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.

88 thoughts on “”

    1. 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/

  1. 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?

  2. 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/

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.


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