The index

Compiling a book’s index is regarded as a chore. Some authors are willing to pay to have it done for them. Others trust it to an automated program. I always prefer to compile my own indexes and this week I completed the index for my Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There is Not.

As a student, I was often frustrated by inadequate indexes. With little time, I’d usually want to read only the part of the book relevant to my next essay but often it would be hard to locate. Occasionally I’d try to look up a particular topic or example that I knew I’d already seen in a book and it was then even more frustrating to find it inadequately or badly indexed. I’ve always tried to make my own indexes user-friendly, thorough and complete, viewing the list through the eyes of reader looking for something specific.

It requires good philosophical judgment to know what terms to index. A paid indexer might miss a passing reference to mechanisms, for instance, not knowing that this is an important philosophical topic in its own right. An automated program wouldn’t know the difference between significant and insignificant uses of a term. As a metaphysician, I might talk about objects at one point and index each mention of ‘object’. But if a say ‘an opponent could object that…’, then a search function would take that as an instance. I think of the index as an integral part of a book and, if I’m author of the book, I should be author of the index too. It’s the way of showing which are the important concepts of the book. It might sound over-ambitious, but I like to think that a good index can be a work of art. I try to have fun with it. I try to make it readable in its own right. Occasionally, I put in jokes.

I first starting thinking about absences, nothings and negatives back in 1989. There are 32 years of work that have gone into this book. Compiling an index from such a lengthy project brought back so many memories of issues I’d struggled with and authors I’d read. It was a pride and pleasure to index two former undergraduates I’d taught. There was sadness too: I indexed a number of contemporaries who have passed on all too soon.

Unlike any other index I’ve compiled, this one gave me a pressing sense of the passage of time. I was aware of my own age and aging, of my progress through the problems but also through my career and life. Other philosophers and texts accompanied me on the journey, some still here and some now missing. I never thought I’d be the kind of academic who would spend more than 30 years writing a book so didn’t anticipate these feelings. For an author, the index is usually the very last work on a book and I must admit to some ambivalence on the closure it has brought me. Alas, time to let go and to move on.

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