A Quick Look at Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Zettelkasten: Zettel 1967
In response to a post last week, Stephen Downes reminded me that Ludwig Wittgenstein had a zettelkasten practice. In particular there is a translated and published book Zettel from 1967 which contains 717 zettels from Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, or works left behind following his death in 1951. I’ve had a copy lying around for a bit, but finally spent some time with it. The book cleverly has a parallel text form with the German on one side of the page and the English on the facing page. I’ve also seen translations of the book in both Spanish and Italian for those who might prefer those.
While the individual entries themselves are as fascinating as dipping randomly into some of Henry David Thoreau’s journals or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, the brief introductory material by the editors was immediately the most interesting to me.
In the book, the editors (one a student, the other his friend and colleague and both his literary executors) indicate that many of Wittgenstein’s zettels “were for the most part cut from extensive typescripts of his, other copies of which still exist.” Perhaps not knowing of the commonplace book or zettelkasten traditions, they may have dramatically mistaken the notes in his zettelkasten as having originated in his typescripts rather than them having originated as notes which then later made it into his typescripts! I’m left wondering what in particular about the originals may have made them think it was typescript to zettel?! They even indicate having gone so far as to edit some of the zettel using the typescripts to fill in missing material, so those reading them from the note stage forward may wish to take caution for these.
If it’s true that the two editors were unaware of his note taking habits, then it would seem obvious that Wittgenstein didn’t pass along his note taking methods to his students, given that Anscombe was close enough to have visited his deathbed and been named a literary executor. Given the mid-century timeframe, it’s likely that the card index note taking methods were already passing out of vogue at this time.
Some more digging into the actual original materials may be necessary here. Were these the only slips he left behind? Were there others? Did he dispose of his notes as works from them were published?
Based on the dating provided by Anscombe and von Wright, Wittgenstein’s slips dated from 1929 to 1948. Supposing that the notes preceded the typescripts and not the other way around as Anscombe and von Wright indicate, the majority of the notes were turned into written work (typescripts) which were dictated from 1945-1948.
Some of the manuscript notes in Wittgenstein’s zettelkasten were according to the editors “apparently written to add to the remarks on a particular matter preserved in the box”. So much like Niklas Luhmann’s wooden conversation partner, Wittgenstein was not only having conversations with the texts he was reading, he was creating a conversation between himself and his pre-existing notes thus extending his lines of thought within his zettelkasten.
However the form of these notes is structurally different from Luhmann’s. Peter Geach apparently made an arrangement of Wittgenstein’s slips which was broadly kept in the edited and published version Zettel. Fragments on the same topic were clipped together indicating that Wittgenstein’s method was most likely by “conversation”, subject, or possibly topical headings. However there were also a large number of slips “lying loose in the box.” Perhaps these were notes which he had yet to file or which some intervening archivist may have re-arranged? In any case this particular source doesn’t indicate the use of alphabetical dividers or other tabbed divisions.
In any case, Geach otherwise arranged all the materials as best as he could according to subject matter. As a result the printed book version isn’t necessarily the arrangement that Wittgenstein would have made, but the editors of the book felt that at least Geach’s arrangement made it an “instructive and readable compilation”. Many of the zettels are closely related and seem to form coherent ideas or streams of thought. Some remind me a bit of Twitter threads.
Ultimately I’m left wondering, what was Wittgenstein’s reading, note taking, and process? Was it note taking, arranging/outlining, and then dictation followed by editing? Dictating certainly would have been easier/faster if he’d already written down his cards and could simply read from them to a secretary.
For those hoping for lots of answers about his particular practice, not much is to be gleaned here except for looking directly at the collection as a whole. Most fascinating to me is seeing a softer conversational and decontextualized nature in the notes which I’ve also seen in Luhmann’s. Of course without the context and references, many are unlikely to mean much to some without some heavy reading or studying.
Puzzling out Wittgenstein’s active practice is likely going to require some more direct access to the source materials or subsequent works from other scholars who have been through them and his other materials more thoroughly.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Zettel. Edited by Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright,. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Second California Paperback Printing. 1967. Reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2007.
(Original post with additional links and aggregated replies at https://boffosocko.com/2023/03/20/a-quick-look-at-ludwig-wittgensteins-zettelkasten-zettel-1967/)
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@chrisaldrich It is uncanny how many of these stories and practices you manage to dig up! Thank you for sharing that piece.
Your pointing out that the editors might have the order from typescript to note wrong sounds like a sensible story to me: We don't know what was commonplace knowledge back then. And it sounds like the editors didn't mind to explain. Then again, won't this line of reasoning cut both ways? Maybe it was commonplace to do it in the (odd) way the editors describe and just sounds implausible in hindsight?
Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/
The Wittgenstein case raises for me (again) the issue of the relation between Zettelkasten structure and writing style. Manfred Kuehn recounted the criticism of some Zettelkasten users: "The book reads like a dumped card index" ("wie ein ausgeschütteter Zettelkasten"). This description seems to me to apply to some of Wittgenstein's books. Personally I do not aspire to write like the later Wittgenstein!
And speaking of cut-up typescripts, I don't aspire to write like William S. Burroughs either.