Zettelkasten Forum

Luhmann's Note Numbering System

I'd like to start a new discussion on this topic because related comments that I've read in the forum seem buried in other discussion threads, i.e., not pulled together for easy comparison.

I understand how Luhmann numbered the slips in his Zettelkasten and why it would be useful to do so if a person was creating a physical slip-box. What I'd like to understand better is whether or not that numbering system has any value in an electronic Zettelkasten, such as might be produced using The Archive. Since in TA, it is easy to find any referenced note, I don't see how physical proximity would have any value (or meaning, for that matter). It seems that any random method of uniquely identifying each note would work just as well as any other (including, of course, Luhmann's method). Hence, one should be free to create and use an ID/referencing method that made sense to that person.

My (likely simplistic) view is that one has sufficient ability to relate Zettels to one another using direct links, tags, and general searches, with also the use of structure notes to identify "thought trains", so as not to lose ideas or lines of thought and to allow discovery of new associations of ideas.

Since I am relatively new to ZK, I recognize that my thoughts on this may be immature. Please feel free to share your thoughts and perspectives on this.


  • It's true that you can find referenced notes rather easily in TA, but what about loosely related notes that don't have the same tag and also aren't so closely related that you have made a link between them?

    Using date IDs creates a loose context for each note--namely, the date that you made the note. Maybe this is useful for you, if you are taking a lot of notes on the same reference or set of references all on the same day.

    Using Luhmann IDs is the exact same, except that you are choosing the locational context for the note rather than letting the calendar decide for you.

    Is this extra degree of control useful? I refer back to the question that I used to open this response. If every new note is filed behind the most closely related note in your zettelkasten, then the locations start to mean something. It's a loose association between notes and ideas that may not be of the exact same topic (tagging) and may not have a direct connection (linking) but still may have some loose association.

    At best, you end up stumbling across a new association based on the proximity of a set of notes, and can add some new links or make a new note detailing the interesting association you've just noticed. At worst, the Luhmann IDs are no more meaningful than the date IDs, and you've just lost some time in searching your zettelkasten for locations for each new note. That is, unless you believe that this ordering is a form of the collector's fallacy (see https://zettelkasten.de/posts/understanding-hierarchy-translating-folgezettel/) and that you would be better off actively processing those connections through links, tags, and structure notes rather than searching for a location for each note.

    Personally, I think that Luhmann IDs is a type of processing that prevents you from falling too deeply into the collector's fallacy. In searching for a location, you are actively looking through your notes and ruminating on where best to place this new idea. This is not a passive process. You look for a location, and in doing so you are likely to add new links to your new note. The meaning that can emerge later from these locational placement is one of serendipity. It is a connection that you do not realizing while initially processing your notes, but that emerges as you build up a critical mass of notes in a given location. Loose associations start to build until you realize that there is something concrete to be said.

    Compare this to using date IDs. TA can assign a date ID every time I make a new note. I write out my note, I connect it to the most obvious links, I tag it, and I'm done. This is all well and good, and can be very effective, but there is no necessity to look further than adding the most obvious links. Usually, these most obvious links are the notes that you are taking alongside this new note, since they all come from the reference you're currently processing. Sure, you can go deeper into your notes and look for new links and connections to more deeply embed your new notes, but this is by no means required.

    So, I think that I return to the thesis that Luhmann IDs can be no worse than date IDs. At best, though, they force you to process each note's idea as you make the note, they allow you to find more links inside of your current notes, and the loose locational association can spark serendipitous connections that you might not catch through linking and tagging alone.

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