Writing by Bob Doto

Keeping the Zettelkasten in Mind When Creating New Notes

Despite the many different points of origin a main note may have,1 developing ideas in the context of a zettelkasten can generally be achieved in two ways:

  1. Developing an idea in direct response to another already stored in your zettelkasten
  2. Developing an idea without considering what's already stored in your zettelkasten

Let's look at how these two valid, but very different, approaches affect our zettelkasten practice.

"In Light of" vs "Retrofitting"

Niklas Luhmann's note-making process began while reading, which he did with pen and paper in-hand,2 capturing ideas he found interesting with an eye toward ideas he had already been working on.3 Once Luhmann cited what caught his attention, he returned to this list of citations (usually later in the day) and evaluated which ideas might best contribute to those stored in his slip-box:

"After reading the book, I go through these notes and consider what can be evaluated for which notes that have already been written. So I always read with an eye on how the ideas in the book can be used."4 (emphasis added)

Niklas Luhmann's communication with his slip-box began not with trying to find a place for independently conceived notes, but with reading and developing new ideas in light of ones he had already begun.

But, things go a bit differently today.

Rather than writing a new note in direct response to another already stored in their zettelkasten, note makers will often develop ideas on their own, independent of their previous captures; templating, formatting, and finalizing their notes as if they were complete wholes unrelated to anything else. It's only after this process has been completed that they then attempt to find other like-minded notes in the zettelkasten to link to. This is a fundamentally different approach to Luhmann's practices, emphasizing not the development of complex ideas, but the creation of individual nodes, unique units of information that may or may not relate to anything else.5

Lifestyle Dictates Note-Making Practices

To be clear, retrofitting notes is not "wrong." Working on notes independent of the zettelkasten makes it possible to hone in on an idea without distraction. It's a way to go deep into a single thought.

In many ways, it's also a requirement of modern lifestyles. While Luhmann's practices are an important standard to keep in mind, even work toward, one must remember that Niklas Luhmann lived a life tethered to both his home and to his writing,6 being a widower whose many friends had passed away.7 As such, Luhmann's life revolved around his children, his dog, and his academic work:

"If I have nothing else to do then I write all day; in the morning from 8:30am to noon. Then I go for a short walk with my dog. Then in the afternoon I work again from 2pm to 4pm. Then it's the dog's turn again. Sometimes I lie down for a quarter of an hour.... And, then I usually write until around 11pm. I'm usually in bed by 11pm where I read a few more things."8

For people with mobile lifestyles, ideas may often need to be captured, formulated, and developed far from their zettelkasten, using digital tools and templates to craft and complete new notes on the fly. Note makers who maintain paper-based zettelkastën may also use digital tools to quickly capture ideas before transcribing them onto note cards they keep close by.9 It is the culture of transience and its many accompanying social commitments—not the medium of note-making—which ultimately determines the practice one keeps.

Balancing "Retrofitting" With "in Light of"

Oracles, be they esoteric or material, don't like to be rushed, and the need to "carve out time," to "fit it in," to make it "part of one's routine" has made dynamic, back-and-forth communication with the slip-box a rarity. Not surprisingly, many have come to feel content with simply making "good" notes, focusing most of their attention on how best to pare an idea down to its "atomic unit." In this environment where notes function as units of information rather than as means for communicating with one's past, present, and future selves; where communication "resembles an exchange of prepackaged commodities;"10 the ability to dialog with one's zettelkasten has become yet another zettelkasten "myth."

And yet, direct experience of the myth is possible. By regularly coming back to one's zettelkasten, note makers develop a familiarity with its contents and, even while reading, are reminded of ideas stored inside. When a note maker pauses to consider the contents of their zettelkasten, they can build off what's already been captured while creating bridges to both obvious and seemingly disparate trains of thought. By balancing retrofitting ideas with developing ideas in light of others, the zettelkasten speaks back, revealing "unpredictable combinations."11 Here, dialog with the slip-box becomes the standard not the exception.

The trick is to remember to pause when developing an idea for a new note—even if for a moment—to take advantage of the impulse to bring up a familiar note so that it can not only be referenced in the new note, but responded to directly in words. All of which pushes trains of thought further down the track. It moves writing projects into new phases. It's how we develop a relationship with the zettelkasten where both parties have an opportunity to speak.

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  1. Main notes are typically the product of what are often called fleeting notes and reference or literature notes. Main notes can also come from captured facts or moments of trance-induced spirit communication. :)

  2. These notes have since been dubbed "literature notes." For more on these notes, see https://writing.bobdoto.computer/what-is-a-literature-note/

  3. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Niklas-Luhmann%E2%80%99s-Card-Index%3A-Thinking-Tool%2C-Machine-Schmidt/7755fed320c4bb1e3517a18abf0b7791e35375bb

  4. Luhmann, N. (1987). Archimedes Wir: Interviews. Berlin: Merve Verlag.

  5. Here, I blame the overwhelming emphasis placed on "atomicity," which in addition to being a profound practice, also contributes to a belief that an autonomous note's value is intrinsic to itself. See Luhmann: "Every note is only an element which receives its quality only from the network of links and back-links within the system." from "Communicating with Slip Boxes," by Niklas Luhmann.

  6. "[Luhmann] rejected a number of other universities' interests in hiring him (including Edmonton, Canada, and the European University Institute in Florence) at an early stage, arguing that he couldn't risk taking his Zettelkasten with him in the event of an accident to lose by car, ship, train or plane." https://beckassets.blob.core.windows.net/product/readingsample/8755976/9783476023681_excerpt_004.pdf

  7. "My wife died, my best friend died. Children are an essential part of my life. I live here together with them and all the youth culture around them. But I've lost the people my age I loved, they're hard to replace.... After my wife died I flew abroad at most once for two or three days and then came back immediately to check on things to see. Today we have a domestic help that four times the week comes and cooks something for us." Luhmann, N. (1987). Archimedes Wir: Interviews. Berlin: Merve Verlag.

  8. ibid.

  9. Finding the perfect note-caring case is sometimes a topic of discussion in paper-based note-taking communities

  10. Andrews, B. (1996) Paradise and Method: Poetry and Praxis. Northwestern University Press.

  11. Luhmann, ZK 2, note 9/8.

#2023 #essays #zettelkasten