Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten Method State of the Art in 1898

Many people mistakenly credit Niklas Luhmann with the invention of the zettelkasten method, so I’ve been delving into historical note taking practices. I’ve recently come across a well known and influential book on historical method from the late 1800s that has well described version of the slip (box) method.

Originally published in French in 1897 as Introduction aux études historiques and then translated into English by George Godfrey Berry, Henry Holt and Company published Introduction to the Study of History in 1898 by authors Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos. Along with Ernst Bernheim’s popular Lehrbuch der historischen Methode mit Nachweis der wichtigsten Quellen und Hülfsmittelzum Studium der Geschichte (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1889), Langlois and Seignobos’ text is one of the first comprehensive manuals discussing the use of scientific techniques in historical research.

Primarily written by Seignobos, Book II, Chapter IV “Critical Classification of Sources” has several sections on the zettelkasten method under the section headings:

  • Importance of classification—The first impulse wrong—The note-book system not the best—Nor the ledger-system—Nor the “system” of trusting the memory
  • The system of slips the best—Its drawbacks—Means of obviating them—The advantage of good “private librarian-ship”

This section describes a slip method for taking notes which is ostensibly a commonplace book method done using slips of paper (fiches in the original French) instead of notebooks. Their method undergirds portions of the historical method they lay out in the remainder of the book. Seignobos calls the notebook method “utterly wrong” and indicates that similar methods have been “universally condemned” by librarians as a means of storing and maintaining knowledge. Entertainingly he calls the idea of attempting to remember one’s knowledge using pure memory a “barbarous method”.

The slip method is so ubiquitous by the time of his writing in 1897 that he says “Every one admits nowadays that it is advisable to collect materials on separate cards or slips of paper.”

The Slip Method

The book broadly outlines the note taking process:

The notes from each document are entered upon a loose leaf furnished with the precisest possible indications of origin. The advantages of this artifice are obvious : the detachability of the slips enables us to group them at will in a host of different combinations ; if necessary, to change their places : it is easy to bring texts of the same kind together, and to incorporate additions, as they are acquired, in the interior of the groups to which they belong. As for documents which are interesting from several points of view, and which ought to appear in several groups, it is sufficient to enter them several times over on different slips ; or they may be represented, as often as may be required, on reference-slips.

Seignobos further advises, as was generally common, “to use slips of uniform size and tough material” though he subtly added the management and productivity advice “to arrange them at the earliest opportunity in covers or drawers or otherwise.”

In terms of the form of notes, he says

But it will always be well to cultivate the mechanical habits of which professional compilers have learnt the value by experience: to write at the head of every slip its date, if there is occasion for it, and a heading in any case; to multiply cross-references and indices; to keep a record, on a separate set of slips, of all the sources utilised, in order to avoid the danger of having to work a second time through materials already dealt with.

Where the Luhmann fans will see a major diversion for the system compared to his internal branching system is in its organization. They describe a handful of potential organizations based on the types of notes and their potential uses, though many of these use cases specific to historical research are now better effected by databases and spreadsheets. As for the broader classes of more traditional literature-based textual notes, they recommend grouping the slips in alphabetical order of the words chosen as subject headings. Here, even in a French text translated to English, the German word Schlagwörter is used. It can be translated as “headwords”, “catchwords” or “topical headings” though modern note takers, particularly in digital contexts, may be more comfortable with the translation “tags”.

While there are descriptions of cross-linking or cross-referencing cards from one to another, there is no use of alpha-numeric identifiers or direct juxtaposition of ideas on cards as was practiced by Luhmann.

The authors specifically credit Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode several times in the book. While a lot of the credit is geared toward their broader topic of historical method, Bernheim provides a description of note taking very similar to their method. I’ve found several copies of Bernheim’s text in German, but have yet to find any English translations.

Both Bernheim and Langlois/Seignobos’ work were influential enough in the areas of history specifically and the humanities in general that Beatrice Webb (an influential English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian, and social reformer who was a co-founder of the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society, and The New Statesman) cites their work in Appendix C “The Art of Note-Taking” in her 1926 autobiographical work My Apprenticeship, which was incredibly popular and went through multiple reprintings in the nearly full century since its issue. Her personal use of this note taking method would appear to pre-date both books (certainly the Langlois/Seignobos text), however, attesting to its ubiquity in the late 1800s.

What is the “true” zettelkasten method?

Scott Scheper has recently written that personal communication with Luhmann’s youngest son Clemmens Luhmann indicated that Luhmann learned his method in 1951 from the Johannes Erich Heyde text Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens (with several German editions from 1931 onward). This book’s note taking method is broadly similar to that of the long held commonplace book maintained on index cards as seen in both Langlois/Seignobos (1897) and Webb (1926). One of the few major differences in Heyde was the suggestion to actively make and file multiple copies of the same card under different topical headings potentially using carbon copy paper to speed up the process. While it’s possible that Luhmann may have either learned the modifications of his particular system from someone or modified it himself, it is reasonably obvious that there is a much longer standing tradition as early as Konrad Gessner in 1548 to the middle of the 20th century of a zettelkasten tradition that is more similar to the commonplace book tradition effectuated with index cards (or slips “of a similar size”). Luhmann’s system, while seemingly more popular and talked about since roughly 2013, is by far the exception rather than the rule within the broader history of the “zettelkasten method”. With these facts in mind, we should be talking about a simpler, historical zettelkasten method and a separate, more complex/emergent Luhmann method.

(Originally and aggregated replies can be found at https://boffosocko.com/2022/09/09/zettelkasten-method-state-of-the-art-in-1898/)

🗃️ website | Hypothes.is notes

No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. —Umberto Eco

Comments

  • Thanks for sharing all this. In a Twitter response, @taurusnoises said: "we are all participating in an evolving dynamic history of zettelkasten methods (plural)". I imagine the plurality of methods is even more diverse than indicated by @chrisaldrich, who seems to be keen to trace everything through a single historical tradition back to commonplace books. But if you consider that every scholar who ever worked must have had some kind of note-taking method, and that many of them probably used paper slips or cards, and that they may have invented methods relatively independently and tailored those methods to diverse needs, then we are looking at a much more interesting plurality of methods indeed.

  • Andy, I take that much broader view you're describing. I definitely wouldn't say I'm keen to trace things through one (or even more) historical traditions, and to be sure there have been very many. I'm curious about a broad variety of traditions and variations on them; giving broad categorization to them can be helpful. I study both the written instructions through time, but also look at specific examples people have left behind of how they actually practiced those instructions. The vast majority of people are not likely to invent and evolve a practice alone, but are more likely likely to imitate the broad instructions read from a manual or taught by teachers and then pick and choose what they feel works for them and their particular needs. It's ultimately here that general laziness is likely to fall down to a least common denominator.

    Between the 8th and 13th Centuries florilegium flouished, likely passed from user to user through a religious network, primarily facilitated by the Catholic Church and mendicant orders of the time period. In the late 1400s to 1500s, there were incredibly popular handbooks outlining the commonplace book by Erasmus, Agricola, and Melancthon that influenced generations of both teachers and students to come. These traditions ebbed and flowed over time and bent to the technologies of their times (index cards, card catalogs, carbon copy paper, computers, internet, desktop/mobile/browser applications, and others.) Naturally now we see a new crop of writers and "influencers" like Kuehn, Ahrens, Allosso, Holiday, Forte, Milo, and even zettelkasten.de prescribing methods which are variously followed (or not), understood, misunderstood, modified, and changed by readers looking for something they can easily follow, maintain, and which hopefully has both short term and long term value to them.

    Everyone is taking what they want from what they read on these techniques, but often they're not presented with the broadest array of methods or told what the benefits and affordances of each of the methods may be. Most manuals on these topics are pretty prescriptive and few offer or suggest flexibility. If you read Tiago Forte but don't need a system for work or project-based productivity but rather need a more Luhmann-like system for academic writing, you'll have missed something or will only have a tool that gets you part of what you may have needed. Similarly if you don't need the affordances of a Luhmannesque system, but you've only read Ahrens, you might not find the value of simplified but similar systems and may get lost in terminology you don't understand or may not use. The worst sin, in my opinion, is when these writers offer their advice, based only on their own experiences which are contingent on their own work processes, and say this is "the way" or I've developed "this method" over the past decade of grueling, hard-fought experience and it's the "secret" to the "magic of note taking". These ideas have a long and deep history with lots of exploration and (usually very little) innovation, but an average person isn't able to take advantage of this because they're only seeing a tiny slice of these broader practices. They're being given a hammer instead of a whole toolbox of useful tools from which they might choose. Almost none are asking the user "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" and then making suggestions about what may or may not have worked for similar problems in the past as a means of arriving at a solution. More often they're being thrown in the deep end and covered in four letter acronyms, jargon, and theory which ultimately have no value to them. In other cases they're being sold on the magic of productivity and creativity while the work involved is downplayed and they don't get far enough into the work to see any of the promised productivity and creativity.

    🗃️ website | Hypothes.is notes

    No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. —Umberto Eco

  • Chris, thanks for the follow-up, with which I completely agree. I'm grateful that I already had a couple of decades of practical experience and desk research before the crop of influencers that you mention appeared, so that I had a broader base from which to evaluate their ideas, which in general have the weaknesses you mention, though it is fun to watch them rediscover things. (That's one of the benefits of getting older: watching newer generations try to solve familiar problems.)

    When @Hailtothekym started the recent discussion thread Zettelkasten for Architecture or Visual Output in general?, I wondered if it was a case of an architect being too influenced by the online Zettelkasten fad instead of methods more endogenous to the architecture field. (Only @Hailtothekym can answer that; I'm not an architect though I have long worked in a different visual field.) Perhaps not, because each of us is more than our career/profession, and a personal knowledge management system can help us in many areas of our lives.

  • In my previous comment I said, "That's one of the benefits of getting older: watching newer generations try to solve familiar problems" but, lest that sound too much like a self-satisfied middle-aged person, I should add: "and sometimes doing it better with cooler technology". (I'm not immune to the attractions of cooler technology.) Not to mention new problems.

  • edited September 11

    I too am grateful for these scholarly developments, to name a minuscule fraction of the vast cognitive vistas on note-taking effortlessly comprehended by my interlocutors (not to mention the contribution to the Zettelkasten debates by the Silicon Valley giants, who have algorithmically determined that to maximize profits, online disputes over extreme, unsubstantiated positions must dominate the attention of social media users). While I have long since exceeded the point of diminishing returns, I might make room for Technik des wissenschaftlichen Arbeitens. At least the author knows a wissenschaft when he sees one. My own Rube Goldberg of a system seems to work in spite of itself, but I don't consider it the bees knees. Not that my remarks are needed. At least I'm not charging money for any of it.

    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 delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • Permit me to share with my interlocutors a little more of the vast cognitive vistas mentioned by @ZettelDistraction...

    @chrisaldrich said:

    Almost none are asking the user "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" and then making suggestions about what may or may not have worked for similar problems in the past as a means of arriving at a solution.

    Compare to Arthur Perret's "The reason you don't 'get' Zettelkasten" (2022-05-20):

    I see a problem. People look at a tool and ask themselves, "What can I do with it?". I'm not saying that nothing interesting can come out of this line of questioning, but it seems like a designer question, something to wonder about when your job is to push the limits of what can be done. For most of us, I think looking at the tool and asking how to use it is twice misguided: it's the wrong question, and it formulates the problem the wrong way around. The first question to ask is "what do I want/need to do?". The second is "what tool can help me?".
  • edited September 12

    Why does anyone need to start with any question, let alone the "right" one? Maybe you are wilfing through the Internet, and you stumble upon a description of something called a Zettelkasten, which some historical figure used to produce scores of books and hundreds of papers. Perhaps before that moment it didn't occur to you that 1) you had a problem you needed or wanted to solve; that 2) you could answer decisively the question, "what problem do I want to solve?" after which, and only after which that 3) you will have earned the right to ask, "what tool can help me?"

    These nagging narratives are the prescriptions of busybodies. You might be curious. You don't even need a reason to try something out. I wouldn't worry about the moralizing busybodies.

    Of course it would be desirable to be informed about the trade-offs among alternatives. The contest for debaters points over what questions to ask in what order doesn't accomplish this.

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

  • @ZettelDistraction said:

    Maybe you are wilfing through the Internet, and you stumble upon a description of something called a Zettelkasten [...] You might be curious. You don't even need a reason to try something out.

    True, you don't need a reason to surf the web and play with shiny new things. Some brain researchers have even associated mind-wandering or task-unrelated thought with the brain's so-called default mode network (though playing with shiny new things would involve a lot more than just mind-wandering). So you could say that to some degree our default mode may be not very on-task, and that's not a bad thing.

    But there is a critique that I find very annoying of a psychological model of decision making that I like. The critique essentially says: This model is not how people really make decisions. The critique is annoying because it misses the point of the model: it's a prescriptive model, not a descriptive one. It's a tool that may work when a person's modus operandi isn't producing the results they want. It doesn't imply that the model is how people do or should operate all the time.

    The basic problem-solving scheme that @chrisaldrich and Arthur Perret suggest isn't a moralizing denunciation of playing and web surfing. It offers a potential way out of confusion for people who find themselves in a situation that isn't working for them.

  • edited September 12

    @Andy My comments weren't directed at @chrisaldrich. I think his work is excellent, very much to the point and very much needed.

    @Andy said:
    The basic problem-solving scheme that @chrisaldrich and Arthur Perret suggest isn't a moralizing denunciation of playing and web surfing.

    I was referring to Monsieur Perret, who was (it seemed to me) engaging in one-upmanship, not at all about playing and web-surfing--that can fairly be called a mischaracterization of what I wrote--but by his peremptory way of setting everyone else straight, insisting on asking a question prior to the one about tools. [remind me not to engage in any more online debates.]

    It offers a potential way out of confusion for people who find themselves in a situation that isn't working for them.

    I suggested as much:

    Of course it would be desirable to be informed about the trade-offs among alternatives.

    It wasn't clear to me what Monsieur Perret added.

    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 delayed, sometimes indefinitely since Life is short.

  • @ZettelDistraction said:

    not at all about playing and web-surfing

    I thought that's what "Maybe you are wilfing through the Internet" meant.

    It wasn't clear to me what Monsieur Perret added.

    I thought Chris & Arthur were making roughly equivalent points in the quoted passages. [1] Chris: "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" = Arthur: "What do I want/need to do?" [2] Chris: "What may or may not have worked for similar problems?" = Arthur: "What tool can help me?" So I'm baffled that you find Chris's work "excellent" but Arthur to be engaged in "one-upmanship".

  • edited September 12

    @Andy said:
    @ZettelDistraction said:

    not at all about playing and web-surfing

    I thought that's what "Maybe you are wilfing through the Internet" meant.

    It does. But I wasn't suggesting anyone was denouncing that.

    It wasn't clear to me what Monsieur Perret added.

    I thought Chris & Arthur were making roughly equivalent points in the quoted passages. [1]

    They aren't equivalent--unless they are taken out of context to make them seem equivalent.

    Chris: "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" = Arthur: "What do I want/need to do?" [2] >Chris: "What may or may not have worked for similar problems?" = Arthur: "What tool can help me?"

    Perret dismisses that question. "For most of us, I think looking at the tool and asking how to use it is twice misguided: it's the wrong question, and it formulates the problem the wrong way around."

    Spare us.

    So I'm baffled that you find Chris's work "excellent" but Arthur to be engaged in "one-upmanship".

    What was the comparison supposed to be of then? A comparison of zero?

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

  • @ZettelDistraction, I'm sorry for my misunderstanding of what you said.

    I thought that both Chris and Arthur were trying to put the online Zettelkasten enthusiasm in a larger perspective, that's all. Yes, their posts taken as a whole were very different but they were similar at least in that way.

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