A wooden index card file box on a desk

Zettelkasten History Prior to Niklas Luhmann: Antonin Sertillanges

Antonin Sertillanges’ book The Intellectual Life is published in 1921 in which he outlines in chapter 7 the broad strokes a version of the zettelkasten method, though writing in French he doesn’t use the German name or give the method a specific name.[1]

The book was published in French, Italian, and English in more than 50 editions over the span of 40 years. In it, Sertillanges recommends taking notes on slips of “strong paper of a uniform size” either self made with a paper cutter or by “special firms that will spare you the trouble, providing slips of every size and color as well as the necessary boxes and accessories.” He also recommends a “certain number of tagged slips, guide-cards, so as to number each category visibly after having numbered each slip, in the corner or in the middle.” He goes on to suggest creating a catalog or index of subjects with division and subdivisions and recommends the “very ingenious system”, the decimal system, for organizing one’s research. For the details of this refers the reader to Organization of intellectual work: practical recipes for use by students of all faculties and workers by Paul Chavigny.[2]

Sertillanges recommends against the previous patterns seen with commonplace books where one does note taking in books or on slips of paper which might be pasted into books as they don’t “easily allow classification” or “readily lend themselves to use at the moment of writing.”

[1] Antonin, Sertillanges (1960). The Intellectual Life: Its Sprit, Conditions, Methods. Translated by Ryan, Mary (fifth printing ed.). Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press. pp. 186–198.

[2] Chavigny, Paul (1918). Organisation du travail intellectuel: recettes pratiques à l’usage des étudiants de toutes les facultés et de tous les travailleurs (in French). Delagrave.

Featured Image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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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.

25 thoughts on “Zettelkasten History Prior to Niklas Luhmann: Antonin Sertillanges”

  1. Hi Chris, I checked Chavigny’s book on the BNF site. He insists on the use of index cards (‘fiches’), how to index them, one idea per card but not how to connect between the cards and allow navigation between them.

    Mind that it’s written in 1919, in Strasbourg (my hometown) just one year after it returned to France. So between students who used this book and Luhman in Freiburg it’s not far away. My mother taught me how to use cards for my studies back in 1977, I still have the book where she learn the method, as Law student in Strasbourg “Comment se documenter”, by
    Roland Claude, 1961. Page 25 describes a way to build secondary index to receive all cards relatives to a topic by their number. Still Luhman system seems easier to maintain but very near.

    I’m not a fan of ZK myself. It was great before computers and Internet but it’s a lot of work and adds a lot of friction.

    1. Thanks for these points of reference as well as your personal experience Bruno, particularly since I’ve not been able to find translations in English.

      I’ve now got some clear evidence of the specific method going back to Konrad Gessner including the quirky use of numbering/alphabet that Luhmann uses which probably not coincidentally coincides with street address systems used in early Vienna.

      In 1986 in the sixth grade I was taught to use index cards to do some research to write a paper, but nothing coming close to use as an actual thought out system. It’s interesting to see how much of these taught practices had disappeared in just a few generations. And it seems all the worse that we’re now trying to recreate them digitally without any hindsight of our shared history.

      Thanks again!

  2. I went down the rabbit hole on this 🙂 Hours well spent

    In the book I found here, at the very end the author mentions early work on computers to index and manage topic-based access to sources. I was stunned that so early as 1961 this was already in books for the general public. The system was called SYNTOL (Syntopical something). I search again and again and found a single book referring to it https://www.amazon.fr/Automating-Linguistics-History-Computing-English-ebook/dp/B093KKR99S

    Lucky enough I wait a day and thought that it could exist in French. It does and is open source. There you find precursing ideas of the modern use of NLP to solve this problem. It solves the heavy work of numbering and keeping pointers and collections. I use a similar philosophy in Kneaver but with modern NLP.

    Bottom line in 1961 the state of the art on the topic was already a lot ahead. What was missing is Internet, personal computers, and access to digital form research. Mid-1980s that was available and cards could be shelved. Now we have AI-based NLP are it becomes reliable.

    1. Fascinating find. Syntopical reading was obviously discussed by Mortimer J. Adler in his book on reading. I’m sure there was likely more earlier work on this from the 1920’s when we began moving from index cards to Hollerinth and other forms of punched cards for computing. I’ve not come across it, but I’m sure a lot of this also influenced folks like Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush, and Norbert Weiner in the early days of information theory. I suspect there may be even more earlier research on some of that space, but a lot of related work in those spaces was classified by various governments for use in World War II and, if released, much of it hasn’t been reviewed carefully or thoroughly. I wish I could go back and query some of my old professors about some of this time period including Solomon Golomb, Willis Gore, and Frederick Jelinek.

      I’ve gotten a copy of the English version of Jacqueline Léon’s book and hope to at least skim through some of the relevant parts soon.

      I’m noticing that it looks like you use interesting aliased email addresses the same way I do on blogs and other websites. Are you tying responses back into your broader knowledge system using that as well?


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