Zettelkasten Forum


edited June 2019 in Research & Reading

Hello, first time posting, and I thought I would ask about something I recently found out about.

I heard about a set of books produced by the Encyclopedia Britannica, called "Great Books of the Western World", led by Mortimer Adler (who I already liked because of his book "How to Read a Book"). It's a collection of what a team of people called the Great Books of Western Thought, ranging from Homer to Freud. The collection itself is fascinating, but what I found very interesting was what Adler produced with it: the syntopicon.

The Syntopicon is a 2 volume work that tries to list the "important" topics from everything in the rest of the collection, along with links to those works for further discussion (Wikipedia link for more details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Syntopicon:_An_Index_to_The_Great_Ideas). What really intrigues me about Adler's work is this feels like a type of "topical" Zettelkasten, but on some of the greatest works ever known. I'm hoping to at least see the Syntopicon myself (I think my library has a copy of parts of the whole collection), and learn more about it.

Has anyone here ever heard of this work before? If so, do you view it as something similar to a Zettelkasten? I was amazed to find such a thing existed, and wanted to share with others who might like to see more about it.


  • I never heard of this before, but I'm intrigued :) In hindsight, it's no surprise that of all humans beings it had to be Adler to write a book called "Syntopicon".

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • edited June 2019

    Interesting concept. Although reading the wikipedia article, I get the idea of a multi-book Index/glossary rather than a full Zettelkasten.

    What's missing would be atomization of the ideas into smaller part with an interconnection of the parts that contain single ideas. Which is to be expected because a ZK isn't a linear experience but more like a lattice of ideas where you can move along a string of ideas. This is also the reason a Zettelkasten is something for purely personal use and not a vehicle for publishing (although it facilitates the writing process immensely) - you have to convert that unfocused associative network into a focused, linear piece of writing in order to be understandable - a lot of the power of ZK gets lost in that - the network is the power of ZK.

    A thought example: Say maybe you're dealing with Freuds' Pychoanalysis. And then, you suddently find (purely hypothecial) notes that reads 'Aristoteles has a similiar conecept named xyz' and 'Ultra-duper post-serialism deals with this issue the following way...' and you have another stream along that concept - but you could jump into the Freud Zettelfolge or into Ultr-duper post-serialsim at any time and find new connections there.

    That's seems to be missing in the Synopticon. It seems more like a 'Here's this concept; here a reverences to sources that had something to say about it', which looks like a great tool. However, it doesn't have the associative power of the threedimensional lattice of ideas that is a Zettelkasten.

  • @gescho said:
    the associative power of the threedimensional lattice of ideas that is a Zettelkasten.

    They say that writing clears the thinking. That's really true for me right know - I just had an epiphany! Thank you so much for the thougth provoking post, @mleo2003 !

  • Cannot stress this enough, I think @gescho is spot on with the emphasis of splitting notes for personal association networks and publishing, and all the good stuff that stems from it!

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @gescho Thanks for the kind words, and good thoughts.

    I'm still trying to look at it more in depth, but it seems as if the Syntopicon does have some interlinking with other topics/ideas. Each of the 102 "topics" has a general introduction to it written by Adler himself (which feels like a compilation of what would be a lot of Zettel's from his own thinking). Next, there is an Outline of the Topic, which breaks the topic down into what he thought the components of that would be (outline notes...). After that comes the References, first to the works within the Great Books of the Western World collection (Links to References you keep yourself...), then Cross-References to similar or related topics (Links to other notes...), and finally a list of Additional Reading that references works outside the volumes included (Links to References that you don't keep, but still find relevant...).

    The more I read about this work of his, the more and more it really sounds like Adler almost had a Zettelkasten for doing this, and just formatted and condensed it into 2 volumes to include with the main body of texts he derived the ideas from. If nothing else, I'm hoping such a work as this can be a sort of "Zettelkasten starter kit" for me (and others) to kick start looking into ideas from such great works.

    More info I found is here: https://www.thegreatideas.org/syntopicon.html

  • @mleo2003 here's some addition description, sources, and images which may inform your suspicions: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/2623/mortimer-j-adlers-syntopicon-a-topically-arranged-collaborative-slipbox

    website | digital slipbox 🗃️🖋️

    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

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