Where have all the philosophers gone? Asked to name a living philosopher, most educated people in Britain might come up with Jacques Derrida. Ask them for something they know about contemporary philosophy, and they might venture the opinion that Derrida is "the one who talks nonsense". The early 20th century witnessed a bumper crop of great figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Less resounding but still significant contributions were made mid-century by the likes of Hilary Putnam, Willard Quine, Saul Kripke and others. However, there is little sign of anyone under the age of 40 ready to take their place today. If there are any candidates to emerge in this country, they may well be found in the pages of New British Philosophy, an absorbing collection of interviews with 16 of the nation's rising stars. Many of them are the right side of middle age and primed to produce their best work.
We should hope that they do not spend too long about this task, because it is not as if philosophers are recognised only after their deaths - Robert Nozick and David Lewis were in their twenties when they began to make an impact, while Kripke's first papers on logic were published when he was still in high school. Professional philosophers tend to react to the current scarcity in one of two ways. The first and most common is denial. "But haven't you heard of Joe Shmo's work?" they ask. And who is Joe Shmo? "He's a very brilliant . . . student of mine." The second is the conspiracy theory, in which budding geniuses have the originality knocked out of them by the stultifying academic system. Joe Shmo is unlikely to be appearing on our screens any time soon, but if he is in fact a true genius, then he will make his point in whatever circumstances he finds himself - even if they involve achieving tenure.
When we look at the history of philosophy over the past 2,500 years, we can see that there really need be no explanation for the current shortage of major thinkers - they have always been rare at the best of times. More worrying is the dearth of relatively minor thinkers, of which we seemed to have an inexhaustible supply up until the 1980s. Yet technical ability in philosophy is at an all-time high. It is fair to say that Socrates would be lucky to last five minutes in debate with the average college professor today.
A great deal of ability is on show in New British Philosophy. Its subjects' motivations range from that of the logician Timothy Williamson, whose current project explores "modal metaphysics, the nature of possible beings", to the Nietzschean leftist Keith Ansell-Pearson's desire to "reclaim the future for philosophy from the futurologists and our cyber-gurus". The feminist thinker Rae Langton, meanwhile, argues that pornography "silences" women; which led one guest at the launch party for the anthology to quip that that was "another good reason to watch porn".
Tim Crane of University College London is concerned with the essence of mentality, while Essex's Simon Critchley attempts to chart a middle course between the scientism of Britain and the US and the obscurantism of France. Their interests can be so disparate because, as one interviewee remarked, there are so many people doing philosophy these days that nothing ever goes out of fashion. If there is a thread, it is that the continental divide between the philosophical traditions has been bridged. There is certainly much talk of this in the interviews without a great deal of evidence being offered.
The merger has been more one of personnel than subject matter. Most Anglo-American philosophers seem to deny the divide on the grounds that they have read Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but they often draw a blank on more recent literature. Joining the two traditions has become rather like trying to fasten an ever- lengthening zip. But it is worth the effort. If nothing else, synthesis is one way to form new concepts.
New concepts are required because we are currently in that phase of the intellectual cycle where there is little work for the mere technicians of ideas. Minor thinkers take their cue from major thinkers - they perform the tasks their predecessors might have done if they had not died. Like the Young Hegelians in the 1840s, or the pupils of Wittgenstein in the 1950s and 1960s, it is possible to make a contribution to the subject merely by elaborating or criticising the work of the masters.
The problem of late is that the bones of Russell and Wittgenstein have been virtually picked clean. As the remains will support only a thin gruel, sharp young minds clearly need fresh material to work with. New British Philosophy shows that we are at last trying to find it.
Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic)