About: Why the Battle of Ideas 2009?

Why the Battle of Ideas 2009?


Now in its fifth year, the Battle of Ideas festival comprises 75 debates and nearly twenty satellite discussions confronting society’s big issues and unresolved questions. The coming year will see a general election in the UK; rather than this prospect inspiring vigorous debate, though, the discussion feels like a stale re-hashing of limited, managerial policies. For those of us with aspirations to change the world, principles-lite politics is a dispiriting affair. But the prevailing cynicism about parliament and politicians per se is equally unedifying. So, what is to be done? The Battle of Ideas affords the opportunity for some clear thinking, rational debate and agenda-setting. Above all, we hope it will be future-orientated, while retaining a healthy regard for the past achievements of humanity.


One demoralising aspect of cultural life is what might be called ‘presentism’. Rather than seeking opportunities to shape the world for the better, we are fearful of the future, imagining apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios caused by climate change, demographic timebombs, or the unintended consequences of biomedical and technological breakthroughs. Meanwhile, the past is seen as little more than evidence of human hubris: our economies grew too fast, we neglected the planet, we were too greedy and ambitious. While we pay lip service to knowledge and creativity, powerful cultural influences call into question the enormous artistic and scientific gains and insights made in the past.

The Battle of Ideas is an opportunity to overcome this alienation from past and future alike, and the resulting mood of cautiousness and risk aversion. The festival will involve grown up discussions about what we want to achieve in the 21st century. We will rethink major concepts like freedom, privacy and authority. We will evaluate the social and moral problems facing the world, debating everything from reproduction to energy. We will go beyond talk of ‘green shoots’ and ‘greedy bankers’ to assess the meaning and legacy of the economic recession. How do we assess the pros and cons of work in the context of rising unemployment? What are our attitudes to economic growth? Can we make a case for purposeful human activity as a means of improving society, when behaviourist ideas in economics and social policy cast doubt on our rationality? Can we build a good society, and what values will it espouse?


The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’

The Battle of Ideas aims to be the 21st century equivalent of Emerson’s ‘university of knowledges’. This is an appeal that we all become thoroughly modern scholars, a new generation of public intellectuals. It is not about being academic per se, and certainly not about being po-faced or over-earnest; we expect our attendees to be free thinkers with verve, passion and idealism, embodying a spirit of irreverent scepticism. As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas rejects safe consensus. Taking ideas and ourselves seriously means questioning and criticising one another. It can mean saying the unsayable and challenging received wisdom. It certainly means holding true to the Battle of Ideas’ motto ‘Free Speech Allowed’.

Let battle commence!

Claire Fox, director, IoI and on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2009

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"What makes these sessions much more stimulating than most seminars is the sharp, often challenging contributions from the audience so that you have a real debate, not just a platform presentation."
Richard Donkin, independent journalist and author