A quick note to the personal knowledge management fanatics: Niklas Luhmann positively did NOT invent the Zettelkasten. The idea predates him by quite a bit and had even earlier forms. He’s also not the only significant example.



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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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  1. Would love links to any descriptions of the systems used by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) or Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785)

    Luhman wrote a description of his, it was adopted by Robert Green, who taught Ryan Holiday, who wrote the post I read.

    Not all the ancients are ancestors.

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Conor, here’s a link to a reference for Konrad Gessner from 1548 with some tidbits: https://boffosocko.com/2021/12/02/55799053/

      More coming shortly based on research/reading in progress.

      Syndicated copies:

  2. Commonplace books are great, I looked into those extensively in 2016/2017 as I searched for analog metaphors.

    Your post says nothing at all to suggest Luhman didn’t “invent” “Zettelkasten” (no one says he was only one writing on scraps of paper), you list two names and no links

  3. You’re right. There is a sophistication of ideas in Luhmann’s essay on “Communicating with Slip Boxes” which is lacking from most of the written and video commentary I’ve encountered so far.

  4. What do you get out of Luhmann’s paper if you leave aside for the moment all the technology of cards, slip boxes, indexes, links, and back links?

    What remains is still the core of something powerful.

    The paper is called “𝘊𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 with Slip Boxes” …

  5. “Theoretical publications do therefore not result from simply copying what can already be found in the slip box. The communication with the slip box becomes fruitful only at a high level of generalisation namely that of establishing communicative relations of relations.”

      1. Chris Aldrich says:

        This is awesome. Thanks!! My dramatic lack of German makes digging into the history of these practices incredibly difficult, particularly when looking back as far as examples like Jean Paul.

        Syndicated copies:

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