Reading for the Zettelkasten Is Searching

If you work with the Zettelkasten Method you have to deal with a lot of reading. It is obvious that it is often not very obvious what to include into your archive and what not.

I chose to create a typology of items to serve me as an epistemiologic amplifier. If you know how things look in general (type) you can find specific items more easily. I struggle a little bit with finding the correct english term. They are not themselves thoughts neither are they Zettel types. There are six of them:

Theories. Theories are networks of statements. Together, they aim to generate statements on the reality. They have axioms that are not always explicit but rather implicit. Example: The theory of gravity. It is a collection of statements that produce the statement “Things fall down.”1

Models. Models are representations of reality. A map is a perfect example but also metaphors. If you read that a couple is like a binary star you have a model in front of you.

Definitions. Definitions define terms. They are meant to be the buildings blocks of a model and/or a theory. You can view them as an item.

Arguments. Arguments connect a premise and a conclusion. That means that you have three elements of an argument:

  1. The premise
  2. The conclusion
  3. The operator

If you are educated in formal logic you’d like do argue with me that an argument can be much more complex. You can have multiple premises and operators for one conclusion, for example.

However, it is easier to divide them into more digestible chunks. Most of the time you can divide them into several arguments. If you have multiple premises for example you can check if every one of them couples with the conclusion via an operator independently.

Example: If you have multiple studies that come to the same conclusion, every study is a premise on its own and connect to the conclusion independently from each other.

If you have several conclusions you can form several arguments with different conclusions that share one premise, but package them into different Zettel.

Counterarguments. Counterarguments aim to destroy an argument. They are normally targeted against the truth of the premises or the validity of the connection. So, either your premises are false or they don’t support the conclusion.

When a counterargument is targeted against the truth of the premise I treat them like arguments with a different conclusion.

Facts. They are things that really are the case or occurred. At least, there are good reasons to accept that. The birth date of a certain king could be such a fact unless you are a historian and discuss such things.

What you would count as facts depends on your decision what you are willing to accept without any reason or evidence. Before you reject the possibility of accepting a statement as a fact at all, be aware that you do such things anyway everyday. Your knowledge work is not different. Not looking for reasons is an important mechanism to ease the information overload we are all dealing with. It is better to control this consciously instead of letting it happen automatically.

Reading is really searching

dog with glasses
Photo Credit: by JanDix, CC0 Public Domain

Now we have a small ontology of item types that are hidden in the various texts we read. If you read a text for your Zettelkasten you should search for items. This will deepen your knowledge work with the text and accelerate the reading process.

One of the mistakes you avoid is being distracted by various attributes of the texts that are not related to your intention of reading. At least I can be distracted by the beauty or the (often unnecessary) complexity of the language. But if you take a step back and honestly ask what really is in there, you sometimes realize: Not so much. In that case, give your self the permission to accept that this text doesn’t serve you well, even if it has a good reputation.

Christian’s Comment: When I organize workshops at University, I introduce the 6 items Sascha lists here as a starting point to define & recognize elements of information in the student’s sources. At first they don’t think much of this, but soon recognize the power of having clear expectations: they can listen more selectively during class and improve the quality of their notes, and read selectively and thus speed up their research. Scientists often don’t care much about arguments as such and add methods of measurement in experiments to their repertoire instead.

  1. Dear physicians, please don’t try to kill me. I know I raped the theory of gravity to death like a sea lion a penguin. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141117-why-seals-have-sex-with-penguins