The Realisation Festival takes place at St Giles House for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was the home of a philosopher, Anthony Ashley Cooper. His ideas are radical, exciting and, as Mark Vernon writes, immensely illuminating when considered now.

Anthony Ashley Cooper was the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Born in the latter stages of the seventeenth century, he seeded the genius of philosophers as diverse as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Adam Smith in the eighteenth. During his own lifetime, he was as well known as the British empiricist, John Locke, who was his tutor. That said, Shaftesbury disagreed profoundly with his master. In that conflict lies his brilliance and our need of him now.

Locke’s philosophy has shaped much of the world today. Empiricism is the idea that the only thing truly trustworthy is what we know via the senses. When, today, a scientist or politician insists that they “have the evidence”, they are parroting Locke’s legacy.

It’s led to a mechanical experience of life, interpreted as a complex network of causes and effects. Do this and that happens. The purpose of such knowledge is primarily to gain control. It equates science with power and views nature as a resource to be probed and plundered.

Shaftesbury rejected this reductionism with force. He sought a different foundation for his convictions and found one in the aesthetic. He saw that beauty is not an add-on, an optional extra that brings colour to otherwise dry laws and descriptions. Rather, it is precisely that which enables us to see those laws and descriptions in the first place. It’s at work inside them.

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