Zettelkasten Forum


Luhmann's books are terrible?

Now, I don't have first-hand knowledge of this, and I don't read German, but I've heard from two sources now that Luhmann's books are incredibly difficult to read. One person described the book he read as "a chaotic mess...It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another."

While I know that a great guitar builder can be a terrible guitarist, I wonder if it matters that the "founding father" of the Zettelkasten system wrote books that felt disorganized and random.

[And I understand Luhmann wasn't writing for the masses but for the sociology community, so maybe his writing was par for the academic course.]

Comments

  • You could give Luhmann's "Love as Passion" a try, though I never tried the English translation. And I don't want to swap jobs with the translator(s) :) -- You'll find footnotes with the weirdest things in there that hardly support a scientific claim, but that perfectly paint the picture of Luhmann drawing inspiration from any source he could get his hands on.

    The tight-knit "social systems" sub-group of sociology scholars I witnessed on 2 conferences -- they hold Luhmann's insights in high regard -- are a weird bunch. You'll meet quite a few people who manage to talk the way Luhmann writes. It's not a pleasant experience :) And there's some who outright tell you they don't understand a word of their peers, but that doesn't seem to diminish their respect a iota.

    I don't know if thinking in terms social systems eventually taints the mind so you cannot not think in the way Luhmann wrote. Maybe they're imitating him and sounding similar earns them respect. Maybe they do actually say something useful and I'm just too dumb.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de β€’ https://christiantietze.de/

  • Compared to Kant they are a nice read. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Not sure about the texts in the original German, but the few English translations I've read are horrendous. I'm glad they exist, and appreciate the effort (without them us non-German speakers would be pretty lost), but oof. And, I used to read all the convoluted critical theory I could get my hands on.

    The dictum "too good to be true" may be appropriate here.

  • The British psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book called "Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences". I've never actually read that one ... But then I never really wanted to succeed in the field.

  • @ctietze said:
    Maybe they do actually say something useful and I'm just too dumb.

    πŸ˜‚ I think I'm right there with you.

    @sfast said:
    Compared to Kant they are a nice read. :)

    I Kant believe it. πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ

  • We need someone to ilLuhmannate what he is saying :wink:

  • edited November 6

    These are the comments of a bibliomaniac--a more apt self-description than bibliophile. I've acquired a couple of Luhmann's books, one of which was an accidental Kindle purchase of Trust and Power that I decided to keep. An Introduction to Systems Theory was available from a used bookseller at a reasonable price. That deliberate purchase helped to rekindle an incompletely stifled interest in mathematics. Luhmann follows the rule of threes (this is a numerological observation of no significance, though some researchers like to follow it) with a theoretical apparatus or approach to society that includes a systems theory; a theory of functional differentiation (in which individual subjectivity is subordinated to the functional relationships one has, or can have with the rest of society); and a theory of social evolution.

    In response I had three thoughts of my own.

    One: the abstractions never quite enter the Earth's atmosphere, though I declared myself unprepared to pass judgment.

    Two: Luhmann suggests that social theory has been anthropocentric. Communication the primary object of study for Luhmann--not human beings as such. At least he is not a methodological individualist. I find this both appealing and analytically otiose--which means that I don't know how to make it work. I suppose this view informed his idea that the Zettelkasten really was a communication partner. As far as Luhmann was concerned, only the "communication" between Luhmann and his Zettelkasten mattered. Private mental phenomena are unobservable and play no role in his theory. Functionally the ZK was indistinguishable from any other communication partner, thinking or otherwise, apparently. Since the social theory makes no functional distinction between them, the ZK is a communication partner.

    Three: fearing for my sanity, and having regenerated the grey and white matter lost to severe sleep apnea after a year of CPAP therapy, I found myself driven to read mathematics again, after a long period of discouragement and inanition. In search of a mathematical systems theory for comparison, found myself reading Matrices and Matroids for Systems Analysis by Kazuo Murota, partly on account of its connection to combinatorics and electrical networks--I was interested in electronics as a kid.

    Luhmann Explained: from Souls to Systems by Hans-Georg Moeller has been helpful. Moeller quotes Luhmann on morality: β€œIn normal everyday interaction, after all, morality is not needed anyway; it is always a symptom of the occurrence of pathologies.” I'm sympathetic to this view, though I would prefer to know what is needed. Luhmann's vocabulary of "resonance" and "irritation" in social systems is more irritating than resonant.

    The economist Herbert Gintis wrote a brief review of Moeller's book on Amazon. Gintis calls Luhmann's writing soporific and idiosyncratic.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

  • @MartinBB said:
    The British psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book called "Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences". I've never actually read that one ... But then I never really wanted to succeed in the field.

    Reading this now, highly recommended even for the casual consumer of mainstream social science literature. It’s basically a how-to extract useful information out of purposefully dense/obscure prose.

  • I shouldn't edit on a phone.> @Lettuce88 said:

    @MartinBB said:
    The British psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book called "Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences". I've never actually read that one ... But then I never really wanted to succeed in the field.

    Reading this now, highly recommended even for the casual consumer of mainstream social science literature. It’s basically a how-to extract useful information out of purposefully dense/obscure prose.

    I plan to order a copy. I mean, as a post-colonialized diasporalist retrorevolutionary onto-episto-psycho-pharmacologist, internalization of an electronic copy-reification instantiation post-online purchasification is agendized.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:
    I plan to order a copy. I mean, as a post-colonialized diasporalist retrorevolutionary onto-episto-psycho-pharmacologist, internalization of an electronic copy-reification instantiation post-online purchasification is agendized.

    I understood "I plan to order a copy"....and that's it. πŸ˜‚

  • "a chaotic mess...It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another."

    "You'll find footnotes with the weirdest things in there that hardly support a scientific claim"

    "the few English translations I've read are horrendous."

    "soporific and idiosyncratic"

    So he created a system of note-taking and referencing, which, theoretically, the purpose of the whole enterprise was to better enable seeing connections and producing better writing. It sounds like he did not achieve this goal, which makes me wonder why so many are so drawn to ZK.

    Now that I think about it, even though I am frustrated to tears that I am unable to write and display ZK in the format that Andy Matuschak uses, if I am honest his site isn't good for reading/learning. It is very good, however, at leading one down many rabbit holes of distraction.

    Honestly this has me rethinking note-taking in general. Perhaps only us ADHD-types struggle with this?

  • @donblanco said:
    So he created a system of note-taking and referencing, which, theoretically, the purpose of the whole enterprise was to better enable seeing connections and producing better writing. It sounds like he did not achieve this goal, which makes me wonder why so many are so drawn to ZK.

    Yes! That's what I was thinking as I thought about this. It makes me step back and ask bigger questions. I'm a musician and audio engineer, and it's very common (especially among my audience) for people to focus on the tools rather than the art. They focus on the gear and software to the exclusion of actually using said gear and software to make music.

    I suppose that's the case in any creative endeavor. The temptation for us, I suppose, is to focus on the notes rather than the thinking, to focus on how the notes are structured rather than what the notes allow us to DO.

  • @joegilder said:

    @donblanco said:
    So he created a system of note-taking and referencing, which, theoretically, the purpose of the whole enterprise was to better enable seeing connections and producing better writing. It sounds like he did not achieve this goal, which makes me wonder why so many are so drawn to ZK.

    I suppose that's the case in any creative endeavor. The temptation for us, I suppose, is to focus on the notes rather than the thinking, to focus on how the notes are structured...

    I've been entertaining similar thoughts--that's the first thing that comes to mind, in fact. Luhmann did publish over 70 books and about 400 articles, so the method didn't stop him from being productive—Luhmann was prolific. Very often improving amounts to the number of articles you write, the number of drawings you do and so on. What draws people to ZK is the possibility of Luhmann-like productivity (most aren't qualified to evaluate his work—I'm not), and to some extent the ritual of interacting with the ZK, which can be motivating.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

  • edited November 8

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    ...Very often improving amounts to the number of articles you write, the number of drawings you do and so on. What draws people to ZK is the possibility of Luhmann-like productivity (most aren't qualified to evaluate his work—I'm not), and to some extent the ritual of interacting with the ZK, which can be motivating.

    This is an interesting insight, one that hadn't occurred to me - mostly because I'm not interested in increasing my productivity, if by that we mean quantity. Rather, whether it's in my work or private life, I strive for quality writing. That has always been more effective in advancing and finding satisfaction in my career than trying to increase quantity. And my experience over a long career of writing technical documents is that quality is elusive. It requires a great deal of study, thought (some of it whimsical), insight, inspiration and patience, (and, believe it or not, even engineers have to be creative).

    What attracts me to ZK is that it provides an effective way for me to study and capture ideas, relate them to one another, and organize my thinking about them. Occasionally it also provides insight and tweaks inspiration. I believe my ZK enables better thinking about a particular topic and assists me in writing something. However, there is still a lot more work to do, to think deeply about the subject, in a way that integrates ideas and explores and exposes relationships, and then actually write that quality article or report (or even an e-mail). I can see if one just lined up a bunch of Zettels and pasted them together, it would be a mess.

    What do people expect when they create a ZK? If their expectations are inaccurate then their experience with it will not be satisfying.

    Perhaps Luhmann wasn't capable of the last part - putting together a quality end product that people could read in an intuitive way (I have no opinion on that, but say he wasn't for a moment). That doesn't detract from the huge benefit that creating a ZK can have on the way we collect information, organize it, look for connections, find insights, etc. I think that's why people like ZK. And the rest, the final step, is up to us - not up to our ZK.

  • @GeoEng51 said:

    @ZettelDistraction mumbled unconvincingly about "quantity" leading to "quality" in the arts

    This is an interesting insight, one that hadn't occurred to me - mostly because I'm not interested in increasing my productivity, if by that we mean quantity. Rather, whether it's in my work or private life, I strive for quality writing. That has always been more effective in advancing and finding satisfaction in my career than trying to increase quantity.

    Perhaps. I find it useless to strive for quality in the absence of much practice (or any talent to speak of), following the profound wisdom that occasionally struggles to the surface of that global Turkish toilet, the unmediated Internet, before it submerges, gurgling back into the fetid roiling vents at the bottom of the sluice: Quantity leads to quality (the origin of a parable). Even here the story is corrupted. Skip to the photography parable.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

  • edited November 9

    @donblanco said:
    Now that I think about it, even though I am frustrated to tears that I am unable to write and display ZK in the format that Andy Matuschak uses, if I am honest his site isn't good for reading/learning. It is very good, however, at leading one down many rabbit holes of distraction.

    ZK is a tool. You probably should use it as it's comfortable for you, not some other chap. Even hammer can be used differently, depending on your strength, precision and task.
    Matuschak has too many hyperlinks for my taste. Too many HL produce clutter and lose the meaning.

    @joegilder said:
    The temptation for us, I suppose, is to focus on the notes rather than the thinking, to focus on how the notes are structured rather than what the notes allow us to DO.

    That's the problem of the user, not a tool, isn't it?

    @GeoEng51 said:
    What do people expect when they create a ZK? If their expectations are inaccurate then their experience with it will not be satisfying.
    Perhaps Luhmann wasn't capable of the last part - putting together a quality end product that people could read in an intuitive way (I have no opinion on that, but say he wasn't for a moment). That doesn't detract from the huge benefit that creating a ZK can have on the way we collect information, organize it, look for connections, find insights, etc. I think that's why people like ZK. And the rest, the final step, is up to us - not up to our ZK.

    Yes.

    Concerning the topic in general. I'm using ZK for half a year. I find it useful for organizing thoughts. For me it occasionally gives useful combinatorial results.
    e.g. I got interested in a particular topic about 2WW and tried to run ZK on it. Maybe I was lucky, but I've managed to combine thoughts from several books (and some general world knowledge) to get some nonobvious interpretations. They turned out to be interesting for a historian buddy of mine. So he stole them and might use them in his next book. :) I don't think that it was all that groundbreaking (I think specialists on the topic had already reached similar conclusions, more likely that it's my buddy who is ignorant). But it was fun to get the result that turned out to be nonobvious for the professional.

  • edited November 10

    Both Christian and I went through an early phase of writing garbage notes. We felt even a bit betrayed by ourselves. We learned and worked our way through.

    My suspicion is that Luhmann had nobody to hold im accountable for his bad writing. Just have a look into his ZK or his so called literature notes. It started as idiosyncratic but nobody, so it seems to me, had a four-eyed-conversation and said to him that he needs to work on his prose.

    This is not specific no Luhmann. I cannot give a percentage but I felt that this kind of style infected 20-30% of the humanities.

    I think the Zettelkasten didn't hurt his writing (though, it made writing about more complex matters possible). But certaintly, he didn't make use of his Zettelkasten to improve his writing.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited November 10

    @sfast I thought I read somewhere that he purposely made his writings obtuse in order to discourage cheap readings of his material. I was also surprised to learn that he isn't talked much about by the wider Sociology community, because the Intro to Sociology book I own (The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained) has an entry dedicated to him.

  • edited November 10

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    Perhaps. I find it useless to strive for quality in the absence of much practice (or any talent to speak of), following the profound wisdom that occasionally struggles to the surface of that global Turkish toilet, the unmediated Internet, before it submerges, gurgling back into the fetid roiling vents at the bottom of the sluice: Quantity leads to quality (the origin of a parable). Even here the story is corrupted. Skip to the photography parable.

    Yes; totally agree. Quantity usually comes first and then quality. But at least in my field of work, nobody cares about quantity, unless you happen to be running what we call a "commodity business". Nice reference, by the way.

  • @joegilder said:
    Now, I don't have first-hand knowledge of this, and I don't read German, but I've heard from two sources now that Luhmann's books are incredibly difficult to read. One person described the book he read as "a chaotic mess...It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another."

    While I know that a great guitar builder can be a terrible guitarist, I wonder if it matters that the "founding father" of the Zettelkasten system wrote books that felt disorganized and random.

    [And I understand Luhmann wasn't writing for the masses but for the sociology community, so maybe his writing was par for the academic course.]

    This does seem to me a serious issue. The evidence of Luhman would support the idea that, at least as he used it, the Zettelkasten was a means of foisting huge volumes of incoherent text into books and learned journals. See this chapter. "https://books.google.pt/books?id=-8SrAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT25&lpg=PT25&dq=was+luhmann+a+good+writer&source=bl&ots=bSjyihEo5q&sig=ACfU3U0cSL0FtWmebyD2zuRUWW1LkF0rtQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj-zfCt5I70AhXPa8AKHfIqAwgQ6AF6BAhCEAI#v=onepage&q=was luhmann a good writer&f=false

    I mean, this is being posited as a great way to help you write. If by write we mean deliver text in the same way a concrete lorry delivers concrete then great, I'll move on. For years I have felt that computer systems should be able to a much better job of storing thoughts and insights. But so far they don't.

    Does Zettelkasten do that for people not in the high German professorial mode? Who uses Zettelkasten for nonacademic thought wrangling? Can it work for people interested in communicating clearly, using narrative approaches? Can iit help computers do better job of helping organise motes? How?

    Thanks

  • @Dick_Wall I hope this section of the book gives some hints how the academic world in Germany is infested with esoteric prose. Luhmann is not a difficult or convoluted read compared to the academic field here in Germany. Here, it is quite normal to read texts of this difficulty and unpleasentness.

    I am a Zettler

  • that's a good point. Language is changing drastically. Shorter, simpler, faster. Reading a book that was published 30 years ago is sometimes quite a bit of culture shock, even when reading in my mother tongue.

    I don't believe that this is something i should be concerned about. Difficult to read is not the same as inaccurate or wrong. Luhmann's writing style is certainly not ideal, from a modern standard. I can't say much about it but to me it looks like the writing style typically seen 30 years ago. The difference of the difference, the signal of the signal, ... yes, the floor is made of floor is probably what we would say today, but comparing it to latest publications and describing it as terrible is unfair. Again, i cannot really judge the writing skills, but it's not like the evidence is one-sided. There are many positive reviews as well.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • edited November 11

    @Dick_Wall said:

    I mean, this is being posited as a great way to help you write. If by write we mean deliver text in the same way a concrete lorry delivers concrete then great, I'll move on. For years I have felt that computer systems should be able to a much better job of storing thoughts and insights. But so far they don't.
    Does Zettelkasten do that for people not in the high German professorial mode? Who uses Zettelkasten for nonacademic thought wrangling? Can it work for people interested in communicating clearly, using narrative approaches? Can iit help computers do better job of helping organise motes? How?

    I think you are mixing up two separate processes:

    • First, there is the collection of ideas, organizing them, thinking about what they mean, looking for new connections between them, looking for insights, etc. ZK is perfectly suited to that.
    • Then there is the second part - writing down a thesis or a description of some phenomenon or a statement of conclusions drawn from your investigation / thinking / logic exercise. You have to rely on your own skills as a writer for that; the ZK will not help you (much).

    I take it that Luhmann didn't do a very good job of the second step, although perhaps his efforts were typical for his time or perhaps, as some have suggested, he purposefully obfuscated his writing.

    But it is a mistake to take a criticism of the second step and use that to judge as lacking the application of a ZK to the first step.

    If you learn how to use a ZK and adapt it to your thinking / working style, it can be a very effective assist to "nonacademic thought wrangling" and it will help you to communicate more clearly, although you still have to develop some skills to deliver the communications. For me, this is not theory - it is based on my own personal efforts and on efforts in applying ZK in a work group setting, with half a dozen contributors.

    See my earlier post (November 8) in this discussion. Also, if you are interested about using ZK in a work group setting, I posted about that on a different discussion. But I can't figure out how to find that post, so I can't refer you to it, (maybe you will have more luck than I did).

    Post edited by GeoEng51 on
  • @Dick_Wall said:

    This does seem to me a serious issue. The evidence of Luhman would support the idea that, at least as he used it, the Zettelkasten was a means of foisting huge volumes of incoherent text into books and learned journals. See this chapter. "https://books.google.pt/books?id=-8SrAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT25&lpg=PT25&dq=was+luhmann+a+good+writer&source=bl&ots=bSjyihEo5q&sig=ACfU3U0cSL0FtWmebyD2zuRUWW1LkF0rtQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj-zfCt5I70AhXPa8AKHfIqAwgQ6AF6BAhCEAI#v=onepage&q=was luhmann a good writer&f=false

    "Foisting huge volumes of incoherent text" upon the unsuspecting or unwilling publishers of books and the unwitting editors of scholarly journals wasn't the impression I had reading Chapter Two, "Why he wrote such bad books," of The Radical Luhmann, by Hans Georg-Moeller. The Amazon.com reviewer Georg-Moeller quotes is the economist Herbert Gintis, who has published in economics, sociology, and game theory among other subjects, incidentally. Gintis goes on to say that "Luhmann is more like an artist with words than a scientist."

    I take it as an axiom that all narratives are false, especially personal narratives. Georg-Moeller writes that Luhmann's use of the Zettelkasten contributed to the "lack of a clear narrative development," which Luhmann admitted. For someone with limited patience for narratives, this admission doesn't count decisively against the Zettelkasten. Concision is another matter.

    Luhmann eventually did get to the point, though in his last work, according to Georg-Moeller. Georg-Moeller says that Luhmann wrote so that his more radical conclusions wouldn't be immediately seized upon by other academics. Under different circumstances he might not have been led to formulate a nearly impenetrable "Trojan Horse" theory.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

  • edited November 12

    @Dick_Wall said:
    See this chapter.

    That book was a good read. I've finished it yesterday in one go. Thanks for the tip.

    Does Zettelkasten do that for people not in the high German professorial mode?

    From my experience, it doesn't.

    Post edited by emps on
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