Obsidian Zettelkasten

4 - Zettelkasten & Structure - Note Taking is about storing information for later retrieval because we have a limited memory. Inherent in the process of storage is structure. In the case of a [paper zettelkasten], the base structure would take the form of writing notes on paper and just putting them in a giant pile. The point of structure is to add order so that you can repeat tasks such as retrieval of a note. The above example would be an undesirable structure as it would take a long time to retrieve the note you are looking for. It would still be better then chaos, where your notes are scattered across a city, written in random places and mediums (chalk on ground, spelled out in someones mowed lawn, stored on a bubble gum wrapper in the dump).

Instead we add layers of structure that facilitate retrieval. Zettelkasten, in a sense, is just a very particular set layers. Part of the issue with the discussion around zettelkasten is that the term (note box) is very broad and the set of layers differs depending on who you talk to. For teaching others zettelkasten, I take what I see as the core layers of structure used by Luhmann and either adopt or adapt them for a digital medium.


You can find Luhmann’s ZettelKasten here:
Some slips have been transcribed (you can use google translate on these notes).


@Dor Beatrice Webb in 1926 but the ideas were well established by others. 1898 “Introduction to the Study of History” by Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos suggest the best way of proceeding is to make notes on separate pieces of paper with each showing it’s origin. Prior to that in 1638 Thomas Harrison explained to Charles I about writing excerpts on small pieces of paper and hanging them on hooks with alphabetized subject headings. Fascinating discussion here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary


7 - Structuring for Retrieval - An important aspect of the zettelkasten to understand is that Luhmann’s method of structure facilitated his end use case (writing). He created sequences of notes (1 - 1a -1b - 1c), which allowed him to easily pull out all the notes on a given topic when he needed them. Otherwise he could have just used a numbered list for notes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, new note 6) where the newest note is just the highest number.

What all this suggests is that you should keep in mind how you plan on using your zettelkasten when you start to add layers of structure. Do you plan on using it for writing like Luhmann did? Or do you strictly want to use it as a reference system? Or are you using it to build external models, that once finished, become mental models?

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8 - Alternative Note Boxes - there is discussion going on about how Luhmann wasn’t the first to create a zettelkasten. In a perfect world, what I would want to do is study all of the ones created by prolific writers and apply the process of generalization to discover the underlying rules they all share.

While that isn’t possible, it is still interesting to see some of the different manifestations talked about throughout history. To do this I will be looking into several resources.

  • Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 (History and Foundations of Information Science)by Markus Krajewski PhD

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9 - Note Size - A common question people have regarding the zettelkasten and note taking in general is one of note length. A good way to think of this is through the concept usability of information. We structure information such that it can be used repeatedly. You can think of notes in the same way.

a - smallest unit of usability is the letter. As you see I repeatedly make use of the letter a in this sentence.

word- is the next largest unit

phrase - can be used in multiple contexts

sentence - can be used in multiple contexts but is a bit awkward because it isn’t as usable as a word or phrase but not as robust as a paragraph. A good example of a reusable sentence is a quote. See 2A

paragraph- is often seen as the smallest unit of thought as it is usually what is necessary to get an idea across, with sentences being the parts that support or explain the paragraph (Shore 2016, pg 28).

section - can be thought of as multiple paragraphs.

Because one of the key ideas behind a zettelkasten is to remix ideas such that a note can contribute to multiple sequences of thought, an ideal note length is between a paragraph and a section. If you find yourself wanting to reference a sentence then it is fine to spin it off into its own note. But it’d be a waste of time to do so before that becomes necessary.

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Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2010.

DK Publishing, Inc. How the Brain Works. , 2020.

Myers, David G., and C. Nathan DeWall. Psychology . Twelfth edition. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning, 2018.

Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore You Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love . New York: Business Plus, 2012.

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World . First Edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Shore, Zachary. Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016.

Susskind, Richard E., and Daniel Susskind. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts . First edition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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11 - Example of a Note Size - Andy’s Working Notes - Source for this particular note

Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate

It’s important to Write about what you read, but instead of just writing about the specific book you’re reading, you can (and should) write your notes such that your reading observations accumulate over time as they interact with each other and with your own ideas (see Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate, Knowledge work should accrete).

This is also why we write Evergreen notes: so that if we encounter a book which discusses a concept we’ve already written about, we’re pushed to integrate new ideas with our prior conception. Certainly, we normally do this when we read, but we’re limited to our faulty memory of other works which might be related. The externalized note-taking system substantially removes this limitation.

This is why part of why Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented: so that the structure of our notes pushes us to notice the relationships between the ideas in different texts—and in our own work (see Evergreen notes should be densely linked, Notes should surprise you).

The notes you write will also produce the foundations of new manuscripts (Executable strategy for writing).

This is one reason for Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

Links to this note


13 - Example of a Note Size - Luhmann Note Sequence - Source for this particular note

Note Sequence on The System as a Research Tool

Note 8 - The system as a research tool cf.

61.1c ; 17.1b11b/c ; 57.4e7b3h1 ; 1.6f1C ; 29.5db


  • Max Bense, Philosophy as Research I, Cologne - Krefeld, 1947, IV About the Newer System Concept, pp. 35ff.
  • Emmanuel Mounier, Introduction aux Existentialismes, Paris, 1947, p. 22ff. on systemic property of existentialism
  • Dewey, Logic, pp. 170f, 49ff., 273, 294, 301f., 313, 316, 335, 425, 473, 484
  • Heidegger, What is thinking ?, pp. 128f.
  • Cohen, Reason and Nature, pp. 106ff.
  • Nikolai Hartmann, systematic method, Logos III
  • Wagenführ, Horst, The system concept in the National economy, a method-historical view, Jena 1933, p 384
  • bespr. with whether. Title of Hans Peter Z fd ges CT 95 (1935), pp 360-63

Note 8 - System, further references:

Note 8.1 - The system as a research tool -

1 - branches off a new sequence (To Do)

For systematics and science, see Critique of Pure Reason, transc. Methodology III

System and problem are equivalent categories of research; see. Bense, contours of a spirit history of mathematics, p.36.

The system is a method of knowledge Bense, loc. Cit., P. 71.

The essence of science is the control and securing of individual knowledge in the context of the whole.

See Hartmann, Basis of the Ontology, pp. 294b, 297

Slip 8.1a - system as control and security

branch off

For the sociology of the “system” see Mannheim, “The Conservative Thinking”, in Archives for Social Sciences. and Sozpol. Vol. 57, pp. 86ff. ; Ideology and Utopia, pp. 87, 175

see. 57.3a ; 57.4e7b

The system puts terms together in a manageable security. See Heidegger, What does thinking mean?, P. 128.

Greek thinking is the systematic ago make strange by terms; see. also 8.8.

But it is also not deliberately unsystematic like modern existentialism, which is thus trapped in the ambiguity of systematic thinking; see. Heidegger, op. Cit., P. 129.

Slip 8.1b - System is the fulfilled horizon of understanding of a science - in contrast to the empty horizon of an anticipatory drawing of possible research.

see. 57.4e7b3h

Slip 8.1c - The performance of the system is that uniqueness of the performance.

And only in the system is there definite certainty (see also 8.3). If you used to think that there were simple and elementary elements of your own uniqueness (apprehensively simplex, simple, clear and clear ideas, etc.), you were wrong. The simple is only more system- capable, easier to define systematically, easier to incorporate into the system than the complex, and therefore clearer.

Slip 8.2 - The problem of mutual Ergänzungsbe - paucity of systematic and historical research

s. Kern, Modern State and Concept of State, p. 9ff. Criticism of the leading solution attempts in the State teach their own standpoint without development.

Against an overestimation and absolutization of the contrast between historical and systematic Mannheim ideology and utopia, p. 177, further p. 152ff.

Further literature:

  • W. Sombart, Economic Theory and Economic History (Economic History Review II, No. 1, Jan. 1929)
  • H. Jecht, Economic History and Economic Theory, Tübingen 1928

Slip 8.2a On the problem of the historical perspective cf. 33.1d1A4e still ; 57.4e8e.

Slip 8.2b interesting in this context the attempt Freyer to construct s, sociological terms and to bring in a system that simultaneously at certain historical place and at a certain time behaves - generalizable nis each other are fixed and still are. ( Sociology as a science of reality, esp. P. 189ff.)

F. believes that he can deduce this possibility from the dialectical structure of social reality, which has happened on the one hand and on the other hand throws out mentally shaped structures that have a certain permanence. Nevertheless, in my opinion , there is no convincing demarcation of the sociological structural terms from the historical concept. The relatively clearest sentence is:

Slip 8.2b1 p. 197: “But there remains a clear distinction as to whether the conceptualization relates to the chain of the present, in which the social structure has become, and to the question of what has happened and been done in these present, or whether it is based on the building law of the structure is directed and only considers its dynamics as an essential element of its structure.”

The concept of maximum historical saturation binding to a limited hours for its connotation heard the historic moment, which can then formalization and generalization continue to terms that overlap the increasingly longer periods of time, until formal almost, general categories reaches such rule.

Slip 8.2b2 - But whether it makes sense to include the time constraint in this way in the definition of the term is very much a question. Anyway, you can these necessary ness not from the special nature of the subject field of sociology deduce how Freyer says. And it then sets the term from quite heterogeneous inventory of which that of the time constraint share together, never clearly grasped (? From 1750 to 1849) and will never be experimentally controlled.

A detailed criticism of Freyer’s very prescriptive teaching would probably go too far.