human agency as we are about its future?

The possibility of human beings shaping the world around them, once a central tenet of left-wing thought, seems unpopular. Conservatives seem equally pessimistic, declaring ‘the end of history’ and the ‘end of politics’. Should we accept a more humble vision of ourselves, or is there something to be salvaged from the humanist narrative of history-making?


Professor Frank Furedi professor of sociology at the University of Kent
Professor AC Grayling professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London
Professor Daphne Patai professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Professor Raymond Tallis professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester
Chair: Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas