Missing the Forest for the Trees

Hi all.

For a bit of context: I am a Ph.D. Candidate and Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy, so my professional life is very research heavy. I also am beginning to strongly suspect I have ADHD. One problem I have is missing the forest for the trees; I often get sucked into an interesting line of thought or reasoning, and lose sight of the broader orientation of the project, a given chapter, or an argument.

I’ve recently started using Obsidian for a Zettelkasten (well, two ZK slipboxes). I’ve been aware of the method for some time but only recently committed myself to using it in earnest. One concern or worry that I have is that ZKM seems apt to intensify this proclivity to get sucked in to particular lines of reasoning while losing sight of the whole. This is fine if those threads are immediately relevant to the overall thread of a given project (and, of course, it’s nice to lose oneself once in a while), but I’m wondering if people have any suggestions for how to mitigate this? Perhaps it’s just a misinformed worry, also.

The strategy I’ve adopted thus far has been to (i) organize my vaults according to a PARA organization and (ii) pay more attention to a top-down structure.

I have my projects (chapters, papers, professional stuff, etc.) organized and outlined in a dedicated project folder. I have what I’ve been calling the ‘Master Index’ in a dedicated area folder. The Master Index contains Discipline and Topic Area Notes, which in turn contain Intermediate Topic Notes (e.g., ‘Consciousness, Kierkegaard’s Conception Of’), which in turn contain more granular Topic Notes (e.g., ‘Collision Between Ideal and Real, Consciousness As’). These Topic Notes then link to the Zettels which are tagged with this topic.

This kind of organization seems to be a no-no according to some parties (e.g. Ahrens). I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too by treating the Master Index as emergent, rather than building it and then trying to fit my notes into the ‘perfect’ place. I’m also trying to keep my actual slip-box separate: I keep it in a dedicated Resources folder which just contains (i) a folder for Fleeting Notes, (ii), a folder for Literature Notes, (iii) a folder for Reference Notes, and (iv) the Zettels themselves, where the only organization is their alphanumeric IDs.

Hopefully this is clear; would be happy to hear if anybody has any thoughts.


If you haven’t already, you may want to search “ADHD” here (and on the Discord if you’re there) to see prior discussion about that.

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Hey! I’m a Philosophy PhD :slight_smile: What’s your AOS/AOC? What are you teaching?

I agree that ZK note taking can encourage thinking that is, well, atomic, focused on the immediate line of inquiry rather than a holistic body of thought.

But that same atomicity can also be worked the other way: atomic thoughts are easy to organize into larger wholes, and those larger wholes are, with practice, easily broken down into smaller parts.

Here are some tools and ideas I’ve found helpful in this regard. You already do a lot of this.

  • MOCs, Index Notes, etc. Every time I write an atomic note I try to find a larger category note to fit it into. Actually, I try to find two or three, to keep my notes from getting too siloed. This can be difficult with stray ideas but it’s a good exercise.

  • You don’t even need to actually create the index note. I have plenty of uncreated topic pages. When I create them, all the pages I linked to them will appear in their backlinks
    Even if I never create them, the act of connecting my thoughts to larger concerns is valuable to me.

  • I use a third kind of note, question notes: “Can two physical objects have no spatial relation to each other,” “How can I incorporate novellas into my foreign language teaching,” etc. This mediates between the forest of true index notes and the trees of atomic notes.

  • I avoid simply tacking links on to the end of my notes. I either incorporate them into the prose of the note or add a sentence or two explaining why they are linked.

  • Think of linking notes as part of the thinking process. Even if I never use two linked notes together, just the act of finding a connection will help avoid too narrow a focus.

  • I have folders with notes for all my past/current/future projects, so it’s easy to link specific notes to them. This trains my brain to make connections to forest-level topics that interest me.

  • The file names of my notes are one sentence summaries, Matuschak style. This makes it easy to scan and see what ideas connect.

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Hey! A pleasure.

AOS: Kierkegaard, Phenomenology, Philosophy of Mind.

I have taught a number of things at this point. The module I was on for 2022/23 dealt with contemporary and historical perspectives on free will, as well as elementary formal logic (propositional and predicate calculus).

I also have research interests in philosophical pessimism and philosophy of horror. I have Continental training but try to straddle the boundary with Analytic work.

I do all of this already. It’s very reassuring that I seem to be on the right track in implementation! :slight_smile:

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Out of interest, do you have a particular method of capturing philosophical material via Literature Notes within Obsidian? I’m trying to thematize the process that goes on in-between (and during) reading and prior to the formation of atomic notes.

I do medieval philosophy religion and phil mind, so different authors but similar area. I’ve read some Kierkegaard and found him difficult but definitely worth the effort! I love teaching logic, though right now I teach it to middle schoolers which is fun but a whole different ball game!

My process is pretty simple and chaotic but is roughly:

  1. Marginal notes in the book or whatever
  2. Type up whatever marginal notes are valuable into the literature note for the work, and link to related notes in my vault. Sometimes if there’s an idea I know I’ll be tracking across the text I’ll make a note for that.
  3. Turn into /add to atomic notes whatever of #2 either (1) transcends this one work/author (2) is an interesting line of inquiry about this work/author.

2-3 are often done concurrently, esp for books where I might follow the whole process step by step

Oh and it can help to (break one of my above rules and) make a list of existing related notes before #2, so you have an idea of what it connects to in your existing notes. Sort of like a lit review on yourself.

It’s pretty basic and also quite time consuming but the multi step process is an important filter to me, since so much of what I think is important when I’m reading is not really that important by the end.


I’ve been making my way through Ned Block’s new book: The Border Between Seeing and Thinking. I don’t buy it, but I’m not entirely sure why at the moment!

Thanks for your help.

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I hadn’t heard of that book. I might have to read it. I’m very interested in the way people divide up mental activity. Medievals use a lot of the same dichotomies we do (reason vs passion, knowledge vs desire, thought vs sense), but they mean very different things from us, and that can cause big misunderstandings. Thanks for tipping me off to this!

Do you know of any good secondary introductory / overview works on the concept of mind in Medieval thought? Either explicitly, if the Medievals had a concept of mind per se, or implicitly via the distinctions you mention.

My only real familiarity with Medieval thought is Aquinas on the will as rational appetite–which itself would not be a bad thing for me to revisit, given the intellective dimension of rational appetite.

EDIT: If you’re interested in divisions and sorts of mental activity and how they relate, if you haven’t already you should check out some of the stuff that’s been going on recently in Philosophy of Mind on the topic of attention. Watzl’s 2019 (2017?) book, Structuring Mind, comes to mind.

That’s a great question. I’m going to email a colleague who is more in touch with contemporary phil than me and will let you know if he says anything.

Here are some scattered angles of attack:

  • Google revealed this to me. I haven’t read this book but the authors are exactly the people I’d want to write it: https://www.routledge.com/Philosophy-of-Mind-in-the-Early-and-High-Middle-Ages-The-History-of-the/Cameron/p/book/9780367734152

  • Aristotle’s De Anima. Everyone doing phil mind in the Middle Ages starts here. Most of them literally had it memorized. You could read it with Aquinas’ commentary; Aristotelian scholars occasionally still use Aquinas’ commentaries today because they’re so clear.

  • Modern Thomist psychology. Once you get into really technical stuff (Oderberg, De Haan), you’re moving away from history into truly modern Thomism. But more introductory level stuff will keep you grounded in the Middle Ages or at least a medieval mindset (although they will give the unfortunate impression that Aquinas is medieval philosophy which is far from truth). Edward Feser and Mortimer Adler have good intro volumes. Both are aimed at nonspecialists, but Adler is much easier (I like to describe him to people as a more secular, Aristotelian C.S. Lewis though he didn’t write fiction).

  • In particular, Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes has some very approachable chapters on cognition and explicitly contrasts it with early modern views. That’s where I’d start. Adler also has a book simply called “Intellect,” though I haven’t read it.

  • Look into particular items of debate in the Middle Ages: whether the immateriality of the soul can be proven; whether the intellect in its current state requires phantasms; whether everyone shares a single intellect; divine illumination and skepticism; various debates on free will analogous to PAP debates today. I know there’s been a lot of work on the passions too but I don’t know much about that.

Further suggestions from my colleague:

Pasnau’s Theories of Cognition in the Middle Ages
Adriaenssen’s Representation and Skepticism from Aquinas to Descartes
King’s Inner Cathedral: http://individual.utoronto.ca/pking/articles/Inner_Cathedral.pdf

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