Zettelkasten

The Two Forms of a Zettel

In this post I try to dig into the nature of a Zettel. When philosophers speak about the nature of something they refer to its most basic qualities. If you substract one of those you would have something different.

This is a bird’s eye view consideration. I believe that it is useful to take a step back. But you need to consider that the practical applications need some additional steps of reasoning.

With this in mind we can start without you thinking that I am an esoteric hippie. :)

I’ll construct two forms of a Zettel:

  1. The Outer Form
  2. The Inner Form

The outer form refers to entities that are necessary for its existence.

The inner form refers to entities that compose its inner structure.

The Outer Form

A Zettel is a note in the archive of your Zettelkasten. It is unique, and its uniquenesness is guaranteed by some kind of identifier.

So here we have a unique note. Although it is not 100% sure that the content is unique, too – you could have the same content in different Zettels – we assume it is to make the reasoning more simple.

The Zettel’s identifier is not only responsible to separate it from others. It is also an address. That means that you can refer to it unequivocally.

If you address a Zettel from another one via linking by ID, you have a connection. Thus, the identifier is responsible both for separateness and the possibility of connection in your Zettelkasten.

neuron
Photo Credit: MikeBlogs via Compfight cc

Now, we unfolded two different aspects of the outer form of a Zettel. The identifier gives its separateness and possibility of connection. It is the nature of a Zettel to include both. But notice the asymmetry:

  • Separateness is a direct consequence of the uniqueness of the Zettel.
  • Connections are only possibilities.

This will be important for later reasoning.

The above describes only the first layer of the nature of a Zettel. Having an identifier is the condition of existence of a Zettel. Without seperateness and possibility of connection you have just a random note.

You could ask if seperateness isn’t enough. I suppose that seperateness and the possibility of connection are two sides of the same coin. They are direct consequences of having an identfier. On top of that, a Zettelkasten differs from a simple note storage system. Only with this inner structure the Zettelkasten unfolds its true magic which makes it more than just a note storage system. So: No possibility of connection, no connection. No connection, no Zettelkasten.

Since the necessary condition of a note to be a Zettel is its uniqueness, you should guarantee it for every note you create.

The reason why Christian and I decided to use a time-based ID is this: A moment in time never repeats. If you identify a Zettel with is creation time, this time will become a truly unique ID. The timestamp is therefore a handy means to achieve uniqueness without worrying too much about anything else. You only have to look at the time and not at the other notes. Ideally you’d automate this process.

Another benefit is, by the way, the possibility to browse by date if you put the timestamp first in the name of a Zettel file.

Now, we have discussed the outer form of a Zettel. It is the first layer of its nature.

The Inner Form

The second layer of a Zettel is its inner structure.

It contains two entities:

  • The meta data
  • The content

The meta data includes information on the Zettel itself. The content includes information about something else. Thus, another dual nature is hidden in the the inner structure of a Zettel. A Zettel includes not only information on something but also information on itself.

Is it possible to have a Zettel without any meta data? The answer is: No. The Zettel must contain some form of unique identifier either in the content of the file or in its name. Even if you only decide to have a unique title you still have a title which is an identifier. This is meta data.

Conclusions

There are several things that leap out at us.

  • The need to guarantee uniqueness. It is the condition for seperation and connection. If you don’t guarantee it, you cannot have a Zettelkasten.
  • We believe that a time-based ID or timestamp is the best solution for this problem.
  • Seperateness is a direct consequence of the uniqueness of a Zettel. Connection is just a possibility. This suggests that we need to put some extra effort in this area.
  • Because a Zettel has not only content about something else but also about itself, you need to decide which information about a Zettel is useful and what only clutters you system.

Questions

  • Do you have a unique identifier for each note? How do you guarantee its uniqueness?
  • How do you connect from note to note?