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Mario Bunge's card-boxes and a card-pilferer

Mario Bunge (1919–2020) was an Argentine-Canadian philosopher and physicist. Here are some excerpts from his book Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist (Springer-Verlag, 2016) about his use of card-boxes and about the alleged exploits of a card-pilferer. One guesses from these glimpses that Bunge's card-system was not as developed as Luhmann's, which is no discredit to Bunge's achievements.

Around 1956:

"My next task was to prepare my course. Since none of the textbooks known to me was satisfactory, I resorted to the maieutic method that Plato had attributed to Socrates. My lectures consisted essentially in questions that I distributed beforehand to the students, and an abstract of the research that they had prompted. I wrote each question on a 6 × 8 card. I had adopted this procedure a few years earlier for my own work, so I did not start from scratch. Eventually I filled several hundreds of such cards, classed them by subject, and placed them in boxes. When a box filled up, it was time to write an article or a book chapter. The boxes complemented my hanging-files cabinet, containing sketches of papers, some of them aborted, as well as some letters." (p. 129)


"I always typed a few hours a day on a heavy and noisy IBM typewriter. Before converting to the Apple faith, I wrote down every interesting idea or possibly useful datum on 5 × 8 cards that I kept in card-boxes. But I used them only sparingly to write papers of books, for they were just random collections. Once an unknown American scholar phoned me to announce that he was about to commit suicide because he had failed to craft a general theory of ideas out of thousands of cards that he had filled in the course of a decade. He had been a casualty of dataism, the idea that knowledge of anything is just a collection of bits of knowledge." (pp. 273–274)


"Another doctoral student who wished to work on technophilosophy was José Félix, a friendly Basque engineer whom I engaged as a house sitter while my family and I spent the long summer of 1985 in Mallorca. He seized this opportunity to photocopy all my unpublished essays and filing cabinet cards. The external examiner, who was familiar with my work, flunked José Félix's dissertation, alleging that it had been lifted from my publications." (p. 387)


  • Mario Bunge's card-pilferer story is a little like Woody Allen's joke that he was thrown out of college for cheating: it was on a metaphysics exam, and he looked into the soul of his neighbor. Just substitute the word Zettelkasten for Woody Allen's "soul".

  • @Andy, thanks for the pointer to Mario Bunge. He sounds like an interesting character. His book Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist is now on my reading list.

    In some ways, he sounds like Luhmann's Argentine-Canadian doppelganger. From his wiki page - "Bunge was a prolific intellectual, having written more than 400 papers and 80 books" with their roots in a notecard system of sorts.

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”

  • @Will, I enjoyed Bunge's memoir, and I expect that anyone who likes history of philosophy would find something of value in it, but be warned that everything he says about his card-boxes are in the passages quoted above.

  • Regarding Bunge being "Luhmann's Argentine-Canadian doppelganger" as @Will suggested above, I googled "Mario Bunge" + Zettelkasten and found what looks like a Bunge-versus-Luhmann smackdown deep in the comments under an interview with Luhmann. The comment (if I understand it correctly) praises Bunge as a science "guru" and dismisses Luhmann as "entertainment". Those are fighting words! This is what happens when you read the comments on the interwebs:

    German original: "[Mario Bunge] ist der wissenschaftliche 'Guru', der die Dualität von Körper und Geist damit in den Orkus verweist (und das auch kann) und die Einheit von Körper und Geist beweist, also jegliche Konstruktivistische und dualistische Betrachtungsweisen zugleich widerlegt als Nonsens – vereinfacht gesprochen. ... Dies als Lesetip und 'Zugabe' mit freundlichem Gruss und Erhellung, wieso Luhmann auch aus solchen Gründen nur Entertainment ist und nicht geht."

    English machine translation: "[Mario Bunge] is the scientific 'guru' who relegates the duality of body and mind to Orcus (and can do so) and proves the unity of body and mind, thus refutes at the same time any constructivist and dualistic approaches as nonsense – to put it simply. ... This as a reading tip and 'extra' with a friendly greeting and enlightenment as to why Luhmann is for such reasons only entertainment and doesn't work."

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