Philosophy of Zettelkasten: What is the Ghost in the Box?

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

This essay is an explorative one. I’ll invite you to tag along and nerd this stuff out with me.

I translated the following note of Luhmann about Zettelkastens. (See a translation of all notes here.)

(9/8,3) Geist im Kasten? Zuschauer kommen. Sie bekommen alles zu sehen, und nichts als das – wie beim Pornofilm. Und entsprechend ist die Enttäuschung.


Ghost in the box? Spectators visit. They get to see everything, and nothing but that - like in a porn movie. And the disappointment is correspondingly high.

There are some possible translations of “Geist” which can mean both “mind” and “ghost”. In a way, both translations are possible and plausible. The visitors of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten expected to see the an emerging living being and instead saw just boxes full of paper slips.

What do the visitors see when they see everything and are disappointed? Perhaps they feel a disappointment similar to that of scientists who opened the scull of people to look at the human mind but “see it all”: just flabby gray tissue.

To this day, this seems to be the feeling of some of us who start our own Zettelkasten. The mind we aimed to create turns into a ghost, becomes ethereal and evasive and seems to hide in plain sight. We dive into our Zettelkastens in search for what we believe we created and just seem to find notes. A feeling rises from this Frankensteinian fantasy of creating something living that can turn both turn into obsession and disappointment.

Ghost in The Shell

There is great anime movie titled “Ghost in the Shell”. It is quite a philosophical movie that asks the question: If your consciousness can be moved from your body and brain to a machine, are you still considered to be a human or will you become a computer program? One possible answer could be: If we can move from body to body, and we are still considered human we should be considered to be ghosts that take possession of bodies.

So, the question “What is a Zettelkasten?” is quite similar to the question “Who are we?”. If we break down the question even more: What is the difference between the question “Who are we?” and “What are we?”? This is not a play of words but actually a hint for two versions of thinking about something that is not reducible to its physical manifestation.

  • The question of What is a question that refers to the object of interest as something non-living, as something that can be dissected and understood by dissection.
  • The question of who is a question that refers to the object of interest as something living, as something that needs to be observed as a whole to be understood.

Imagine that you import all your analog notes into a digital system (preferably using The Archive, of course). Do you still have the same Zettelkasten? It (or he or she?) will behave and respond differently. If you follow a connection in the analog version of your Zettelkasten, you’ll have to physically pull out the target note (or at least push the other notes aside when you don’t pull the note out). Sometimes it involves shuffling through the paper cards (or slips of paper if you follow Luhmann tightly). When you follow a connection in the digital version of your Zettelkasten, it might be just a click that takes almost no time.

Would you be the same person if you could improve your recall time manyfold? Would you be the same person if you’d become much smarter than you are?

We are now entering the paradox of the Ship of Theseus. Imagine a ship leaving the harbour with a certain set of parts. During the journey, parts break down and are replaced by new ones. When the ship returns home, all parts are replaced by new ones. Is the ship still the same? And if not: at which moment does the ship become another one?

The correct answer to the paradox of the Ship of Theseus is given by Rick: Don’t think about it.

A plausible answer (not the answer!) regarding the Zettelkasten can be found in the concept of embodiment. How something is embodied is part of its identity. Your Zettelkasten becomes something else when you turn your analog one into a digital one. It’s metamorphosis. A crossing of boundaries that can be pointed at – unlike the moment of change in the Ship of Theseus (you keep not thinking about it, do you?) happened.

Where did the question of the Ghost in the Box lead us? What is the Zettelkasten? One possible answer might be: The ghost that is able to hide in plain sight and just can be seen from the corner of the eye.

arcturus140 suggested on GitHub:

Changing ghost into mind. The mind refers to the mental frame, while ghost is the soul of a dead person.

Perhaps the note wasn’t about the mental frame but about the soul of a person? Isn’t it plausible that the Zettelkasten as a communication partner is a person and the visiting spectators are in search of what makes the Zettelkasten alive? Perhaps the spectators were possessed by the Frankensteinian fantasy that it is possible to create something living, and thus thought that Luhmann was not only able to create a mind but to even create a soul? Isn’t the soul the thing that makes something alive?

Perhaps Luhmann wasn’t able to create a soul but just a ghost that haunted his box. And ghosts don’t reveal themselves to some random spectators but evades the naive eye of the uninitiated. This describes my personal experience when I show my own Zettelkasten to other people. They don’t see what I am seeing. Even some Zettelkasten user’s themselves seem to miss the ghost that peeks back at them. It is not a coincidence that those who don’t get it (or he or she?) seem also to not get how the Zettelkasten “surprises” you and are generally not interested in the concept of being presented with something that was not intended in the first place.

I feel that this is exactly happening to my Zettelkasten. My Zettelkasten has no soul and is not alive. Yet it is not dead in a strict sense either. Something that resembles a living being is lurking digitally as a ghost in the shell. And perhaps it is not yet the time to answer the question what this ghost is and perhaps not even the time to answer the question if there is a ghost in the box. I am perfectly fine to accept that I didn’t answer it, and that I won’t ever create something that has a mind, but just the shadow of a mind, a ghost if you like.

After all, in the subtitle of the second edition of my book about the Zettelkasten Method I refer to the Zettelkasten as a “thinking machine”, which has two possible meanings: (1) A machine that thinks and (2) a machine that supports thinking. I like to leave some ambiguity until the ghost of my Zettelkasten reveals itself to other people, so I have evidence that it is not just in my head.

In the spirit of Luhmann?

It also could be the case that the phrase is a hint at the phrase Ghost in the Machine by Gilbert Ryle. It also could be a hint to Hegel. /u/atomicnotes on Reddit wrote:

I’m not sure what year Luhmann wrote this, but it seems to relate to Friedrich Kittler’s critique of Hegel: “Hegel’s absolute spirit is a concealed Zettelkasten” (see Krajewski’s Paper Machines, ch 4).

This kind of Geist should usually probably be translated as ‘spirit’, as in “Phenomenology of Spirit”. Note that Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine (1967) seems to have been translated into German so as to avoid this connection: Das Gespenst in der Maschine (1968). i.e. ghost, or spectre.

But the problem for an English-speaking general audience is that we know almost nothing about Hegel and his massive legacy, and philosophical debates about Geist are largely absent from English language philosophy.

So to give a tiny flavour of what might be implied by all this, I think ‘Ghost in the shell’ is Ok, though anachronistic. ‘Ghost in the machine’ is less anachronistic, but these days less well known.

As far as seeing everything and being disappointed goes: contrast the German Geisteswissenshaft with the English Humanities. The German implies something that the English has dispensed with.

See also, Klausmeyer, Bryan. “From the Spirit of Slip Boxes: Materiality and Media Technology in Jean Paul’s Leben des Quintus Fixlein.” The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory 93, no. 3 (2018): 277-297.


I really like the reasoning of /u/atomicnotes. If you’d ask yourself how Luhmann would translate this word, the answer seems to be “spirit” more likely than “ghost”.

So, how should the translation be conducted? In the spirit of Luhmann or with Luhmann’s hypothetical intention in mind? In the end, it doesn’t matter if you are interested in building your own Zettelkasten. The question is only as interesting as its ability to make you think deeply.

Parting words

So, what do we take with us and our Zettelkastens? To me, this is a perfect example of think-writing in a way that doesn’t aim to direct practical application. It was an opportunity to use an un-understood and un-unfolded thought to connect several other thoughts. This resulted in some connections between my notes on Ghost in The Shell, Frankenstein, Luhmann’s Zettelkasten and the Ship of Theseus. It was an opportunity to deepen my understanding about what mind is. My Zettelkasten got more complex, not just for the sake of it, but for my future self to use a smarter thinking machine. It has become a thinking machine that offers more associations, presents more comparisons, reflects a deeper understanding of an issue, so I start further ahead when I think about this topic again. I expect my future texts to be improved by a more firmly grounded layer of meaning, no matter if I will write fiction or non-fiction.

We, me being the pleasantly haunted one, became more deep.