Zettelkasten Forum


How important is the history of the Zettelkasten Method?

Dear Zettlers,

I am currently reading the Artikel The Two Definitions of Zettelkasten and am just a couple of hundred words in. @chrisaldrich contextualises the Zettelkasten Method within the bigger picture of using practices that seem to have something in common. I am perfectly happy to admit that I do the very thing that Chris is pointing out: My starting point it the article by Luhmann and while I am aware of the history Zettelkasten Method I never saw much practical value from reading the historical use cases.

I, myself, am a pretty non-nostalgic character. My passion for the Zettelkasten Method is fueled by exactly two motivations:

  1. Improving my personal toolbox for knowledge work.
  2. Generating tools to help other people to improve their toolbox.

I see this as an advantage because I have little incentive to lose myself in tweaking tools or spending time on the tool for fun and joy (nothing wrong with that if you do because it aligns with your own goals, of course).

The downside of this utilitarian approach is that it creates a blind spot which can be a source of fallacies.

So, the question is: What did you learn from the history of the Zettelkasten Method? What is there to be found what is missing in the current collective thinking in the internet?

Live long and prosper
Sascha

I am a Zettler

Comments

  • Your question reminds me of a paper I recently read (The end of history, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0020174X.2022.2124542). While we still use Newtonian mechanics to some degree, nobody reads his Principia Mathematica. It is the technique, the method that counts, not how he presented it.

    As a counter point, however, there is often value in understanding the context of some development. Understanding that Luhmann's Zettelkasten didn't appear out of thin air but is part of a long history of knowledge management helped me to see it as just that, an evolutionary step that wants to be surpassed. Sometimes, there is also just common misunderstanding from cargo-culting that can be resolved by going to the source. I had that with another topic recently.

    My learning from history is that I need to understand the context in which some technology developed to understand which parts are core and which are incidental. I also learned to keep an eye on the problem at hand and to see if there is not a better approach to deal with it.

  • Although I find it interesting, I think we should keep the history in context. If Luhmann had access to modern software, I'm pretty sure his system would've been different.

  • edited November 4

    Very informative and pertinent. The question @chrisaldrich raises about the ahistorical marketing of the Zettelkasten on the Internet has something to do with the business ethos of the Internet itself.

    "... perhaps a more productive question is how [Luhmann's] version [of the Zettelkasten] manages to capture so much mind share? In large part, I attribute it to the fact that the prior tradition has significantly waned from cultural consciousness, making it seem like the idea is new while pitches for Luhmann’s system simultaneously tout it as being almost wholly responsible for Niklas Luhmann’s outsized productivity."
    -- @chrisaldrich Two Definitions of Zettelkasten.

    Internet authors have an incentive not to cite prior art and freely "borrow" from one another without attribution. This is frequently the case where there is money or reputation on the line. I see the Creative Commons licenses as an attempt to address the lack of citation standards on the Internet. However, even in this case, collaborators on work released under Creative Commons licenses may build on prior joint work and publish without citation as if the prior work was not released under a share-and-share-alike attribution license. In any case, lax citation standards on the net and the need to present the appearance of independent novelty contribute to the distortion of the historical record.

    The lack of standards on the Internet extend beyond an unwillingness or inability to cite prior work. In The Epistemology of the Internet and the Regulation of Speech in America, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago argues that "The Internet is the epistemological crisis of the 21st-century: it has fundamentally altered the social epistemology of societies with relative freedom to access it."

    Sustaining epistemic authority depends, crucially, on social institutions that inculcate reliable second-order norms about whom to believe about what. The traditional media were crucial, in the age of mass democracy, with promulgating and sustaining such norms. The Internet has obliterated the intermediaries who made that possible (and, in the process, undermined the epistemic standing of experts), while even the traditional media in the U.S., thanks to the demise of the “Fairness Doctrine,” has contributed to the same phenomenon.
    -- Leiter, Brian, The Epistemology of the Internet and the Regulation of Speech in America (January 9, 2022). Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, 2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3939948

    The role of the Internet in undermining epistemic authorities is another factor to consider. I suppose such considerations would apply to virtually anything promoted or marketed on the Internet for non-epistemic ends--including the Zettelkasten, which is marketed as a productivity tool for so-called knowledge workers--programmers, analysts etc., academics, writers, journalists, and researchers, some of whom may be motivated by the epistemic values of learning, understanding and knowledge and the desire for these. That the Zettelkasten is not particularly distinguished by its marketing on the Internet as a productivity tool is not a reason to discount the role of the Internet in promoting it.

    Aside from its marketing as a productivity tool for the mental technician, the Zettelkasten has its intellectual appeal: Luhmann was said to work on whatever he felt like working on at the time, wherever it led him. Ahrens criticises the pedagogy of research writing promulgated by the authors of writers' manuals and routinely taught in university courses as a methodology more suited to the production of mental technicians than intellectuals [this is my interpretation of Ahrens]. The traditional research writing course prepares mental technicians for the capitalist workplace, where they will need to endure drudgery in return for a paycheck, and for which the University Diploma of the mental technician is an honest and costly signal of the ability not to pursue ideas wherever they may lead, but to labor on projects dictated by external, non-epistemic ends. Ahrens contrasts Luhmann's Zettelkasten as a method more suited to the cultivation of intellectuals and the intellectual virtues. The Zettelkasten represents a break from intellectual impoverishment, from traditional schooling and from the alienated work experience that typically follows--a break which addresses a need that accounts for some the appeal of the Zettelkasten.


    For the epistemic values and motives, see Leiter, Brian, The Circumstances of Civility (April 6, 2011). CIVILITY AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, Washington State University Press, 2011, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 351, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1804544.

    See Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter for the distinction between the intellectual and the mental technician.

    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.

  • @Sascha said:
    So, the question is: What did you learn from the history of the Zettelkasten Method? What is there to be found what is missing in the current collective thinking in the internet?

    Well, @Sascha, @chrisaldrich's article is well argued. In the broadest sense, it argues that the present is built on the past. He points out that partly because of time and cultural differences, zettelkasting was sold as a new and shiny thing even though it was the product of an evolutionary process.

    My question is, "is the history of how zettelkasting came to be relevant to the future of my ZK?" I'd say that @chrisaldrich made it clear that many practitioners in many styles have workflows, techniques, and routines that I can cross-pollinate with. This is how progress happens. So, yes, the genetic history of zettelkasting has value.

    Chris's point about the sharing of the methods of the teacher-to-student or person-to-person is not lost on me. Sharing ideas is precisely what he is doing over there, and we are doing it here.

    A good article, and I have only a couple of criticisms.

    1. I could not find a "new definition" in the section titled "The "new" definition of Zettelkasten." Were we to make up our own? I was expecting, "A Zettelkasten is ..." I wanted specifics,
    2. Chris perpetuates the very thing he makes fun of (nice reference to Ron Popeil.)

    incessant drumbeat of the value and productivity inherently "promised" by those describing Niklas Luhmann's system. Look at all the books and papers he wrote in his lifetime! The system explains it all! It's so simple. You can do this too! Reframed, one could almost visualize Ron Popeil pitching the idea of Luhmann's zettelkasten and having his audience chant "Set it and forget it!"

    As an afterthought:

    *** Editor's note**: I wrote this essay of approximately 7,000 words in about half a day's work, including outlining, footnoting, and editing by drawing material directly from my own hybrid commonplace books/Luhmann-based Zettelkasten.*

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

  • @Will said:
    A good article, and I have only a couple of criticisms.

    1. Chris perpetuates the very thing he makes fun of (nice reference to Ron Popeil.)

    I'm sorry I disagree that @chrisaldrich perpetuates the marketing hype surrounding Zettelkasten. What about the double-quotes around "promised," the patently false claim that "the system explains it all!" and the breathless exclamation points lead you to that conclusion? Is there no room in your Zettelkasten for the use-mention distinction?

    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, I think Chris was sarcastically beating up on the so-called "promise." The "breathless exclamations" are a signature of the late-night infomercial host Ron Popeil and his guests. Ron Popeil, who won the Ig Nobel Prize in Consumer Engineering in 1993, has become an American euphemism for easy, set-it-and-forget-it, guaranteed results. Chris was to point fingers at the silly "promise" that "the system explains it all." I think this was his attempt to blow up the marketing hype.

    You could be right, though.

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

  • edited November 3

    There is one main insight from the history of Zettelkasten/Notetaking that I found recently and that I consider important: When we talk about Zettelkasten, Luhmann is omnipresent. He is the Zettelkasten-User mainly referred to. In some part he and his methods and techniques are fetishized. I can not imagine, for example, that the discussion on the Folgezettel would have been so big, if Luhmann had not used it. So it is kind of refreshing to read and learn about other practitioners of the mehtod, long before Luhmann.

    Recently I discovered a german book called "einige Vortheile für Canzley-Verwandte und Gelehrte in Absicht auf Acten-Verzeichnisse, Auszüge und Register, desgleichen auf Sammlungen zu künfftigen Schrifften, und würckliche Ausarbeitung derer Schrifften" written by Johann Jacob Moser in 1773. In this book there is a part, where Moser describes a primitive but effective Zettelkasten-Method, which made him able to publish around 500 books.

    As a newcomer you constantly worry about "doing the right thing". You constantly ask yourself: "analog or digital?; Folgezettel, yes or no?; is writing Zettels naked in the moonlight beneficial?" Now that I realized that at least over the last 500 years a big bunch of very productive people used Zettelkasten like notetakingsystems in some way but with very different techniques, makes me more confident to go my own way and take what Luhmann did or other authors in the Zettelkasten-Scene suggest not that serious anymore. Because I see now, that a lot of people - often historical figures - apart from Luhmann used what we would call a "Zettelkasten" with big succes but with very different approaches.

    Post edited by runit on
  • @runit said:
    As a newcomer, you constantly worry about "doing the right thing." You constantly ask yourself: "analog or digital?; Folgezettel, yes or no?; is writing Zettels naked by full moon beneficial?" Now that I realized that at least over the last 500 years, a big bunch of very productive people used Zettelkasten like notetaking systems in some way but with very different techniques, makes me more confident to go my own way and take what Luhmann did or other authors in the Zettelkasten-Scene suggest not that serious anymore. Because I see now, that a lot of people - often historical figures - apart from Luhmann used what we would call a "Zettelkasten" with big success but with very different approaches.

    I haven't tried "writing Zettels naked by full moon" yet, but you might have struck on the key to notetaking success!

    There is a bunch we can learn from all the past practitioners. We must be careful that we are so open-minded that our brains fall out. Some practices lead forward, and some are silly, leading to a false sense of progress. Good teachers and exemplars like Luhmann and others are hard to find, and we can learn by following their advice. Ideas evolve mostly in minute detail, following a well-worn path.

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

  • edited November 3

    @Will said:

    A good article, and I have only a couple of criticisms.
    ...
    2. Chris perpetuates the very thing he makes fun of (nice reference to Ron Popeil.)

    I disagree...

    @ZettelDistraction, I think Chris was sarcastically beating up on the so-called "promise." The "breathless exclamations" are a signature of the late-night infomercial host Ron Popeil and his guests. Ron Popeil, who won the Ig Nobel Prize in Consumer Engineering in 1993, has become an American euphemism for easy, set-it-and-forget-it, guaranteed results. Chris was to point fingers at the silly "promise" that "the system explains it all." I think this was his attempt to blow up the marketing hype.

    You could be right, though.

    ? I have no idea how you get from mocking the hype to perpetuating it. I'm using the Oxford English Dictionary.

    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.

  • If only to avoid laboriously reinventing every wheel, it is worthwhile to look at the experiences with slips of paper and slip of paper systems from history.
    Dealing with the "analogue systems" can also provide orientation in the blossoming marketing cloud around the slip box.

    It is always exciting to see which methods also prove themselves with the possibilities of digital solutions, become superfluous or become useful with the help of the electronic assistant.

    Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

  • Others already shared many good points above. One point I would make is that @chrisaldrich's history of Zettelkästen is not "the" history: as I said elsewhere before, I think Chris overemphasizes a line of descent from commonplace books to Zettelkästen. Chris responded by claiming that he doesn't "trace things through one (or even more) historical traditions", but contrary to what he claimed, I see him doing that again in the more recent blog post: "Since antiquity, writers and thinkers have used what has come to be called the commonplace book tradition" (emphasis added). Chris even goes so far as to accuse Vannevar Bush of doing "a massive disservice to the computing field" when Bush described the "Memex" in 1945 without recounting the historical tradition that Chris thinks he should have recounted: this strikes me as a silly and vain complaint, especially since Doug Engelbart made a card-based memex little over a decade later ("Some Possibilities with Cards and Relatively Simple Equipment", in "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework", 1962), and several software applications in the early years of personal computing were modeled on card-based knowledge management.

    Perhaps oversimplifying things is inevitable when one tries to write a blog-post-length history. Knowledge about how people managed knowledge in the past can be useful, but I continue to disagree with the suggestion that all personal knowledge bases today can be traced back to commonplace books. I don't think that's true. Which past knowledge practices will be relevant to any given individual's current knowledge practices depends on the individuals and various related factors such as their purposes.

  • @nistude said:
    Your question reminds me of a paper I recently read (The end of history, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0020174X.2022.2124542). While we still use Newtonian mechanics to some degree, nobody reads his Principia Mathematica. It is the technique, the method that counts, not how he presented it.

    What a promising abstract! Thank you for that article.

    How did you find it?

    Summary of positions I gathered

    • Knowing the history of the Zettelkasten Method helps to put it in perspective: It one of perhaps many to come steps of the evolution of knowledge management.
    • Knowledge about the history sensitises to the context in which the Zettelkasten Methods and note-taking methods in general developed.
    • History, albeit being interesting, less informative on how to actually put things into practice since technology changes a lot.
    • History grounds the marketing with proper attribution which is a general weakness of the internet.
    • The history provides more than just lineage. It can be understood as a source for various tools that allow you to choose the right tool for your personal use.
    • It allows to loosen some fixations on certain traits of Luhmann's specific implementation.

    I am a Zettler

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