The point of reading a nonfiction book is to understand the knowledge of a topic the author is trying to communicate to you. Unfortunately in life, you do not come across all the relevant information on a topic at first glance. One important reason for this is because you just aren’t aware of all the best books on a subject matter, so you don’t read them all at once. Another significant reason is that all the important books on a subject matter don’t come out on the same day. You may read a great book about storytelling, then not read another book about storytelling until 3 years later. By then you’ll likely to have forgotten a lot of the important content in the first book. So you need some sort of long term memory of the ideas you come across in the book, especially when you can’t memorize everything you read.
The zettelkasten is a method/system devised to act as your long term memory. It means taking and structuring your notes in a particular way that you can iterate today on an idea you haven’t seen in 3 years. This allows you to build and connect ideas over a long period of time. As you take more notes and interconnect them, you continually build up a more complex picture of a subject matter and reality.
Building a complex picture of reality is important because it helps you see connections that others have missed. Not only can you bring value to the world by communicating these connections, but creating these connections is the very definition of understanding, which in turn helps you in making better decisions in the world.
While this may seem super obvious, most people go through life without deliberately connecting and intertwining what they read in an external system. People unintentionally connect what they read because of how the mind works, but only do so in an internal system. The problem with that is we can only deal with so much information in the mind and have a limited retrieval ability, leading to a lot of forgetting and wasted information processing. This is helpful because it allows us to forget what is unimportant and create easy to use/streamlined models, but in the process we lose the connections that allow for a deeper understanding.
At the heart of a zettelkasten is the idea that you can further develop knowledge by connecting ideas you come across (through reading, thinking, and discussion) to existing information (notes you’ve already taken). For a zettelkasten to work, you just need the ability to create new notes and add connections to existing ones. This means that you could technically create a zettelkasten within a single word document.
Development of knowledge, which the zettelkasten is all about, happens over both space and time. This means you need a system that keeps track of information spread out in between books (information spread over space) and time (books get released in different years).
Three Connections that aid in Development
Through linking you can develop your understanding of knowledge by providing more context, linking related concepts such that you get a better understanding of the overall picture when you come across a note.
The second type of development through connections is elaborating on ideas over time as you have new thoughts or come across new information. This typically takes the form of connecting notes in a sequence. With Luhmann this looks like “note 1, note 1a, note 1b, note 1c, note 1d, etc”. When there is a concept within one of those not directly related to the sequence (topic of note 1) that you want to elaborate on, then you create a new branch (e.g. note 1b, note 1b1, note 1b2, note 1b3, note 1b4, etc). So you can think of these branches as arbitrary and tangentially related.
The third type of connection you can create is to de-contextualize a piece of information from the original source, such that it leads to multiple context.This is an important ability in life because it allows a piece of information to gain more utility. This is in part what you are doing in the process of positive generalization, see Abstract Knowledge. Negative generalization is whereby the process leads to meaningless information because it is accompanied by a lack of understanding or application. For example, you exist in multiple contexts in your life. Luhmann describes this as multiple storage.
Perhaps the best method would be to take notes— not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read. The re-description of what has already been described leads almost automatically to a training of paying attention to “frames,” or schemata of observation, or even to noticing conditions which lead the text to offer some descriptions but not others.
Yes, I do realize the irony in this note. The other benefit of reformulations of what has been read is that it really forces you to understand what you are reading. In learning this promotes the process of elaboration.
Thoughts on existing ideas within a zettelkasten
Often, your thoughts on a topic won’t come to you when you first create a note on a concept. Over time, percolation will happen and you’ll come to an insight about an idea hours, days, or months after you’ve taken a note. For me, my thoughts on a topic usually come to me during my evening dog walk.
References within the normal flow of the note
7.2ldc living environment in mind also explains the lack of distinction between value and purpose. Both terms are constantly confusing, cf. eg in the definition above: “conditions and results”.
Incidentally, this “life-world” interpretation emphasizes Dewey’s only one possible aspect of his thoughts. It is thwarted by the instrumental and science-based definition of value as the result of intelligent action; see. 7.2m16 . It is difficult to combine both. So in the end it remains that the living environment only plays a role for the fact of enjoyment and that the value aspect only comes into play through science, and this explains Dewey, p. 265f. expressly with the fact that enjoyment as a mere natural is not really secured and therefore (!) not really valuable.
References here being the highlighted numbers, source.
References come at the end of the note
7.2l On the action- relatedness of the values
see. Parsons, p. 446: Critique of German Idealism. Values should not be thought of as ideas that apply in and for themselves (maW: like substances), but in their meaning for the structural structure of action, in their relativity to actions (maW: functional). 1
By contrast, the question of the systematic is part of certain values in an ideology together menhang, the question of the value hierarchy in its structure and its legitimacy, secondarily. But if, for example, Max Weber does research in this direction by name, it does not exclude those others, but assumes them. For example, Parsons, p. 652; see. also 17.17g4 / 5 ; 7.7e16b ; 7.2g4 ; 17.20 ; s. system. linkage 7,2b1.
206 - Luhmann on Arbitrary Branching in a Zettelkasten
Luhmann describes how his system of number sequencing allows for arbitrary branching
1. The possibility of arbitrary internal branching. We do not need to add notes at the end, but we can connect them anywhere—even to a particular word in the middle of a continuous text. A slip with number 57/12 can then be continued with 57/13, etc. At the same time it can be supplemented at a certain word or thought by 57/12a or 57/12b, etc. Internally, this slip can be complemented by 57/12a1, etc. On the page itself I use red letters or numbers in order to mark the place of connection. There can be several places of connection on a slip. In this way, a kind of internal growth ( Wachstum nach innen ) is made possible, depending on what kind of material for thought occurs. The disadvantage is that the originally continuous text is often broken up by hundreds of intermediate slips. But if we systematically number the papers, we can find the original textual whole easily.
Luhmann describes how a number sequence allows for linking between notes
2. Possibility of linking ( Verweisungsmöglichkeiten ). Since all papers have fixed numbers, you can add as many references to them as you may want. Central concepts can have many links which show on which other contexts we can find materials relevant for them. Through references, we can, without too work or paper, solve the problem of multiple storage. Given this technique, it is less important where we place a new note. If there are several possibilities, we can solve the problem as we wish and just record the connection by a link [or reference]. Often the context in which we are working suggests a multiplicity of links to other notes. This is especially the case when the card index is already voluminous. In such cases it is important to capture the connections radially, as it were, but at the same time also by right away recording back links in the slips that are being linked to. In this working procedure, the content that we take note of is usually also enriched
Having a number sequence allows for the creation of an index that facilitates note retrieval
3. Register. Considering the absence of a systematic order, we must regulate the process of rediscovery of notes, for we cannot rely on our memory of numbers. (The alternation of numbers and alphabetic characters in numbering the slips helps memory and is an optical aid when we search for them, but it is insufficient. Therefore we need a register of keywords that we constantly update. The [fixed] numbers of the particular slips is also indispensable for the register. Another complementary aid can be the bibliographical apparatus. Bibliographical notes which we extract from the literature, should be captured inside the card index. Books, articles, etc., which we have actually read, should be put on a separate slip with bibliographical information in a separate box. You will then not only be able to determine after some time what you actually read and what you only noted to prepare reading, but you can also add numbered links to the notes, which are based on this work or were suggested by it. This proves to be helpful because our own memory—others will have similar experiences to mine—works in part with key words and in part with author’s names.
What knowledge is worth developing? How much knowledge should you redevelop in the pursuit of knowledge development? What prior knowledge is worth making explicit in a zettelkasten? What existing developed knowledge is worth including in a zettelkasten?
Surprising & Utility Axis
A good way to think about this is through the suprisal & utility lens. The best information to develop, then turn into knowledge, is surprising and useful information. Surprising in this scenario would be presenting cutting edge research or new connections between topics that people haven’t considered. Useful means that it significantly improves their understanding of a topic such that they make better decisions. It could also be information that is actionable on using ones skills.
The second best type of information you can develop is unsurprising but useful information. This is the type of information the vast majority of people engage with. It is learning the concepts of a field and how they connect. The information is unsurprising because it is already well established. It may be surprising to you when you first start learning a subject. This type of information is useful because it helps you build a mental model (understanding) of a subject matter.
General & Specific Axis
Another way to think about information you are developing is how specific the knowledge is. Over time we have been further and further specializing with knowledge. Often this means the new knowledge loses applicability, except when it enables new highly useful technology. The ability to draw is broadly more useful than being able to draw in an ultra specific style.
210 - What is the goal with organization in notes?
I struggle with a bit around deciding what is the best way to organize my notes. What do I do for the bibliography? How much do I separate my content with folders? Should I completely forbid folders because they introduce a form of hierarchy?
The goal should be to organize them in such a way that allows for efficient retrieval of information and productive development. Efficient retrieval simply means you can find all the relevant information you have on a topic when you want to elaborate on it or use it. Productive development means organizing your notes in a way that leads to the further development of information, which goes one step beyond the typical storage/retrieval systems.
Efficient vs. inefficient Retrieval
When you go to retrieve information for writing, you want to .
Folgzettel translate to “follow-up slip” in english. It represents a note that is an elaboration on the note in front of it. If you had notes “1, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d” then 1a, 1b, 1c, and 1d would be considered follow up slips. They can either be expanding on the note that comes before it (e.g. 1b expands on 1a) or it expands on the idea at the start of the sequence (e.g. 1d expands in a new way on the idea in 1 not 1c).
Luhmann allowed notes to branch off arbitrarily. So often times he would create a new sub sequence based off a keyword in a note. An example of this would be me branching off a new note from this sequence that talks about the concept of elaboration (e.g. creating a new note sequence starting with 1c, then 1c1, 1c2, 1c3, etc). It is arbitrary because it is not directly related to the original topic “folgzettel”. When you create an arbitrary branch, you also add a link to it in the index because you otherwise wouldn’t know where to look for it in the future.
Food Rules: An Easter’s Manual by Michael Pollan is a small 140 page book on how to eat healthy by a journalist who has been reporting on nutritional science. It is meant to be a “set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely, one per page, accompanied by a concise explanation”.
Regardless of its validity (I know people love to argue about nutrition on the internet), it serves as a nice example of what an externalized model would look like. A model (set of rules) is meant to help guide you in decision making (what to eat) around a specific topic (food).
You could imagine a 20 note sequence, where the first note is an idea and the 19 subsequent notes are your running commentary on that idea over a 5 year period. Once that note sequence has reached long enough and you have a good feeling about it, you condense it down into one rule. This one rule than becomes part of a larger model.
Or you condense it down into one model, extracting the most important rules out of the 19 notes (say you are able to formulate 4 rules total).
The reason you want to make note sequences instead of creating just an ever growing wiki entry for each topic is because it lowers the barrier for entry of information and keeps you from wasting time on constant reformulation.
Imagine your notes looks like a wikipedia page for a topic such as knowledge. Every time you come across new information on the topic you have to figure out some way to integrate it into the existing page, which means you’d waste a lot of time on revising pages.
Instead, you can just connect the information to the end of the chain, while keeping it as its own note. This way you can be constantly be adding new information to your zettelkasten without worrying about how it exactly fits. It lowers the barrier to help encourage you to add new information, especially when you don’t know what information will be relevant when you go to decide to write on a topic.
In the book How Music Works, author David Byrne discusses how much of music throughout history was intensely shaped by the environment it existed in. This is in contrast to how people often perceive music as being spontaneously generated from the musician’s inner soul. Simply put, the reason medieval church music sounds the way it does, is due to the fact that other types of popular music sound like crap in a big cathedral. No one wants to hear crappy music.
This can be related to my discussion on how note taking has evolved over the years based on the mediums. Something I haven’t though about enough, which the above book made me realize, is how the different mediums of information management have shaped the ways we take notes. It is part of the storage process.
When you take notes in a more atomic, decontextualized, and individual manner, does that change how you think? Do you start automatically thinking in such a way as you are reading and writing?
The ideal note format for me would be strict Time IDs (e.g. 202008031140) for filenames accompanied by an optional title at the top of each note. Then a computer would display each file as Filename + Title. This note would look like:
title: # Ideal Note Format
Shows up in the File Explorer and Note search as: “202008031140 Ideal Note Format” or “Ideal Note Format”
Maybe this format can be supported in a plug in based Obsidian? In a future plug in based Obsidian, I would also like the option to spontaneously generate Time IDs within a document for the purpose block/sentence level linking.
The problem with the current format of “ID + Title” (e.g. 202008031140 Ideal Note Format) is that not every note needs to have a title because it may only be a sentence long. For example, Niklas Luhmann had a note that read “7.6e On the history of the concept of economic. Value cf. Literature at 7.15, Böhm-Bawerk, loc. Cit., P. 991f., 993ff.”. Because of this sometimes it makes more sense not to give it an official title but instead just a way to identify it in the future if needed. You can do this with either a time ID (e.g. 202008031140) or Luhmann ID (e.g. 7.6e).
If you can automatically generate a time ID, then you can put it anywhere in a note to represent a piece of information as small as a sentence.
As you think about creating software (Obsidian) and designing systems (Zettelkasten) it is important to keep in mind what problems you are trying to solve. It helps keep you focused and gives you an anchor to connect new thinking too.
What are the major problems people face with note taking?
I saw this nice post on the zettelkasten De forum about one persons struggles with traditional methods.
I’ve had a problem in the past thinking too much instead of putting things into action
get stuck on deciding on categories and where to file certain things
As for my notes, it was the retrieval process that was most difficult. I’ve often had trouble with tags, because I would have multiple versions of the same tag, but with slight variations in phrasing, spelling, hyphens, etc
the one thing that tripped me up was the lack of flexibility involved with systems such as the GTD. So I would have questions that I would tack on, or further ideas for exploration after having written a ZT, but nowhere central to find these questions again
Luhmann’s Note Taking Problem
Why Luhmann started engaging with Card Indexing
before he had any institutional affiliation with academia, he was already conscious of the fact that the notes he took from his readings at the time, would not be collected for a limited publication project but for a far more extensive endeavor, eventually for a lifelong project. The shortcomings of the common methods of organizing notes by collecting them in folders motivated him early on to start a card-based filing system.
“The shortcomings of the common methods of organizing notes by collecting them in folders” - I’ve heard of people working with folders before such as the Noguchi Filing System and Shane Parish of Farnam Street Blog (may be wrong, can’t find exact source for this). I’ve never used a folders system, so I’m curious what is the shortcomings with it? My hunch would be people get caught up in categorizing and deciding what folder to use.
Adopting the Emerging Practice of Card Indexing
In organizing his research in this way, Luhmann adopted a system of organizing knowledge that had emerged in the wake of early modern scholarship along with the rapidly growing number of available publications since the Sixteenth century and the practice of excerpting that followed: card indexing.
Perfecting Card Indexing
He went on to develop the potential for systematic knowledge production inherent in this filing technique to perfection by devising a very specific system of organization and referencing which seems to be an analogical pre-adaptive advance of the modern form of digital database. Luhmann’s card index allows the production of new and often unexpected knowledge by relating concepts and thoughts that do not have much in common at first sight
The problem of categorization is a confusing one to me because I feel like you are going to run into the same problem no matter what. The zettelkasten supposedly gets around this by having you start an arbitrary branch or brand new number at the end when you can’t find a place to put your new note. Where I get confused is that this just seems like the same process as starting a new category if your new note doesn’t fall into the existing categories?
The true problem in my mind is that of a failure in the retrieval process, such that you end up creating essentially near duplicate tags or categories.
One way to better understand and think about the purpose of a zettelkasten is to compare it to an explorer.
You are an explorer who has reached a new and magical world! The first thing you do is set up “the index”. The index is your original port city, the biggest hub where information is located and a place to branch off from. You aren’t just any explorer though, you also happen to be a cartographer.
Often early cartographers will have made a low resolution map of a new area. Where you are pretty much familiar with all the parts but are unsure how they are connected. When exploring the west, part of your journey will be on paths created by past explorers. Even though these routes aren’t novel, you can still add them to your map. In the zettelkasten, this would be established knowledge that you just haven’t learned yet. As you explore, you might find faster routes between two places then the previously established route. In the zettelkasten, this would be finding a connection between two concepts that people haven’t considered.
At some point you will be charting lands people haven’t discovered or mapped out in a rudimentary way. In the zettelkasten, the equivalent would be your own novel theories or academic research you are part of.
Setting up outputs for further exploration in your new world would be laying out all the different parts of a concept that you know about. Then as you read more books on the subject, you add more parts/dimensions to it. An example of this is when you first start learning about a field of science. You start out with the definition of the field, then start mapping out all the different sub-fields.
Luhmann and his prolific writings - “Luhmann published a bewildering wealth of articles and books year after year and at the time of his death, his list of publications comprised more than 500 titles on diverse topics, mostly part of his central research interest: a theory of society” Source - Johannes F.K. Schmidt Paper
221 - Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules. - Wikipedia
Communication is an important skill to develop in life because it is necessary for cooperation. Whether that be working with others to implement a solution you generated or communicating your contribution to our collective understanding of the universe.
Written Word (Blog Posts, Wiki, Books, etc)
Pictures (Photographs, Paintings, Movies, etc) - tell a story through strict visual art to communicate an experience
Combination (Comics, Graphic Novels, etc) - my favorite example of this would be the work of larry gonick
Body Language (e.g. pointing, shrugs, facial expressions, etc)
In the first case, it is simply tracking where you come across information without the intention to track every existence of it. In a sense, this is what the zettelkasten is about, saving interesting information that may not have immediate use.