Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten as a Gestalt?

I want to preface this post by saying that I am an engineer and think like an engineer, so please forgive any lack of appreciation of subtle philosophical or psychological distinctions in the following comment.

I've been reading a lot about Zettelkasten over the past week, so much so that my thoughts and even my dreams are getting saturated with the concept. I was surprised this morning, in that half-dreaming / half-waking-up state, with the question "Is a Zettelkasten a gestalt?" floating in my brain. This was doubly surprising as I probably haven't used that word since my undergrad days and am not overly familiar with it as a concept.

Anyway, I thought I'd put the question out there to everyone and see what thoughts you have on it. Is a (good) Zettelkasten a physical manifestation of a person's gestalt? Is the purpose of a Zettelkasten to more and more accurately and fully represent the gestalt of the person creating it? Does the creation of a Zettelkasten itself contribute to the evolution of the gestalt of a person?

Perhaps some of you who either speak German and/or have a better understanding of psychology could provide greater insight into this issue. The answers may seem mundane to you, but they hold value for me as something that could help turn an interest in Zettelkasten into a real, living structure (which will require a lot of work).

Comments

  • Can you provide more context about what your use of "Gestalt" is about? -- In German, it's not a technical term but an everyday term that you can use similar to "silhouette" and "appearance" and "form", so that doesn't help :) I know that there's a thing called Gestalt psychology, but I wouldn't know how to interpret the question

    "Is a Zettelkasten a gestalt?"

    in any useful way.

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

  • @ctietze said:
    Can you provide more context about what your use of "Gestalt" is about?

    I know the term is used in several different ways in English. I'm using it in a fairly general way as:

    "...a set of things, such as a personʼs thoughts or experiences, that is considered as a single system which is different from the individual thoughts, experiences, etc. within it", (from the Oxford English Dictionary).

    A saying in English that applies is that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

    So I was thinking that you could look at everything boiling around in a person's mind, all his or her thoughts, experiences and their interconnections, as a gestalt, that they are somehow trying to capture (albeit in part and in an imperfect way) in their Zettelkasten.

    Does that make sense?

  • Hmmm...I found the following in an article on Gestalt Psychology in Wikipedia that provides some insight on the above discussion, but also introduces a subtlety of which I was not aware:

    This principle maintains that when the human mind (perceptual system) forms a percept or "gestalt", the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. The original famous phrase of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts" is often incorrectly translated as "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts", and thus used when explaining gestalt theory, and further incorrectly applied to systems theory. Koffka did not like the translation. He firmly corrected students who replaced "other" with "greater". "This is not a principle of addition" he said. The whole has an independent existence.

  • :-) this is precisely what I think Zettelkasten is about. I love the formulation the whole is other than the sum of the parts. What I am not seeing is how and why zettelkasten achieves this, if it does.

    I was in Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the City of Berlin had produced a planning policy document that stated in the introduction it was using the philosophy of “ecological orientation “.

    I understand the concept Humboldtian says the same thing.

    Is Zettelkästen a tool to enable gestalt?

  • Which raises another question. Mistranslating other with greater is a huge category error, it’s wronginess quotient is exponential, h bomb levels of damage.

    I do wonder if there is something about an English speaking habitus that consistently puts stuff in silos ( like an arithmetic one here when we are discussing emergence )

  • God made the same type of error in his Word :-) lumping together bats and birds!

  • @clivedurdle said:

    I do wonder if there is something about an English speaking habitus that consistently puts stuff in silos ( like an arithmetic one here when we are discussing emergence )

    Thanks for your comments on the ideas of ZK as a gestalt. On a minor note, I think the issue of mistranslating Koffka is, partly, misunderstanding the meaning of a word from another language when it encapsulates an idea for which no suitable word exists in one’s own language. For example, the same is true of one of my favourite German words - schadenfreude (taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune). An English person can understand the concept When it is explained to them, as he or she has themselves probably had that feeling. But there is no single English word for it and it is not a concept that is commonly discussed within the culture.

  • It is not just a question of words -- the interplay between culture and psychology is complex, and not yet too well investigated. See https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19002253/; bernhard-hommel.eu/God%20do%20I%20have%20your%20attention.pdf; and https://web.mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/culture_thought.pdf.

    On the subject of "a gestalt", the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology uses the example of a collection of musical notes (individual elements), which may form a recognisable tune (the gestalt). So as far as a Zettelkasten is concerned, I suppose you need to consider whether it is a recognisable whole, or just a number of atoms. And I suppose that is a matter of perception. Which may vary according to your culture as much as anything else.

  • edited June 26

    @GeoEng51 Interesting tidbit about the whole and its parts and in what way the differ.

    It might be interesting to know that one important part of systems theory is to talk about systems not in terms of whole and parts, but in terms of the difference system/environment. A Zettelkasten in terms of systems theory therefore is a system that is defined by the difference between itself and its environment. Luhmann did draw inspiration from gestalt theory, this source claims mostly from Fritz Heider. Luhmann explains in his classic text Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen that an Alter Ego is created and he is building it with and out of Zettel, but is communicating with this alter ego as a communication partner. If the important notion to you is that something bigger somewhat independent but clearly related to your view of the worls emerges from linking notes together then that's probably not wrong to claim. :)

    … however, is this enough to talk about Gestalt in the sense of Gestalt theory? (Not that this is necessarily important, but some might interpret the term much closer to the theory than just the general notion.)

  • @matti said:
    @GeoEng51 Interesting tidbit about the whole and its parts and in what way they differ.

    Luhmann explains in his classic text Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen that an Alter Ego is created and he is building it with and out of Zettel, but is communicating with this alter ego as a communication partner. If the important notion to you is that something bigger somewhat independent but clearly related to your view of the world emerges from linking notes together then that's probably not wrong to claim. :)

    … however, is this enough to talk about Gestalt in the sense of Gestalt theory? (Not that this is necessarily important, but some might interpret the term much closer to the theory than just the general notion.)

    Hello Matti - Interesting comments, particularly about viewing a ZK from the perspective of systems theory. It's a new idea; I'll have to think more about it.

    I was surprised that Luhmann referred to his ZK as an alter ego. I hadn't considered a ZK in that way. I suppose it is a reasonable description, in that your ZK is separate and distinct from you (and I agree with your comments quoted above). However, a ZK requires an "operator" to get some sense out of it, and likely the best operator is the person who created it (maybe that is true; maybe not). The term "alter ego" never really meant that much to me, so it doesn't open up any insight into what I'm doing when I'm creating a ZK.

    I'm not that knowledgeable about "gestalt theory" or about gestalt as a psychological term, but more familiar with its general application in English. The OED defines it as "a set of things, such as a person's thoughts or experiences, that is considered a single system, which is different from the individual thoughts, experiences, etc. within it".

    I hadn't meant to turn this into a metaphysical discussion, by the way. It's not like those sci-fi stories where an AI mysteriously becomes sentient. The intelligence behind a ZK resides clearly in the person using it.

  • @MartinBB said:

    On the subject of "a gestalt", the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology uses the example of a collection of musical notes (individual elements), which may form a recognisable tune (the gestalt). So as far as a Zettelkasten is concerned, I suppose you need to consider whether it is a recognisable whole, or just a number of atoms. And I suppose that is a matter of perception. Which may vary according to your culture as much as anything else.

    Good point about differences in cultural perceptions.

    If, when building a ZK, we are attempting to create a tune or a number of interweaving tunes, some of which we have not heard before, I would say that we are working towards a gestalt. Perhaps we will be the only ones that hear the tune; perhaps others (but not all) will as well.

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    I hadn't meant to turn this into a metaphysical discussion

    Then you are probably in the wrong place! :) Plenty of people here who are likely to take an idea and run with it. One of the dangers of mixing with people who are not engineers! ;) They don't think in a strictly linear fashion ...

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