Hilary Lawson is an English post-realist philosopher. Known for his theory of closure, he is director of the Institute of Art and Ideas and founder of the philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn. He has also had a journalistic and documentary career, is the founder of TVF Media, and the originator of the video painting movement.
Hilary Lawson was born and grew up in Bristol, England, the only son of Harold Lawson and his wife Norma (née Gear). Awarded a scholarship whilst an undergraduate at Balliol College Oxford he gained a first in PPE. As a post-graduate he came to see paradoxes of self-reference as the central philosophical issue and began a DPhil on The Reflexivity of Discourse. This later became the basis for his first philosophical book Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament.
Alongside his philosophical writing, Lawson pursued a media career. Within a few years he had created his own prime time television series Where There's Life with a weekly UK audience in excess of ten million. In 1982 Hilary Lawson co-authored a book based on the series. At 28, he was appointed Editor of Programmes and later Deputy Chief Executive at the television station TV-am.
Meanwhile he continued to develop his philosophical thinking and had initial sketches of the theory later to become Closure. In 1985 he wrote Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament (1985), as part of a series on modern European thought. The book argued that the paradoxes of self-reference are central to philosophy and drive the writings of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida.
In the late 1980s he founded the production company TVF Media which made documentary and current affairs programming, including Channel 4's flagship international current affairs programme, The World This Week. Hilary Lawson was editor of the programme which ran weekly between 1987 and 1991. The programme predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Yugoslavia and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In the 1990s, he focused on writing Closure. It took a decade to complete and was published in 2001. The book has been described as the first non-realist metaphysics. Having begun his philosophical career as a proponent of postmodernism latterly he became a critic arguing for the necessity of an overall framework and the need to move on from a focus on language. Applying the framework of openness and closure to the visual medium, he created the first video paintings in 2001 with the aim of escaping narrative closure. He went on to found the Artscape Project in 2003, which brought a collective of artists together to develop the new medium. Lawson founded the Institute of Art and Ideas in 2008 with the aim of making ideas and philosophy a central part of cultural life. IAI.tv was launched in 2011. IAI news in 2013 and the IAI Academy in 2014.
Hilary Lawson's theory 'Closure' proposes that the human condition is to find ourselves on the cusp of openness and closure. The world is open and we, along with other living organisms, are able to apprehend and make sense of it through the process of closure. Lawson defines closure as the holding of that which is different as one and the same. Human experience is seen to be the result of successive layers of closure, which Lawson describes as preliminary, sensory and inter-sensory closure. The highest level of closure, inter-sensory closure realises language and thought. The theory shifts the focus of philosophy away from language and towards an exploration of the relationship between openness and closure. An important element of the theory of closure is its own self-referential character.
The framework of closure enables Lawson to give an account of the relationship between language and the world that does not rely on reference and which he argues overcomes the problem of how language is hooked onto the world that has beset twentieth century philosophy. One of the consequences of the theory is that philosophical oppositions, between language and the world, fact and value, are no longer regarded as oppositions and instead are seen as a consequence of the play of closure and openness. As a result, science is not in opposition to art and religion but in a different relationship to openness and closure. Lawson proposes that science is 'driven by the search for closure'. The pursuit of closure cannot however succeed and in the failure of closure openness is uncovered. Art in contrast is described as 'the pursuit of openness and the avoidance of closure'. In turn the pursuit of openness cannot succeed and elements of closure remain.
Lawson began his philosophical development at Oxford University, one of the primary centres of the analytic school. While still an undergraduate he became convinced that problems of self-reference undermined the analytic project. His trajectory to this conclusion started with the reflexive problems of relativism which were explored with the political theorist, Steven Lukes; continued with an examination of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, with the translator BF McGuiness; and were cemented in conversation with Alan Montefiore who had close links with Jacques Derrida and was aware of similarities of argument and approach.
As can be seen from the pamphlet After Truth - A Post Modern Manifesto written in collaboration with Hugh Tomlinson the translator of a number of Deleuze's works, under the pseudonym the 2nd of January group, Hilary Lawson's approach increasingly diverged from the mainstream of analytic philosophy having more in common with the American philosopher Richard Rorty and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Rorty collaborated on his film Science...fiction? which argued that "science is not powerful because it is true, but true because it is powerful" and took part in a subsequent documentary film of his on Plato entitled The First World. Rorty also contributed to a collection of essays co-edited by Hilary Lawson: Dismantling Truth: Reality in the Post-Modern World
Lawson's subsequent work can be seen as a response to the writings of Rorty and Derrida, and an attempt to overcome the self-referential paradoxes in which he believed they were mired. While in his early work he is a proponent of postmodernism he has latterly become a critic arguing for a return to metaphysics and the necessity of an overall theory. This is apparent in his public debates with John Searle, Simon Blackburn and others.
In Reflexivity Hilary Lawson argued that self-reference was central to contemporary philosophy. Using Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida as the main examples, he sought to show that reflexivity was the primary motor of their work. It was implicit that similar arguments could be applied to Wittgenstein and the analytic tradition.
The introduction to Closure, referred to as the Prologue, extends the arguments put forward in Reflexivity to the broader philosophical tradition. It argues that issues of self-reference undermine currently available philosophical positions. The main body of the book describes the process of closure and the means by which we can intervene in the world and seemingly understand it. In doing so it seeks to demonstrate that meaning and understanding are not dependent on notions of reference and truth, arguing that although there is nothing in common between closure and openness this does not limit our ability to intervene successfully in the world.
Other books include Dismantling Truth: Science in Post-Modern Times, and Closure: A Story of Everything. Articles include After Truth, On Integrity, Philosophy As, and The Poetic Strategy.
Documentary film and factual television
His documentary films include: Your Own Worst Enemy, writer and producer, (ITV); Science … fiction?, written and directed (BBC); Broken Images, written and directed (BBC); The First World, written and directed (Channel 4); The Man, the Myth, and The Maker, produced and presented (Channel 4); DNA in the Dock, written and directed (Channel 4); The Greenhouse Conspiracy, written, directed and presented (Channel 4); Incredible Evidence (90mins), written and directed (Channel 4).
His current affairs output includes: The World This Week (1hr, weekly 1988-93), Editor (Channel 4); Cooking the Books, written and directed (Channel 4); South Africa: After Apartheid, produced and presented (Channel 4); Patent on Life, written and directed (Channel 4); For Queen or Country, written and directed (Channel 4).
Lawson shot the first video paintings, Orange and Grey, and Cusp in 2001 and 2002. He founded the Artscape Project in 2003 consisting of a collective of artists, including William Raban, Sarah Turner, Sanchita Islam and Isabelle Inghillieri, whose aim was to develop and explore the medium of the video painting. The Artscape Project is now represented by Open Gallery.
The video painting flows from his philosophical outlook and constitutes a break from the film-making narratives that had been his focus for more than a decade. Hilary Lawson sees video painting as a means to encourage the viewer to escape everyday closures and approach openness, or what Heidegger would have called Being.
In 2003 he was instrumental in developing a technology with computer scientists which enabled video paintings to be stored and played in such a manner that their order did not repeat but was also not random. The software and technology (known as Laluna) were created in order to allow video paintings to be integrated and put together so that they could constitute collections of work that never repeated or recapitulated, and yet had structure.
His video painting work has been exhibited at: the Hayward Gallery (2006); Sketch (2007), the ICA (2007), and The Globe at Hay gallery (2008). Now Revisited, performed at Shunt, London in 2009, was a video painting installation in five acts in which the audience found themselves the subject of the work.
- Palme D'Argent Monte Carlo, 1992
- The Emily Award, American Film and Video Festival, 1991
- Documentary of the Year, Encyclopædia Britannica.
- The Amnesty International Award, Best Documentary, 1995
- Gold Award, New York TV and Film Festival, 1989
- Royal Television Society Award Nomination, 2000
- British Academy Award Nomination, 2000-1
- Closure: A Story of Everything; Routledge (2001) p.328
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