Zettelkasten

Challenge: Apply the Knowledge Cycle to Reading a Single Book

I plan to write a long term paper at University later this year. It’s going to be about the book Justice for Hedgehogs1 by Ronald Dworkin, and I’ll be able to mostly work with this single source exclusively. Consequently, there won’t be much additional research. How does the Knowledge Cycle apply if you read a book and don’t do research? I invite you to take the “Summer Knowledge Challenge” and find out with me.

To put my methods to the test and to answer the question how to deal with such a project, I’m going to blog about the whole process and the steps I take to assimilate the book’s contents. In the end, the series of posts should be a good example to see in action what it means to implement the methods I write about.

How to Deal With a Single Book

hedgehog
Photo Credit: Chickpea. via Compfight cc

The other day, I explained the concept of the Knowledge Cycle. As I have sketched the concept, a full cycle is composed of four action steps: research, read, take note, write.

To make progress in big writing projects, you should aim to complete lots of these four step-cycles, keeping each cycle short so you get feedback through writing about the topic fast. With each full cycle, you’ll have expanded your knowledge and worked on your draft. This is also supposed to make hanging on easier, and to circumvent the dreaded “writer’s block”.

So I’m reading this book in my free time and on my daily commute to get to know its structure. Since the semester starts in October, I’ve got plenty of time in advance. This is a luxury I don’t always have, but this time around that’s the way it is.

During my daily commute over the last two weeks I’ve nearly looked at every chapter so far. I have marked a few passages for reading later and took note of terms I encountered which seem to be important. There are lots of terms I did miss, I’m certain.

Right now, I didn’t take notes for comprehension, though. Comprehension is part of a thorough analytical reading of the book. I don’t extract many ideas at this stage. Instead, I only take note of things I stumble upon and which seem too important not to mark. During this phase, I focus on grasping the architecture of the book. It’s about taking notes on a meta-level, to guide me towards a research plan later.

The notes I have already taken are like an initial to-do list for the project. I can look up the terms in details when I start my analytical reading phase. There are concepts I already know but which I have to bring into context. I also have a question or two about Dworkin’s aims. I’m glad I do, because questions tend to be the best topic candidates for term papers. I’m confident in the path ahead: there’ll be more questions when I try to understanding Dworkin’s terms and concepts, and there’ll be more ideas to be had when I try to get answers to my questions.

I’m also looking forward to querying my Zettelkasten note archive to see what I’ve got on the topic: last time I really “did” philosophy was about two years ago, and I have no clue what’s in the archive on this topic. Combining old notes with the ones still to create from reading the book will likely give rise to even more ideas. I don’t fear running out of work.

The Plan

Here’s my plan to conquering Dworkin’s book:

  1. I want to finish skimming the book and know what it’s about. The results will mostly find their way in my journal or study log. I need to write about it to think clearly, but I probably won’t write anything useful for the paper at this stage.
  2. I will expose important concepts and read the book for definitions and examples in order to really grasp their meaning. Here, I’ll begin to create Zettel notes for the terms. For the sake of getting forward, I’ll add these notes to a draft, too. They are part of the skeleton of my text.
  3. When I got the key concepts, I will go for complex stuff. Maybe this will be arguments I want to copy, maybe this will be something else entirely. I’ll have to wait and see what I come up with in step 2. This is still part of comprehending Dworkin’s stand by reading analytically. Maybe I’ll sprinkle in some synoptic reading to better get to know the academic discussion.
  4. By now, I should’ve come up with a promising research question. I will try to put some meat on the draft. Again, this totally depends on the route I took in steps 2 and 3, where I build a foundation of understanding the author. Only then can I begin to start a conversation in the form of a text.

From step 2 onward, it gets interesting, since I can measure a lot of the steps which take me toward my goal of finishing the paper: I’ll track how many Zettel notes I create for each day and cycle, and how many words I write.

Since I don’t plan to do any research just yet, I cannot regulate my knowledge cycle by limiting research time, so instead I have to limit the time I spend reading.

I’ll start slowly, reading for an hour and taking notes on paper, then stop and write Zettel notes, adding them to a draft in the meantime. Reading, like research, is the most rewarding activity because I get to know something new on the way. However, reading itself doesn’t produce the results I aim for, which is to get a better understanding of Dworkin’s model and his arguments. To achieve this, I have to concentrate my efforts on taking notes and writing about the topic instead of immersing into the book. That’s your usual conflict of choice: take the rewarding route which makes you happy, or do what you really ought to do to make progress. It’s a question of morality itself.2

Getting Started: My Understanding of “Justice for Hedgehogs” so far

Let’s kick-off this public log book project by starting with a very high-level overview.

So far, I understood the following:

  • Morality is about living the Good Life, ethics is about how to treat others.
  • There’s no fundamental moral truth. Everything is interpretative and open to arguments and discourse. Our values are interconnected and support each other. We have to judge our morality based on the coherence of this web of values. (This itself is a moral judgement.)
  • From the understanding of morality follows the value of self-respect, and that humans have dignity. We have to suppose that everyone has dignity because she’s a moral subject, not just we ourselves.
  • Dignity is the foundation of ethics in Dworkin’s terms. Treating someone as a moral subject has certain implications.
  • Ethics deals with the question how you should treat people you encounter in your life as well as what justice is and how to do politics. (I’m still reading this part of the book.)

These bullet points are everything my project file contains at the moment.

Next, I will add research questions to this high-level overview, and I will add a few Zettel notes to the archive which explain the bullet points in more detail. When the first Zettel is written, I’ll start with an outline for my draft, adding the Zettel to it.

Getting these initial Zettel notes right is the first milestone, and it’s part of processing the reading notes.

Give me another week or two, and I’ll be done with the cursory reading. Then it’s time to start the real work.

Your Personal Invitation to Join Me: the Summer Knowledge Challenge

Take the chance to participate and experiment with Knowledge Cycles next to me and other readers. This may become your Summer Knowledge Challenge.

It could be fun if you too get Dworkin’s book and keep a journal, so we can see where each other is going and join in a mutual discussion of the topic.

Of course, it’ll also be a fun exercise if you pick any other interesting book you’d like to understand fully. In the end, it’s all about the journey of getting there.

Nowadays, it only takes a few minutes to set up a blog at Wordpress.com, for example, and start journaling so everyone else can follow. Now go and sign up, I’ll wait.

Together, it should be easy to make a habit of tracking the time you spend with a reading or writing project. Keeping a habit in spite of pressing deadlines is going to be important, so it might be useful to start with it playfully.

Tell the others in the comments below about your blog/journal and post a link there so we can participate in each other’s journey!

  1. Affiliate links; I get a small kickback from the vendor if you buy from my link but it won’t cost you anything. 

  2. Actually, a lot of my actions are initially motivated by moral insights. For brevity, let’s say I think that Kant’s position is sound: you have to work towards your own self-perfection, well knowing you’ll never reach the goal. That’s why I started to adhere to a strict daily routine and maximize my productivity. At the same time, you have to give other people what they need and help them live a happy life. You can’t force them on a path of self-perfection, lest you violate their dignity, which means you stop treating them as autonomous human beings. That’s the framework for my decisions, at least.