Zettelkasten

The Biography of Sascha's Zettelkasten

A proper Zettelkasten should be like a second mind, almost a person on its own. I am not there, yet. My buddy, the Zettelkasten, surprises me a lot but he needs to be filled with a couple thousand more Zettels.

That doesn’t prevent me from giving you a small biography.

The Childhood of its Father (That’s Me)

I always was keen to some sort of systematic approach and always liked to put something into order. As a child I was obsessed with encyclopedic dictionaries – most about the animal kingdom, but it was really the idea of a complete system of knowledge which got me hooked. I always started to collect something within a file folder. When I look back, the filing seems to be the durable element of all my childhood projects instead of the topics themselves.

Flirting With Knowledge

20 years later.

During my university studies I fell in love with the huge library and copied every piece of paper and made huge piles in my room. I tried to conserve the knowledge externally. But I realized that this couldn’t be a solution if I ever wanted to put any use to that mess.

When I remember my effort, I am surprised that it took so long to give up the habit of building piles. Perhaps this was due to my romantic perception of a really messy scholar’s room. In Germany, we have a phrase that says “the genius reigns over the chaos”. But then again, perhaps I just needed an excuse to be messy. :)

The Birth of the Zettelkasten

happy child
Photo Credit: Volkan_83 via Compfight cc

During my studies I searched for a better solution and found it in the form of Luhmann’s work on knowledge management.

Thus, ** I found the Zettelkasten was!** I was in love immediately, and it is an ongoing romance.

I did some research and found that Luhmann actually wrote an article on his Zettelkasten. I took it as my gospel of truth. I inferred a few laws and rules for my own Zettelkasten.

At this point I was still working with paper and index cards. I think it was because of my romantic idea of analogous knowledge work. But in essence I tried to mimic Luhmann’s Zettelkasten.

At the same time I researched a historical perspective on the Zettelkasten. In philosophy, so many big thinkers impressed me that I didn’t want to believe that they don’t organize themselves.

I used the knowledge of my historical studies and found that quite a lot of scholars tried to overcome the limitations of human cognition with some technical device.

Entering Puberty aka Digitalization

I was into the idea that my Zettelkasten should be analog as a real card index. But soon I realized that I shouldn’t omit the advantages of the digital age. I looked for dedicated knowledge management software. There are even apps that try to mimic the Zettelkasten of Luhmann. I was prone to the idea of a local wiki and started to arrange me with DokuWiki.

Meanwhile, I interviewed many professors all over university and was shocked: all of them trusted solely in the fact that they are working in a digital environment. They believed that a full-text through their saved articles was enough. All my questions about hypertext, neural networks, and having a second brain – questions I assumed that a philosopher should be thrilled about – seemed to bore or even irritate them.

Retrospectively, I should have seen this as a chance to be a pioneer rather than being disappointed in my professors.

Exiting Puberty: Christians Plain Text Approach

I was not so competent in dealing with technology. I still have some missing points in that area. But lucky as I am, I met Christian. He’s a programmer, so technology is his home base. Our friendship really took off because of the Zettelkasten (and that he moved to my neighborhood).

Together, we helped each other strip much of the so-called “features” away which we had included in our Zettelkasten systems.

For example: I was so into the wiki because I was a heavy mouse user and liked the looks of a hypertext wiki. Pure .txt was a little too rough for my aesthetics. I learned from Christian just to live on pure text (with a little Markdown) and more comfortable with a keyboard-heavy usage of my computer.

What Comes Next?

My Zettelkasten started with a pile of paper, turned into a wiki, and became a system-wide note-taking method that has its heart in a folder called archive. I first turned digital, then lean and minimal. Most of the people call me nerdy when it comes to my Zettelkasten. In my perception it is just the consequence of a romantic wish to live a life as a scholar like the old days.

I am looking forward to what happens next since the principle of the Zettelkasten took over my whole system. For example, I don’t limit assigning IDs to Zettels in my Archive. Every content related file (text, image, table) has its own ID. I heavily link between files.

I am excited because it seems that some sort of brain-like system is unfolding in front of my eyes. There are different parts that specialize on different tasks:

  1. I have an archive of Zettels that only contains my Zettels as notes.
  2. I have an archive of images.
  3. I have an archive of all my journals.

But with my system-wide ID everything is and will get more connected. Now many of my texts just “become” themselves in front of my eyes just as a result of my outline technique. I suppose that in the next few years I’ll pull whole books out of my system just by taking notes and sticking to the conventions of designing a Zettel.