Johannes Schmidt gave an awesome lecture but most of you don’t understand German. So I thought I’d give you a quick flash of my notes of some points that I found most important. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive overview. Some points are left out or presented with the intention to be more relevant but as a result can be biased.
Luhmann wrote 50 books and about 600 articles on various topics. This shows the potential of the Zettelkasten Method. But you need to distinguish between the effects of the Zettelkasten and his intellect and effort. Some of his productivity can be a just a result of his work ethics. A Zettelkasten doesn’t make you a productivity maniac but only leverages your efforts.
However, Luhmann stated that working with the Zettelkasten consumed most of his time, not the actual book writing. That gives us a hint, that it is the manic work with the Zettelkasten that results in such a high productivity.
This may or may not be specific to non-fictional writings. I don’t have any experience with adopting the Zettelkasten Method to fictional writing except for background research for my upcoming novels. So I cannot make the conclusion that the Zettelkasten Method is useful to all kinds of writing.
Luhmann pointed out that he depended on his Zettelkasten. This is further evidence that the Zettelkasten Method was a major factor in his productivity. But still: Keep in mind that he was a science savage. He invested huge amounts of time in his work. Don’t expect magic when you use this method.
Luhmann knew right from the beginning that this would be a lifetime project. This should be the premise of the work with this method. It starts to unfold its magic after a couple of years. That is, by the way, one of the main reasons for the plain-text based approach Christian and I chose. It is the most durable format we can have in the digital world.
On Luhmann’s Zettelkasten
There were two archives. The first one contains 24,000 Zettel and 1800 bibliographic entries. The second one was bigger and has 66,000 entries with 16,000 bibliographic entries (which is insane). There are very few connections between the two as they served two different purposes.
That differs from our approach. We are much less specific in our goals with our Zettelkasten Method. That is not a problem because we don’t have the limitations of a physical Zettelkasten.
Reading for the Zettelkasten
His readings triggered thoughts and these thoughts went into the Zettelkasten with distinct steps.
- He created brief excerpts for a book and a list of thoughts with references to the pages in the book.
- Later, he wrote every distinct point on a different Zettel and decided individually for every thought where to put it.
There is a difference between normal academic reading and reading for the Zettelkasten. It is not about understanding the author but about filling your archive with meaningful thoughts and how to improve its content and connections.
Zettelkasten on the Zettelkasten
There are two Zettels on the Zettelkasten itself (self-reference):
- The Zettelkasten as a septic tank - don’t put in only filtered notes. Delay examining and deciding - and a question of speed.(Zettel 9/8a2)
- The Zettelkasten with the complex digestive tract of a ruminant. All arbitrary ideas, all randomness of the reading could be included. The inner compatibility matters. (Zettel 9/8i)
This is a very direct translation to give you an idea of what he actually wrote on a Zettel.
Structure of the Zettelkasten
There are big departments. They are big topics which are in order of his historical interests and thoughts. The deeper you go into the topics the further away they move from the root topic to different topics because he included “side thoughts”.
The only criterion where to put a new Zettel: Connection to the previous Zettel. A Zettel should have some connection to the previous Zettel. The result: Some topics are spread out to different places. That makes the physical archive easier to use because you can just fill the notes and think about the whole archive structure later – if at all.1
But at the same time, you have different contexts because of the many places one topic is spread to. That gave Luhmann some variability which could enhance the possibility of making far fetches, therefore interesting connections. If you ditch the Folgezettel technique you’re going to loose this benefit. I extended my tool box with structural notes lately. This gives you the opportunity to safe the context without sacrificing the usability with Folgezettel. I will write about this tool in the future. (Hint: There will be a very expanded second edition of the Zettelkasten Method Book.)
Folgezettel don’t matter
The interesting part for me was that the technique, not principle, of Folgezettel didn’t come up as important other than a method to find Zettel again. This is not necessary if you have a digital Zettelkasten. You can just use several search methods.
Luhmann stated the same thing: As long as you can find one Zettel, it doesn’t matter where you put it. You just have to be able to link to a Zettel and then you are fine. He made it very clear in his article “Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen”. (“Communicating with slip boxes”, available online.)
He referred to his Zettelkasten as a “spiderweb like system” or, in other words, a network.
Folgezettel are not an important part of the method but rather a technique to cope with the physicality of his actual archive.
Luhmann had hubs in his archive. There are some Zettel that just contained an extensive list of links to the core Zettels. That reminds me heavily of my overview Zettel.
Johannes Schmidt emphasized the difficulty of finding a Zettel. Hubs are like highways between topics for the physical Zettelkasten. My hubs serve a different purpose.
I don’t need to search Zettels in an inconvenient physical Zettelkasten. In a digital Zettelkasten, it is quite easy but I can play around with some of the meta-structure of some topics in my Zettelkasten. I develop ideas, theories on my overview Zettel. Sometimes, like in the book I write after finishing my next one, titled “Modernity as disease”, I develop a theory in a Zettel which serves as an outline and manuscript at the same time. I always state that the method should bend around your thinking and not the other way around. I just can think and write - the Zettelkasten Method does the rest. This is the freedom of the digital version.
Christian and I attended an event in which we had a chance to listen to an up-to-date talk from Johannes Schmidt.
If you don’t know who Johannes is: He is the man who does the research on the original Zettelkasten of Luhmann here in Bielefeld, Germany; he’s the Guardian of the Godfather’s Zettelkasten. I had the opportunity to pester him with a bunch of questions. There is more to come. Check out his research on Luhmann and the Zettelkasten.
I have to recommend the following to you: Start your Zettelkasten. Use a plain text approach. It takes a while but it is definitely worth it.
If you have no idea how to start and speak German, buy the book. If you already started your Zettelkasten, wait for the second edition. If you only read English: We will create a comprehensive course for you.
Christian’s Comment: The event we attended in October was very interesting because the use of information hubs was stressed thoughout the talk and discussion. (Probably in part due to us asking for specifics about the topic …) I use hubs for things like tag overviews to have a curated list of very relevant Zettel notes on a given topic. But the resulting structure is very shallow. I wonder how I can improve the situation without relying too much on bureaucratic bookkeeping (“This new Zettel has to be sorted into this and that list”) and improve the internal network.
Keep in mind that this way of organizing your archive is a disadvantage if you have a digital Zettelkasten. ↩