Zettelkasten Forum

Fun with Luhmann

Some of the following items are based on the digital version of Luhmann's original paper zettelkasten at the Niklas-Luhmann-Archiv. Luhmann wrote in German, and I apologize for language barriers that may come up in the following.

  • What are your favourite single zettels (or zettel groups) from the archive?
    I've used the digital zettelkasten and did some probing with abstract and concrete search terms I felt comfortable with - Mathematik, Rhetorik, Kommunikation, or, Baum, Haus, Familie.
    I know next to nothing about sociology, so, personally, I found the vast majority of the zettel shown quite simply not worth reading. I am aware that this says a lot about me and the supersuperficial nature of this probing, and nothing about Luhmann.
    I've heard about the famous zettels on showing the zettelkasten to visitors and the parallel to a porn movie ("showing everything and nothing but that"), the "joker" zettel, and in my probings I found one about the hypothetical "Überbuben" and and one about Luhmann sitting in front of his office drinking from an inkpot - those are amusing, but perhaps not crucially relevant.
    I know no candidates for zettels that show a breakthrough insight for Luhmann's theory of society, but that is no wonder given the nature of my search.

  • What are your favourite examples of serendipity?
    Do you know parts of the zettelkasten that highlight Luhmann's practices in constructing the zettelkasten in such a way that surprising relevant insights appeared in a partially systematic way?
    Do you know examples how these practices yielded results?

  • On a similar note - it is often said that a zettelkasten and its author should surprise each other.
    Do you know zettels where the zettelkasten surprised Luhmann?
    Do you know zettels where Luhmann surprised his zettelkasten?

  • The English Wikipedia page on Luhmann says "Luhmann himself described his theory as "labyrinthine" or "non-linear" and claimed he was deliberately keeping his prose enigmatic to prevent it from being understood "too quickly", which would only produce simplistic misunderstandings."
    I did not check the original quote, but I assume it's sufficiently accurate. As a caveat - Luhmann seemed to have a refreshing sense of humour, which might be a factor here.
    Do you have an assessment of this? Personally, I find it weird to work on a general theory of a huge ultra-complex domain like society and then decide for "enigmatic prose".
    But then I am aware that I'm writing in this forum and Luhmann wrote for eternity.


  • edited October 2021

    Economist Herbert Gintis writes that Niklas Luhmann's writing is vague and unverifiable. At least Luhmann didn't distill platitudinous self-help books into his Zettelkasten.

    Since I trust Herbert Gintis's judgment on social science (for the most part), his negative evaluation of Luhmann's work is not an endorsement for the Zettelkasten Method in sociology. Still, Luhmann was prolific. There is something to be said for quantity over quality. (I have linked, without irony or the least self-awareness, to an example taken from a self-help book.) This seems to be true in art.

    However, Gintis does say that, "Luhmann is more like an artist with words than a scientist." Full disclosure: I met Herbert Gintis once at a seminar on game theory in New York City over a decade ago. Prof Gintis means what he says. Let's take this statement at face value, and not as the snide remarks of one academic trashing the work of another academic—a routine occurrence. And although "artist with words" doesn't have the force of "stylist on the order of Nietzsche," let's assume that Gintis sincerely recognizes and acknowledges Luhmann's artistry with words (despite calling Luhmann's work soporific).

    Fiction writers and artists should not be discouraged by the academic research emphasis in the Zettelkasten literature if Gintis is right. On the contrary, this is encouraging news for writers and "artists with words" interested in developing a writing practice with Zettelkasten, based on the publications Luhmann derived from his Zettelkasten, even if they weren't received as their author intended.

    The ZK method seems to have worked for the science fiction writer Lionel Davoust, who explains in this YouTube video how he uses a ZK to create a "Map of Contents" (MOC) and to write fiction.

    Of course, it could be that a writer cultivating a Zettelkasten with the intention of publishing fiction could end up with serious social science instead. Or that a Zettelkasten will diagonalize the intended genre out from under the writer. That would surprise any author.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdös #2. ZK software components.~~~~ “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • Economist Herbert Gintis writes that Niklas Luhmann's writing is vague and unverifiable. At least Luhmann didn't distill platitudinous self-help books into his Zettelkasten.

    As a fan of Luhmann, I can second that opinion. His writing style is pretty bad. Also: Very often, he does not use other peoples ideas and reference them but feels inspired and then writes something because of them. In his texts, you only find a footnote with no distinction between those kind of references.

    I am a Zettler

Sign In or Register to comment.