Zettelkasten Forum


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)

1980s:

"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)

1985:

"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 He seized this opportunity to photocopy all my unpublished essays and filing cabinet cards.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)

Comments

  • 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”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @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."

  • Here is another volley in the Bunge-versus-Luhmann battle that I started in the previous comment, from Manfred Kuehn's classic 2007 essay "Some idiosyncratic reflections on note-taking in general and ConnectedText in particular", where Kuehn wrote:

    Lest anyone think that I completely endorse the description of the card index and its function, given by Luhmann, I should perhaps point out that I think it has fundamental problems, having to do with two seemingly unrelated issues, namely (i) his so-called "systems theory" and (ii) his apparent eclecticism, or the tendency to assume that things "will fit in," which, however, appear to me closely connected. Luhmann is confident that his card file, if consistently kept, will "develop an internal structure, which has never been imparted to it in this way, but which can be extracted from it." Now, this may well be true, but there is no guarantee that this structure reflects anything but the structure of the card file. What comes out of the card file might be interesting, but this does not mean it is true. Luhmann was not that interested in "truth," while I have not given up on pursuing it.

    Luhmann was not that interested in truth? Ouch!

    Cf. Mario Bunge (2012), Evaluating Philosophies, Dordrecht: Springer-Verlag, p. 182:

    The preceding pages suggest an objective yardstick to measure the worth of philosophies: By their fruits ye shalt know them: Tell me what your philosophy is doing for the search for truth or the good, and I will tell me what it is worth.
  • edited September 11

    At the risk of quoting Kuehn out of context (the idiosyncratic reflections isn't worth an investment of time and energy), from the excerpt:

    Luhmann is confident that his card file, if consistently kept, will "develop an internal structure, which has never been imparted to it in this way, but which can be extracted from it." Now, this may well be true, but there is no guarantee that this structure reflects anything but the structure of the card file. What comes out of the card file might be interesting, but this does not mean it is true.

    Likewise for ConnectedText--a personal wiki. It's not clear why ConnectedText withstands Kuehn's objections to Luhmann's system. Kuehn seems to suggest that Luhmann's system opposes Kuehn's heroic effort to sustain an interest in "truth," though it's not clear why that would be. Nor is it clear that ConnectedText fares any better than Luhmann's card file in the pursuit of "truth." We're talking about a wiki. There are some useful untruths in any case. Truth aside, why would ConnectedText reflect something more interesting or useful than it's own "structure" of interconnections?

    This is so banal it's almost not worth quoting:

    Tell me what your philosophy is doing for the search for truth or the good, and I will tell me what it is worth.

    Would it be better if Mario Bunge would tell others beside himself his "objective" estimation of the worth of the "philosophies" of others? That's either a typo or a matter of philosophical dispute.

    This has gone off the rails for those of us who use Zettelkasten for writing and who are less interested in the theory of the theory--an occupational hazard of educators. If one happens to take notes on a wissenschaft, it would help if whatever system one uses doesn't interfere. If Luhmann wasn't interested in "truth," that has less to do with the organization of the card file than the subject he wrote about. Unfortunately it wasn't a wissenschaft. It's doubtful that ConnectedText could transform Luhmann's subject into one.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:

    Kuehn seems to suggest that Luhmann's system opposes Kuehn's heroic effort to sustain an interest in "truth," though it's not clear why that would be.

    I like the questions you raise, but Kuehn was not claiming that ConnectedText would have changed what he calls Luhmann's lack of interest in truth. Kuehn was a philosophy professor and historian of philosophy, and his point in this paragraph is about philosophical method. Kuehn explains this more in the subsequent sentences of the same paragraph, where he explicitly says "this is a danger inherent in the note-taking system, but one that has to do with how one uses it":

    Secondly, Luhmann ultimately remained an intellectual "bricoleur" or "tinkerer," as Claude Lévi-Strauss, another thinker who used Zettelkästen extensively, would have put it. The bricoleur is different from the engineer because the engineer can develop or acquire tools that are designed for a technical need. He re-designs the part of the world he deals with, while the bricoleur restricts himself to tinkering with collections of odds and ends left over from other projects, that is, with a certain subset of our cultural enddeavors "that might come in handy." The structure, he extracted from his Zettelkasten, ultimately "systems theory" is ultimately an arrangement of these odds and ends. Anyone who uses his method should be aware of this danger. But I do not think that this is a danger inherent in the note-taking system, but one that has to do with how one uses it. You can cut yourself with any sharp tool, if you are not careful.

    It's interesting that this entire paragraph was not initially in Kuehn's essay, as you can see by comparing these two versions in the Internet Archive: 2007-10-30 (without the paragraph) versus 2007-12-26 (third-to-last paragraph added).

    Nevertheless Kuehn did seem to believe strongly that it is easy for a philosopher to misuse a Zettelkasten if one does not have a strong grasp of philosophical method; he repeated this point in a blog post titled "Critique of Zettelkästen" that he wrote around the same time that the previously quoted paragraph was added to the other essay: "And yes, I agree with Kraus, that a card index is a tool with inherent dangers. But the same may be said about any sharp instrument."

    Would it be better if Mario Bunge would tell others beside himself his "objective" estimation of the worth of the "philosophies" of others? That's either a typo or a matter of philosophical dispute.

    That quote appeared toward the end of a book titled Evaluating Philosophies, much of which was devoted to exactly that question, not to mention much else that Bunge published in the previous sixty years. Here are the first two paragraphs of Evaluating Philosophies:

    How are philosophies evaluated? This question does not seem to have been investigated in any detail or depth. In any event, there do not seem to be any objective and generally accepted criteria for assessing the merits and flaw of philosophical doctrines. Usually, the adoption of a philosophy does not result from a long and anguished deliberation but, rather, from a combination of predisposition with necessity and opportunity – just as in the case of petty theft.
    By contrast, to evaluate a science or a scientific theory scientists use a battery of objective criteria accepted by almost all investigators: clarity, internal consistency, fitness to the relevant empirical data, coherence with the bulk of antecedent knowledge, size of the problems it tackles, ability to answer extant questions, and potential to guide future research. Scientists and philosophers use these criteria and a few others every time the credentials of a new discipline or a theory are questioned. Suffice it to recall the scientific-philosophical controversies ignited by all the scientific breakthroughs during the past five centuries.

    Also, I think @ZettelDistraction understands this, but for anyone else who is reading and hasn't gotten the joke, all of my previous comments above were tongue-in-cheek. There are serious epistemological issues involved, but I wasn't treating them in a serious way. (Though I was curious to see if anyone would take the bait. Thanks for stepping up @ZettelDistraction!) You could rightly call this "off the rails" as @ZettelDistraction said above, but it is self-consciously so.

  • Whoa, I just noticed that Manfred Kuehn's PhD is from McGill University, which is where Mario Bunge taught! I wonder if they crossed paths?

  • edited September 11

    @Andy said:
    @ZettelDistraction said:

    Kuehn seems to suggest that Luhmann's system opposes Kuehn's heroic effort to sustain an interest in "truth," though it's not clear why that would be.

    I like the questions you raise, but Kuehn was not claiming that ConnectedText would have changed what he calls Luhmann's lack of interest in truth.

    I know--my comment was also "tongue-in-cheek." But you seized on it. The subtext was that Kuehn's interest in truth doesn't seem to have helped him--at this juncture in any case.

    Also, I think @ZettelDistraction understands this, but for anyone else who is reading and hasn't gotten the joke, all of my previous comments above were tongue-in-cheek.

    Likewise.

    There are serious epistemological issues involved, but I wasn't treating them in a serious way. (Though I was curious to see if anyone would take the bait. Thanks for stepping up @ZettelDistraction!)

    Back atcha. We are all a little dumber and closer to death for my having done so. I apologize.

    You could rightly call this "off the rails" as @ZettelDistraction said above, but it is self-consciously so.

    Uh huh. That's what they all say.

    Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:

    The subtext was that Kuehn's interest in truth doesn't seem to have helped him--at this juncture in any case.

    Kuehn's interest in truth doesn't seem to have helped him... pad his CV like Luhmann.

    There are serious epistemological issues involved, but I wasn't treating them in a serious way. (Though I was curious to see if anyone would take the bait. Thanks for stepping up @ZettelDistraction!)

    Back atcha. We are all a little dumber and closer to death for my having done so. I apologize.

    We're just adding a few more nodes to the cosmic dialogue map. We might as well have fun while we do it!

    You could rightly call this "off the rails" as @ZettelDistraction said above, but it is self-consciously so.

    Uh huh. That's what they all say.

    LOL! The part of it that I can see is self-conscious. Then there's what everyone else sees that I don't...

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