Ok zettelkasten fans. Unless someone can come up with an earlier source, the inventor of the zettelkasten method for excerpting and note taking is Konrad Gessner in 1548. (Again it’s not Niklas Luhmann!)

Text card that reads "1. When reading, everything of importance and whatever appears useful should be copied onto a good sheet of paper.  2. A new line should be used for every idea.  3.“ Finally, cut out everything you have copied with a pair of scissors; arrange the slips as you desire, first into larger clusters which can then be subdivided again as often as necessary.”  4. As soon as the desired order is produced, arranged, and sorted on tablesor in small boxes, it should be fixed or copied directly.  —Gessner, Konrad. Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. 1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20"

More details to come on this fun bit of history soon.


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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. Ok zettelkasten fans. Unless someone can come up with an earlier source, the inventor of the zettelkasten method for excerpting and note taking is Konrad Gessner in 1548. (Again it’s not Niklas Luhmann!)

    More details to come on this fun bit of history soon.

    Syndicated copies:

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Did more how?

      There’s not much difference between his system or many others over the past several hundred years. Compare Ross Ashby’s journals & indices http://www.rossashby.info/journal/index.html or Jonathan Edwards’ Miscellanies https://twitter.com/matt_everhard/status/1466483468494323718.

      Luhmann used his more aggressively or efficiently perhaps, but we really need to stop idolizing only him because of our availability heuristic bias. Why not lionize Isaac Newton for his use (he called his a waste book), or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who used a wooden cabinet to create his system? And these are just a subset of examples of prominent mathematicians related to calculus.

      A diagram of a large cabinet with two large doors. Inside are columns with alphabetical letter headings underneath which are notes attached by hooks. A note cabinet pictured in De arte excerpendi (1689) by Vincentius Placcius on p155 similar to that used by Leibniz.

      The note taking traditions everyone is writing about and re-discovering go back further than most are aware. As Dave Rogers indicates “We’ve been yak-shaving for centuries.”

      Syndicated copies:

      1. Did more how? What I understood is that, besides a dense network of cross references, the distinctive feature is the following: He allowed for arbitrary branching at every point in his hierarchical numbering scheme, in other words, 1/

  2. maya says:

    Gessner here seems to have the “notes so atomic they’re physically disconnected” aspect of zettelkasten, but not the pointers mechanism. Ashby’s example does seem to have the whole spirit, though I could see someone more persnickety than me objecting to how a lot of the notes with properly distributed pointers aren’t in the physically disconnected mode (instead in notebooks), and the physically disconnected part (from what I’m reading? The index cards?) is more like the Syntopicon / index part than independent observations.
    It seems unnecessarily hostile to me to claim that people are “idolizing only [Luhmann] because of our availability heuristic bias” when there are real aspects that excite people about the system Luhmann used that just aren’t present in Newton’s indexing. You don’t have to be making an idol out of Luhmann to find it cool!
    I can’t speak to Leibniz because I can’t actually get the researchgate stuff to come up on my computer, which seems like less of an availability bias problem than an actual availability problem.
    The essence you think is important about zettelkasten may be present in some of these, but people who find different aspects to be the compelling part aren’t necessarily ignorant or to be condescended to. And outside of claims of innovation, when it comes to the attention various note-takers get, are we blaming folks for not finding “write out your notes and then cut them up” as inspiring as someone with an accessible real-world history of use in a setting closer to our own?

  3. Did more how? What I understood is that, besides a dense network of cross references, the distinctive feature is the following: He allowed for arbitrary branching at every point in his hierarchical numbering scheme, in other words, 1/

  4. My German is miserable and I’d need access to some heavy archival material to have more authority, but his system has the underlying structure of a commonplace book with strong indices and a HUGE amount of elbow grease (it’s all manual).

  5. Good find. I’ve been interested to learn of earlier practitioners of the method. I had understood that Luhmann wasn’t the inventor (didn’t Ahrens mention that?), but rather its most famous proponent. Keep us posted on what else you learn.

  6. Luhmann was essentially the pioneer for today’s generation, but not the creator. Some influencers new to zettelkasten in the latest wave over the past 2 years got that bit mistaken thinking he kicked off the system.

  7. I’d submit that there’s almost nothing pioneering about his effort; he’s following a long tradition. He is one of the most famous & influential contemporary examples. Sadly I don’t think many are really looking that closely at his system or the history of the techniques.

  8. If I understood your post correctly, you are looking for legitimate examples of people working with a Zettelkasten to produce output? And, that show their process online?

    Here’s a list of people that I’ve bumped into while looking for paper Zettelkasten users.

    Scott Scheper (you already know him)
    Brain-Friendly Thinking (originally started digital, I believe swapped to paper recently, but the Zettelkasten is not the main focus of his channel)
    Dave Hayes (released 3 videos a few years back, hasn’t uploaded since)

    Man… There’s really not that many, and even less active ones. I think the Antinet is getting a resurgence, we can see that as this community is growing – I am hoping more people start posting about their knowledge development methods.

    I guess a question for you now is: What’s the intention behind finding these people? Because if for you, it’s just to talk with them, I think this reddit community is probably the best place to do that. For newcomers to learn more and imitate others as they develop their own, then I think we just need more people posting publicly online about what they are doing.

    Have you found any more people who work with an Antinet? Because I’d be curious to learn more about them.

  9. I see your point, there are not many people going “oh hey! look at all my output, btw I use a zettlekasten” and I think its for a few reasons:

    People haven’t been on this bandwagon for long enough to make that direct statement.
    There is so much structure behind the definition of a “zettlekasten” or antinet that it might seem like someone who is following core principles feels that they aren’t allowed to say they are using this method. Scott I think said that he just wrote on cards before but never used the system like antinet the way he does now.
    People into knowledge management are always evolving their way of thinking (at least I am) because they want to find something that works for their specific output. Right now, my output is academic work, but I graduate in October and my antinet will shift in output needs and im not sure what that will mean for my knowledge workflow. But I think thats an important distinction.

    I do think output is important, but I also think that the zettle world is really new. But I think a lot of us picked it up becasue it was like a feature to something we were already doing. For me, I mean Ive been taking written notes since 5th grade, but I didnt come up with something as sophisticated as what Luhmen did.

    Your method is also growing, and you have some great evidence of that, and that should be enough for your own personal growth. I picked up antinet because it felt good, and I see the benefits.

    Also, comparing productivity tools feels very much like a “see who’s better” game. I think the better thing is to find people who you aspire to and see what they do and try it!

    Ramble over

  10. Very close by, my post and my comments on it Knowledge Workers Are Changed by the Information They Process.

    The post itself is the output of my notes on productivity, work, and writing. The trigger for me to write the post was reading the paper linked there.

    An excerpt from one of my notes on the paper:

    The valuable output of knowledge workers is the result of the individual’s processing of knowledge and experiences. They are literally informed, from the Latin roots “to shape.”1 Tools which embed a model of a knowledge worker’s task in the software do not add value.

    A linked note “Busyness Is Not Productivity”, observes, “Knowledge work, deep work, doesn’t look busy and can’t be measured quantitatively. Knowledge work isn’t in the tasks performed.”

    I drew from a few other notes related knowledge work, including:

    “Knowledge Isn’t Rote Memorization”, which is mostly about pedagogy but includes this quote from Plutarch:

    the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth

    “The Writing is Not the Outcome of Learning”, commenting on Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes chapter 5, “Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters”, led me to “The Writing is the Point”, again referencing Ahrens, “Writing is Remembering”, where I wrote, “for important things we experience and wish to understand, learn, and work with, writing them down is the key action that enables, and in a real sense is our memory and learning”.

    I have a few other notes related to writing and productivity, but those were the main ones. From there I was able to construct my post.

    I hope this is useful.

    For etymology and usage of “inform” I consulted the Webster’s 1913 dictionary entry. Why? James Somer’s 2014 blog post, You’re probably using the wrong dictionary reminded me how a good dictionary is an essential writing tool. I highly recommend, if you write a lot, giving the old dictionary a shot. Of course there are many modern words it won’t have, but it has all the words you use most.

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  12. I’ve always written a lot of notes, but apart from the notes themselves, I rarely have any tangible output to speak of. I might share some of my insights with friends, or in a comment on reddit, but I never seem to get around to writing the blog posts I always plan on, and now I know why…

    I recently read the paper The Marks are on the Knowledge Worker (1994) via a reddit discussion, and it totally blew my mind. It argues that the “defining characteristic [of knowledge workers] is that they are changed by the information they process.” “Humans are informed (ie. given form) by perceiving their environment and act more effectively in relation to the environment as a result.”

    So a knowledge worker is changed by the information they process, and it’s this change that’s important/valuable compared to any material output they might produce. Put another way, the result of working with my ZK is myself! I grapple with content in order to shape myself and engage with the world from a new/better/more informed perspective.

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