Zettelkasten Forum


Verzettel as a defining feature of a Zettelkasten

I started a discussion with a link to a post I made about my ZK. In response, a user made a comment about Verzettel (which I had never heard about before).

https://www.reddit.com/r/Zettelkasten/comments/i54art/my_concrete_examples_of_different_kinds_of_zettel/g0zx47n?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x

I've scarcely seen this term here. What does Verzettel mean to you?
And is it a defining feature of a Zettelkasten in your opinion?

Comments

  • edited August 10

    From the link within the linked Reddit comment:

    In the processing step of verzetteln, one focus on the connection to other, already existing Zettel: If the new information helps to deepen the context generated by already existing Zettel, then it should be 'transfered' to a new Zettel. For Luhmann, a single Zettel has no intrinsic value in terms of its information content -- only when the Zettel is combined with other Zettel its information content becomes 'useable'. Therefore only if a new piece of information extends the context that other Zettel 'provide', then it was 'worth' to create a Zettel. Luhmann's note box is thus not an archive but a (thinking) tool.

    According to this definition, verzetteln (a verb presumably, forgive my ignorance of German) seems analogous to what Ahrens refers to as elaboration. Because a ZK is only as good as its expression of the characteristic of relationality, links between notes help elaborate single ideas into larger assemblages or sequences, and ultimately, to fully-fledged arguments, with the following questions at the forefront, guiding the elaboration, or verzetteln (if I'm using the term correctly), of each idea.

    • How does the idea you are elaborating upon connect with the ideas already in the zettelkasten?
    • What are the relationships?
    • What questions emerge from these connections? What new paths for inquiry present themselves? (Ahrens 109-110).

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • edited August 10

    In German, verzetteln just means processing notes into single note slips. The basic translation would be "to process" in this context. Process notes into Zettel is verzetteln.

    So, the commentator is correct in the strict sense that this is what a Zettelkasten is: Notes processed to Zettel which are only Zettel in the sense that they are part of a Zettelkasten. However, it is useless wording mambojambo. If you process you "verzettel".

    In the soon to be published introduction of us, I elaborate on the basic problem of the question "What is a Zettelkasten?".

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_resemblance

    You cannot understand what a Zettelkasten is if you think you can create a prescriptive definition or find a complete descriptive definition.

    Trust your feeling on that matter. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast thanks for putting the name verzetteln to the activity I've been calling Zettelkasting. Now I have to learn how to pronounce 'verzetteln' so I can tell Mary "I have some VERZETTELN to do" and she'll know not to bother me too much. :smiley:

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • As a German I’m always confused when the word "verzetteln" gets used in English, in a Zettelkasten context. This is mostly, since in German it is usually used as part of a saying ("sich verzetteln") which means something along these lines:

    get bogged down
    fritter away
    dissipate

    I.e., "sich verzetteln" means to waste time & resources with meaningless and/or needless tasks/things, and to get lost in the process, not being able to see the forest for the trees.

    So this is the exact opposite of what Zettelkasten work and the process of crafting Zettel notes is about. For this reason, I prefer not to use this term in the Zettelkasten context. At least for Germans this is likely very confusing.

  • @msteffens That suprises me. I always felt that "verzetteln" was just a clever play of words because it is a homonym and nothing more. I speculated that the English speaker will have the issues with that wording. So, I just used processing (and pushed for the least amount of German words in English conversations).

    I am a Zettler

  • edited August 11

    @msteffens said:

    So this is the exact opposite of what Zettelkasten work and the process of crafting Zettel notes is about. For this reason, I prefer not to use this term in the Zettelkasten context. At least for Germans this is likely very confusing.

    Interestingly, it is the (German) Zettelkasten grandfather Niklas Luhmann himself who used to point out the importance of writing notes specifically attuned to the Zettelkasten (although I can't seem to trace where I read this).

  • To get a grasp of the word ver-zettel-n, it's mad ein a similar way you would use the -ify suffix in English, like zettel-ify. "to zettelify sth" would then be different than the reflexive "to zettelify oneself" that @msteffens mentiones; of couse this is all mood because you cannot transfer English <-> German word building this way, but I hope it illustrates a bit where the odd term comes from.

    And the results so far are also in part why we tried to avoid it here :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @EFLS said:

    @msteffens said:

    So this is the exact opposite of what Zettelkasten work and the process of crafting Zettel notes is about. For this reason, I prefer not to use this term in the Zettelkasten context. At least for Germans this is likely very confusing.

    Interestingly, it is the (German) Zettelkasten grandfather Niklas Luhmann himself who used to point out the importance of writing notes specifically attuned to the Zettelkasten (although I can't seem to trace where I read this).

    I don't see the connection between your post and @msteffens . Can you explain what you mean?

    I suspect that you are using verzetteln as Christian translates it as Zettelify while @msteffens uses the other term and does not use the meaning Christian hinted at.

    I am a Zettler

  • So it sounds like Verzetteln is to Zettelify or 'make zettels'. But the reddit poster seemed to get hung up on the distinction. Maybe he's suggesting that not all notes are zettels? Which is true, but then, what is a zettel?

    Ultimately, I'm not sure this discussion and the bright line between "not a zettelkasten" and "is a real zettelkasten" helps very much. More confusing than anything.

  • @achamess said:
    So it sounds like Verzetteln is to Zettelify or 'make zettels'. But the reddit poster seemed to get hung up on the distinction. Maybe he's suggesting that not all notes are zettels? Which is true, but then, what is a zettel?

    Quibbling in my opinion.

    In the Duden which is the official German dictionary (though, I am critical of it) there is no listed meaning in that sense. And in the manual by Luhmann there is no mentioning of the word.

    The first question is right in my opinion. The second is question is uninteresting in my opinion: A technical answer would be: The smallest units of a Zettelkasten.

    Luhman would say: Anything that is connected via the system code (or something like that). In my words, this would translate to: Anything that is referred to by the unique identifier. (Orphans are technically not part of the Zettelkasten which highlights one of the problems of such an approach to deal with concepts. One need the late Wittgenstein as a counter-balance if he does not want to confuse himself during the process of dealing with concepts)

    Ultimately, I'm not sure this discussion and the bright line between "not a zettelkasten" and "is a real zettelkasten" helps very much. More confusing than anything.

    No, it cannot help. I refer again to the late Wittgenstein. Or as a teaser for the introduction: You can't dehorsify a horse by cutting its legs off.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:
    I refer again to the late Wittgenstein. Or as a teaser for the introduction: You can't dehorsify a horse by cutting its legs off.

    So funny!
    I'm sure the late Wittgenstein is chuckling in his grave. :smiley:

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited August 12

    @sfast said:

    I don't see the connection between your post and @msteffens . Can you explain what you mean?

    I suspect that you are using verzetteln as Christian translates it as Zettelify while @msteffens uses the other term and does not use the meaning Christian hinted at.

    I thought that Luhmann himself used this concept of "verzetteln" (or something similar, I don't speak German) -- but I might very well be mistaken.

    In any case, with or without this specific word, and as far as I understand it, Luhmann emphasized the importance writing notes in such a fashion that they are suitable Zettels: not just summaries, annotations, etc., but notes that contain and link to other thoughts. Which is (again, AFAIK) what Christian refers to with Zettelify.

  • @EFLS said:
    I thought that Luhmann himself used this concept of "verzetteln" (or something similar, I don't speak German) -- but I might very well be mistaken.

    Is your thought based on reading the source material?

    In any case, with or without this specific word, and as far as I understand it, Luhmann emphasized the importance writing notes in such a fashion that they are suitable Zettels: not just summaries, annotations, etc., but notes that contain and link to other thoughts. Which is (again, AFAIK) what Christian refers to with Zettelify.

    Not in his own manual and not in his other instructional article (learning how to read). He does not write a word on how to write a note in the manual. And re-writing is only a means to learn how to think properly in the article on reading.

    But we shouldn't lose ourselves in what Luhmann actually wrote and what not.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited August 14

    Is your thought based on reading the source material?

    I forgot where I got it, but I reread the single text by Luhmann that I have read on Zettelkasten and couldn't find any reference to this idea. So thanks for correcting me on the original Luhmann.

    I am also not referring to writing Zettel in a practical sense, but to the idea that for the ZK be really fruitful, Zettel should be 'embedded' within the system. Simply copying things from textbooks and other sources will not do, because fruitful writing and thinking should always imply to make thoughts your own -- and in this case, embedded within the ZK.

    I find this idea to resonate with this quote from Schmidt (2018) about Luhmann's system:

    The notes resulting from [Luhmanns] readings are not simply excerpts; what mattered to him was “what could be utilized in which way for the cards that had already been written. Hence, when reading, I always have the question in mind of how the books can be integrated into the filing system.” As a consequence he normally did not put the notes made during reading directly into the collection, nor did he file them in exactly the same way that he had taken them while reading; in fact in the evening he transferred the often only rudimentary records he made during the day into new notes according to his special filing technique.

    From Schmidt 2018, Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity, https://sociologica.unibo.it/article/view/8350

    Still no clue where I got the idea from that this is would be called 'verzetteln', but the point remains, more or less.

  • @EFLS said:

    Is your thought based on reading the source material?

    I forgot where I got it, but I reread the single text by Luhmann that I have read on Zettelkasten and couldn't find any reference to this idea. So thanks for correcting me on the original Luhmann.

    I am also not referring to writing Zettel in a practical sense, but to the idea that for the ZK be really fruitful, Zettel should be 'embedded' within the system. Simply copying things from textbooks and other sources will not do, because fruitful writing and thinking should always imply to make thoughts your own -- and in this case, embedded within the ZK.

    I asked in this direction for a reason: The inference is that Luhmann had techniques that are reproducable and increase creative output. But now people are arguing what Luhmann did, his intentions and even the words he is using.

    I agree with you in what you should do: Use your own words, transform foreign thoughts into you own etc.

    But one need to have the facts straight on what Luhmann did, what is truly part of his system and what the nature of the Zettelkasten.

    I find this idea to resonate with this quote from Schmidt (2018) about Luhmann's system:

    The notes resulting from [Luhmanns] readings are not simply excerpts; what mattered to him was “what could be utilized in which way for the cards that had already been written. Hence, when reading, I always have the question in mind of how the books can be integrated into the filing system.” As a consequence he normally did not put the notes made during reading directly into the collection, nor did he file them in exactly the same way that he had taken them while reading; in fact in the evening he transferred the often only rudimentary records he made during the day into new notes according to his special filing technique.

    From Schmidt 2018, Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity, https://sociologica.unibo.it/article/view/8350

    Still no clue where I got the idea from that this is would be called 'verzetteln', but the point remains, more or less.

    This is correct although not sourced correctly. The quote does not allow the inference made ("As a consequence") in this article. This is an empirical statement that needs its own evidence.

    I state it because this is the reason why there are quite some misconceptions out there. Don't get me wrong: Johannes Schmidt is the only trustworthy expert on Luhmann's Zettelkasten. He is so familiar with Luhmann that he skipped the sourcing, I speculate. I know that the empirical statement is right because I know the interview in which Luhmann stated this habit and the documentary.

    But if you are not as familiar with the body of sources on this matter it is very easy to fill gaps with assumptions. This how the brain works.

    I speculate that you are German? Then "Das trügerischer Gedächtnis" by Julia Shaw is a nice read on how such assumptions slip in. ("The deceptive memory" or something like that)

    I am very, very anal in fields of my research because of this reason. But we all are susceptible to such fallacies.

    Ok. I overshoot. Perhaps, because I hade a call with a client moments ago and am annoyed by arrogant statements such the one that irritated achamess (Christian rightfully called it trolling at best). :smile:


    If you apply (Luhmann's iteration) systems theory to the Zettelkasten I think having an ID and one reference to it would be the minimal requirement to transform a note into a Zettel.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited August 15

    The quote does not allow the inference made ("As a consequence") in this article. This is an empirical statement that needs its own evidence.

    I see what you mean, but I have a more lenient interpretation. I read the "consequence" here as a rhetorical connection rather than a logical one.

    I speculate that you are German?

    A close neighbour: I'm Belgian (and my Dutch is the only reason I can sometimes guess what German words mean).

    I must say I greatly appreciate your attention to detail and especially to Luhmann's ideas about ZK. I know Luhmann only from his sociological work and I must add that he is confronted with a similar issue there: his ideas about social systems are so often misrepresented. Often unintentionally, I assume, but it makes meaningful engagement with his theory even more of a challenge.

    The question of how to apply Luhmannian systems theory to ZK is a profound one, and one I need to think a bit more on :smile:

  • @EFLS

    I see what you mean, but I have a more lenient interpretation. I read the "consequence" here as a rhetorical connection rather than a logical one.

    It can be read this way. However, it is still an empirical statement which needs sourcing.

    A close neighbour: I'm Belgian (and my Dutch is the only reason I can sometimes guess what German words mean).

    Dang. Then I'd recommend the work of Elizabeth F Loftus (not as nicely readable)

    Examples:

    • Traumatic Memories are Not Necessarily Accurate Memories, The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 13, 2005, Vol. 50, S. 823-828.
    • Elizabeth F. Loftus (2004): Memories of Things Unseen, Current Directions in Psychological Science 4, 2004, Vol. 13, S. 145-147.
    • Kathryn A Braun, Rhiannon Ellis, and Elizabeth F Loftus (2002): Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past, Psychology \& Marketing 1, 2002, Vol. 19, S. 1--23.

    I must say I greatly appreciate your attention to detail and especially to Luhmann's ideas about ZK. I know Luhmann only from his sociological work and I must add that he is confronted with a similar issue there: his ideas about social systems are so often misrepresented. Often unintentionally, I assume, but it makes meaningful engagement with his theory even more of a challenge.

    Yeah. Quite an issue with Luhmann. :smile: But keep in mind, that it is basically my job to be acurate in this domain. Speak with me about some other topics and I go off the rails like everybody else. :smiley:

    I am a Zettler

  • I loved this discussion. Thanks!

  • edited August 16

    I am a native German speaker and don't appreciate this terminology at all.

    So, I just used processing (and pushed for the least amount of German words in English conversations).

    I second this. There are certainly valid arguments to establish proper terminology for certain things but one can easily go overboard with using a language that only the insider can understand. verzetteln is certainly an example for this. Its usage is unnecessary and counterproductive, as for German speaker it means something entirely different (as @msteffens mentioned above). Non-German speaker do not understand the inner working of the German language therefore don't have a natural understanding of the relationship between verzetteln and Zettel.

    I don't know the meaning of the word slip-box but if it is the literal translation to Zettelkasten then I don't see how one word could prevent your brain from making assumptions more than another. My brain at least has no entry on the English word but lots of entries on the German word.

    This is how my brain depictures a Zettelkasten:

    zettelbox

    I am rather annoyed about all these uppercase letters in the middle of a sentence. It gives it more the feeling of a brand name rather than a concept.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited August 16

    to get lost in the process, not being able to see the forest for the trees.

    isn't this exactly what happens when you use the wrong identifier on a Zettel with the paper based solution? It gets lost forever in an agglomerate of 90000 notes. If anything I would use it for this meaning. :D

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited August 16

    @zk_1000 said:

    I am rather annoyed about all these uppercase letters in the middle of a sentence. It gives it more the feeling of a brand name rather than a concept.

    As a non-German speaker I suspect the zettelkasten cat is out of the bag, and the term, if it lasts, will get fully incorporated into English usage, much like abseil and wanderlust and so on (both of which may have very different resonances for a native German speaker. I have no idea). At the moment perhaps zettelkasten exists as an insider reference for users in this community who know it refers to a collection of interconnected notes (and, of course, much more than that), which are distinguished from a plain old filing cabinet/notebook full of 'regular' notes. In time--and I see this process happening already--it will take on it's own distinct English meaning.

    As for those capitalized words in the middle of a sentence, the Grammarist blog says this about another German word used by English speakers: "Zeitgeist has been in widespread use for a long time (at least a century and a half), so it no longer needs to be capitalized or italicized."

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

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