events archive

University in One Day: Why Freedom Matters

A day of liberal arts and philosophy for 16- to 18-year-olds at the West London Free School.

9:00am, Wednesday 6 September, West London Free School

Originally inspired by the Institute of Ideas’ residential summer school, The Academy, this University in One Day (U1D) is aimed at 16- to 18-year-olds who are interested in philosophy and the history of ideas, employing a broader approach to knowledge beyond the curriculum and across disciplines. Many extra-curricular activities are either skills/employability based or aimed at exam crammers, whereas U1D aims to celebrate knowledge for its own sake, and whet attendees’ appetite to read more widely than their chosen academic course requires.

We are delighted that the West London Free School has asked us to put on this event for their pupils.

PROGRAMME

9.00 – 9.20am
Introduction: Why university matters and why freedom matters
Claire Fox

9.20 – 10.15am
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: The Classical Roots of Freedom
Professor Frank Furedi
Lecture followed by Q&A

The concept of freedom and its consequences for society and the individual is a core concept of modern political philosophy. Its origin can be traced back to Ancient Greece, specifically the vital works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Despite the difficulties of providing an accurate picture of Socrates’ life and thought, the so-called ‘Socratic Problem’, his legacy provides a basis for the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s metaphysical outlook questions previous knowledge and considers the role of the individual within society, while Aristotle argues in ‘Politics: A Treatise on Government’ that humans are naturally political, so surely they should be free to live how they wish. Historically, the Athenian mode of government has been viewed as an example of one of the first democracies, with its majoritarian and direct form of decision making, yet both Plato and Aristotle noted that it was still flawed.

This session examines the classic concepts of freedom to ultimately ask: What does it mean to be free? Is freedom a basic right or an earned status and is there such a thing as a perfect/fully inclusive democracy?  Finally, is the legacy of these key thinkers still relevant today?

10.15 – 10.30
Socrates and the Socratic Method: What it is and how to use it
Short lecture
Marc Sidwell

One of the most familiar names in Western philosophy, Socrates is primarily depicted through Plato’s dialogues. These dialogues act as an example of the principle ‘question everything’ that is imperative to the Socratic Method. To reach the answer, Socrates would break down problems into successive questions, pursuing a dialectical method of enquiry. Eventually, those ideas that contain contradictions are eliminated and better, more consistent ideas prevail.

By questioning even the premises that assertions stand on, the Socratic method provides insight into commonly held beliefs that are not often subject to scrutiny. For Gregory Vlastos, the Socratic method is the greatest form of enquiry as it is available to all despite its complexity. Everyone can engage with the Socratic method to expose and engage with underlying complexities in commonly held beliefs, encouraging people to think for themselves. Indeed, in today’s society of ‘fake news’, the idea of questioning everything may provide the insight and scrutiny that we need in order to avoid passively accepting generalizations and mistruths. Some argue, however, that this constant questioning leads to an unhealthy skepticism and a deep uncertainty about life.

Should the Socratic method therefore be a commonly used method of inquiry? Or would this constant questioning threaten our happiness and fulfilment? Is it possible to use the Socratic method to reach the truth or this too open to questioning?

10.40 – 11.20am
Luther And Religious Conscience
Professor Alan Hudson
Lecture Followed By Q&A

By nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Martin Luther sparked a change that had profound repercussions for the way Europe engaged with religion and religious conscience. In his stark criticism of the Catholic Church, Luther set the precedent that individuals have every right to challenge and defy orthodoxy.

The Reformation’s inherent belief that the believer is ‘subject to none’ but God laid the foundations for challenging the status quo, empowering those who had never had the freedom to defy or question religious authorities. A new space was opened for the individual to choose rather than to be compelled, to hold themselves to account based on their own knowledge. Luther is one of the founders of freedom of religious conscience – refusing to bow to convention and conformism. His break away from accepted doctrine has allowed for the great freedom that has now flourished into a plurality of religious convictions being held within one society.

However, some argue that this individual religious freedom undermines the unity of religion and has led to splits and conflicts. Has Luther’s split from orthodoxy led to greater religious freedom of conscience or has this challenge lead to conflict and fragmentation?

11.40am – 12.40pm
The Enlightenment conception of freedom of speech
Four short lectures:

  • John Milton
    Dr Shirley Dent
  • John Stuart Mill
    Dr James Panton
  • Voltaire
    Dr Vanessa Pupavac
  • John Locke
    Hywel Jones

The French philosopher Montesquieu famously defined the Enlightenment as ‘man’s emergence from his self- imposed nonage’, highlighting the intrinsic link between the Enlightenment movement and modern political modes of thought and freedom.  Studied and debated by great historians, philosophers, politicians, authors and even scientists alike, it would be limiting to consider the Enlightenment as a single movement but rather, a symbol for the beginnings of modernity: the ‘Age of Reason’.

The Enlightenment is associated with the birth of liberalism, a form of ideology that dominates western democracy today and places an emphasis on the importance of freedom. John Locke was a key promotor of freedom and his denouncement of tyranny provided inspiration for the American and French Revolutions, two major historical events that show the triumph of the people over the ruling elite. This led to Voltaire describing him as the ‘man of the greatest wisdom’. Furthermore, Mill’s seminal On Liberty can be viewed as a promotion of utilitarianism and individual liberty
.
This session aims to question what is the Enlightenment’s legacy?  Whilst there is little doubt of its revolutionary nature should its legacy be a celebration of freedom today or is it marked as an example of the continuing dominance of European male intellectuals? In the twenty-first century do the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech still exist in practice?



12.40 – 1.30pm
Guided seminars on religious freedom and free speech
small groups led by University in One Day lecturers.

1.30pm – 2.15pm
Lunch

2.15pm-3.30pm
Plenary debate: Brexit, Sovereignty and Freedom
Chair: Claire Fox
Speakers include: Simon Hix, Ella Whelan and Toby Young.

After the referendum, Nigel Farage claimed that Britain had established its ‘Independence Day’, finally liberated from the power of unelected Eurocrats. Much of the Brexit debate centred around national sovereignty, what it means to govern your own nation. However, with the unelected House of Lords and the influence of globalisation, among other factors, the question of how much power has been concentrated back in the hands of the British people has been raised – and at what cost?

For many, the Brexit vote was a vote for self-determination and self-rule but others level charges against it for igniting regressive, nationalistic and isolationist sentiments that can only be damaging in an increasingly connected world. Nevertheless, those who championed the ‘Leave’ campaign saw the EU as a limit to the freedom of Britain to develop and invest as she saw fit. With greater national sovereignty, the British government can respond directly to the wishes of the populace without interference from supranational bodies.

This session will explore ideas of national sovereignty and how important this principle is in the debates about Brexit. Is the concept of national sovereignty outdated or is it the only way to ensure a free, truly democratic society? Is the UK more democratic outside of the EU or do we have to revise our political system too? How, moving forward, will Britain benefit from its new freedom?

READINGS

A full topic guide for this event - with readings, a glossary of terms and biographies of the speakers - is available here.