Zettelkasten Forum

Question about Luhmann's Numbering Syntax

This comment from Christian has stuck with me since I first saw it, and has changed many parts of my life:

@ctietze said:
You cannot beat paper when it comes to retention. Every coffee stain can serve as an anchor to help remember a note's Gestalt and content.

I'm trying the exercise of moving my important notes from digital to paper. If it's vaguely successful, I think I'm sold.

So I'll want to make sure I get card-linking right, sooner rather than later. I've looked around and can't quite find an explanation of what Luhmann was doing with slashes and commas. Can anyone point me to a summary of those subtleties of his linking syntax?

Thank you.


  • Hey @rrieke. I dove pretty deep into a paper-based Zettelkasten. It ended up being too much for me to handle, BUT I did have the same questions you do.

    Even though Luhmann talked about not having categories, his ZK was divided into something like 11 broad sections. For me, those sections were things like:

    1. Productivity
    2. Faith
    3. Work
    4. Health

    So my first note for Productivity was 1/1 (section 1, note 1). From there I used normal 1a, 1a1, 1b etc.

    I also started using extra slashes when I knew I wanted numbers instead of letters. For example, I tried writing out newsletter emails by hand for my business. And I kept those in my ZK. So it would be something like....

    • 3/14/1 Newsletter 1
    • 3/14/2 Newsletter 2

    And I put in my index: "HSC Emails - 3/14"

    That way I can have as many notes under 3/14 as I want. There are only so many letters, but there are infinite numbers. 😂

    Finally, look up Scott Scheper on Twitter. He's big into paper-based ZK and gives could reasons for it. I just couldn't stick with it. I missed the speed and convenience of digital. I found myself just NOT making a note if I didn't have my system with me. There was enough friction that I ended up not using the system.

    That said, I still love paper and use it a lot. One solution I've come across is to simple scan any pages I want to remember and bring 'em into The Archive. Like this recent one:

    It ends up being the best of both worlds for me.

  • Thank you @joegilder. There are some really good points in here.

    I completely understand the risk of simply not doing the system because of the friction involved. I foresee that'll be the biggest problem, and if it occurs I'll be right back to digital. At the same time, when you said you missed the speed and convenience of digital, that's what I think my biggest CURRENT problem is. It's too easy for me to pour out too many words without enough consideration. Though my digital system is working well for information retrieval, I find it's becoming increasingly divorced from my thoughts, from my... (wrong word here, but I can't think of the right one) feelings.

    In further reading I saw that Luhmann used slashes to delineate his "broad sections" from his unique identifiers for one of his ZKs, and used commas for the other. So that solves than mystery for me, and that helps me see how you use the slashes for similar purpose.

    For the life of me, I can't think of my broad sections. Looking back over my life, I've seen that every attempt at applying a taxonomy to my studies has failed. Even trying to separate art from science broke down eventually. For me, sections are going to have to wait until I have a better idea of where my unique IDs fall short.

    Thank you for leading me to Scheper, good stuff.

    I had done just as you do for images, and I have a KM thing for my laptop and a Shortcuts thing for my iPhone that does the job pretty sweetly. I guess that's my biggest hesitation--the digital system I've built works so well for me, I'm reluctant to set it aside. But using a tool for the tool's sake isn't really what we're going for, is it? Other than that it can keep the process fun.

    Thank you again for your good advice.

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