Writing by Bob Doto

Folgezettel is Not an Outline: Luhmann's Playful Appreciation of (Dys)function

"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is, 'Why do I think it's not beautiful?' And, very shortly you discover that there is no reason." — John Cage

At first glance, Luhmann's alphanumeric system—sometimes referred to as "folgezettel"1—appears to be a way of structuring an outline of specific arguments within one's stack of notes. A zettel is made, given an alphanumeric ID, and is, according to this identification, situated among other like-minded notes. New notes with supporting or dissenting arguments are themselves given their appropriate alphanumeric IDs and are then added to the stack. In this way, new notes are placed near their familiars, by which a visually and spatially oriented train of thought is established.

On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that with the addition of new notes, and especially those which get slotted between others, the "outline" the folgezettel is supposedly meant to produce falls apart. This breaking down of the alphanumeric sequence is one of the main critiques modern zettelers have against the folgezettel system. The question often asked: "What happens when you want to add a new note between notes 1/1 and 1/1a?" If the alphanumeric system is meant to outline arguments, then not being able to insert a new note that should semantically precede another, becomes a problem.

Herein lies one of the most common misunderstandings about folgezettel.

Folgezettel is Not an Outline

Luhmann's alphanumeric system does not strictly establish a structured outline. While folgezettel shows that there is a relationship between two or more notes, it does not necessarily show the quality of that relationship.

Luhmann places a diminished importance on the physical proximity of notes as they were originally imported into the slip-box, considering the increased distance that occurred when new notes were placed between two others as a net positive. Breakdowns in proximity yield more than they take away, allowing for new trains of thought and potential connections. As Johannes Schmidt states, "a sequence of cards leading thematically and conceptually farther and farther away from the initial subject constitute their own subsection."2

For Luhmann, the increased distance that occurred when new notes were placed between two older ones brought serendipity and chance into the process of ideation. As Schmidt states in his essay, "Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine," "Luhmann himself considered this [breakdown in proximity]...to be of crucial significance" even if it "counteracted the collection’s primary system of organization." Luhmann echoes this sentiment in his own slip-box stating that "the references...must selectively pull away the material collected under them." (emphasis added).3 In other words, notes that were once in close proximity, but had hitherto become distant from one another, allowed for connections to be made that, as Schmidt states, "differed from those intended when creating and initially integrating the notes in the file system."4

For Luhmann, the breakdown in proximity between notes was a welcome aspect of the alphanumeric system, as it allowed for "unpredictable combinations" based on the play between"disorder and order."5

The Positives of Imperfections

In his appreciation of seeming dysfunction, Luhmann comes across as almost playful with regards to knowledge and insight. I can't help but think of John Cage's "chance operations" where aspects of the creative process are left up to external conditions (i.e. star charts) or the rules of a predefined process (i.e. a song that must begin and end with a specific note). By welcoming serendipity in idea-forming, it's as if Luhmann, similar to Cage, left some of his insights and connections to chance. In this way, the so-called "flaws" of folgezettel behave less as limitations and more as intentional self-sabotaging mechanisms, checks against Luhmann's (and our own) initial (and possibly conditioned) understanding of a topic. In short, breakdown leads to revelation.

The above playfulness moves in stark contrast to contemporary handwringing as to whether folgezettel is "still valid in a digital context." Concerns brought up in a post like "Fixing the old folgezettel" and subsequent comments pressing the matter, seem almost tired in light of Luhmann's appreciation of controlled chaos. I'm reminded of the aesthetics of wabi-sabi, the Japanese artistic appreciation of blemishes and imperfections, which themselves become the very aspects that define an object's beauty. If the imperfections of a system are the very aspects that make it so engaging, what does it matter if a system works "perfectly" or as it's "supposed to?"

The Treasure Map & the Structure Note

Perfectly or imperfectly, Luhmann's system worked. In order to build arguments out of his zettels, Luhmann made his way back through the alphanumeric IDs, following his markings as one would follow the dotted lines of a treasure map. Speaking of the "disadvantage" of using his alphanumeric system as an outliner, Luhmann states that the way to reconstruct arguments is to "systematically number the papers," which allows the note maker to "find the original textual whole easily."6 And yet, order was not the primary importance. Luhmann writes in his zettelkasten that "fixed order" could be "waived" especially in light of other forms of cataloging—search aids, registers, questions—which Luhmann believed made inner order "superfluous."7

However, if the alphanumeric system was not intended to structure ideas, if it was not meant as an ordering system—if instead it was intended to note relationships and make room for play—how did Luhmann organize his thoughts when it came time to write longer works?

In discussing the various ways Luhmann referenced his notes, Schmidt discusses specific notes created by Luhmann that appeared to produce "larger structural outline[s]."8 It seems, when beginning a major line of thought, Luhmann created a note that resembled "the outline of an article or table of contents of a book."9 Today, many call these outline notes "structure notes," a term which has come to prominence through its usage on the zettelkasten.de forum.

A structure note can be described as a higher-level note that shows how certain ideas relate to one another and/or how arguments have been forming within one's stack. In his essay, "A Tale of Complexity—Structural Layers in Note Taking," Sascha Fast discusses how he uses structure notes to understand "how a certain space in my archive is structured." He refers to these structure notes as "tables of contents," ones showing "hierarchy and order."10 While Sascha does not use folgezettel, the principles still apply. It's in these notes, not in the folgezettel stack, where the note maker explores and/or constructs how the notes work together for specific projects or in exploring one's trains of thought.

This is also the place where one may examine the many relationships between captured ideas. Luhmann was explicit in his appreciation of the relational aspects of notes more so than any ordered list. Writing in his zettelkasten, Luhmann states:

"[I]t is important not to be dependent on a plethora of point-by-point accesses, but to be able to fall back on relations between notes, i.e. on references that make more available at once than one would with a search impulse or even with a thought— fixation in mind."11

Considering that Luhmann believed a note's value was found not in its autonomy, but in how each interacted with another,12 one can see how important was this relational aspect.

Embracing the Cracks in the System

It is said that mystics swim in the same sea psychotics drown in. While never purporting to be a wandering sadhu, Niklas Luhmann swam through a sea of chaos contemporary zettelers regularly try to calm or avoid completely. Today, many zettelers anxiously attempt to construct leakproof systems. They perpetually check for holes and cracks, looking for how one method might have an "advantage" over another. They are forever trying to make sure no notes will ever be lost, that the system is "future proof."

What is it about the loss of a note, about confusion, about the system "not being perfect" that trips up so many contemporary note makers?

Despite being considered a negative by some zettelers, the distance created between notes when new ones are added to the alphanumeric stack is part of what contributes to serendipity in the zettelkasten practice. This "breakdown in proximity" is a positive feature, but one that can only be appreciated by note makers who are willing to wade into the apparent chaos of perceived imperfection.

If we're to use Luhmann's practices as a guide, then exploring the benefits of apparent disfunction must become part of our own practice. The question, "Does folgezettel work?" must be superseded by one that asks how blind spots, getting lost, and the forgetting of ideas can be beneficial to our creativity. In so doing, we may come to appreciate the many ways the zettelkasten method reflects back to us our own imperfect, yet perpetually intriguing humanness.


  1. Translated as "sequence of notes" https://zettelkasten.de/folgezettel/↩

  2. Schmidt, J. (2018). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity. https://sociologica.unibo.it/article/view/8350/8270↩

  3. From Niklas Luhmann's second zettelkasten (ZK 2), note 9/8b1. All following references to "ZK 2" refer to Luhmann's second zettelkasten.↩

  4. Schmidt, J. (2016). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/88f8/fa9dfbc0c2b296758dd932b871917c5c775a.pdf)↩

  5. ZK 2; 9/8↩

  6. Luhmann, N. (1981). Communicating with Slip Boxes: An Empirical Account. (M. Kuehn, Trans.). https://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes↩

  7. ZK 2; 9/8↩

  8. Schmidt, J. (2016). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/88f8/fa9dfbc0c2b296758dd932b871917c5c775a.pdf↩

  9. ibid. To achieve this, "Luhmann...noted on a card several of the aspects to be addressed and marked them by a capital letter that referred to a card (or set of consecutive cards) that was numbered accordingly."↩

  10. https://zettelkasten.de/posts/three-layers-structure-zettelkasten/↩

  11. ZK 2; 9/8b↩

  12. "Every note is only an element which receives its quality only from the network of links and back-links within the system." Communicating.... (1981). http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes↩

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