Read Commonplace Books: Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity (Farnam Street)
Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.
There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for anything, you can’t use it...

Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques. 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:38PM

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes Professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”
Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices. 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:51PM

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,
This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory. 

I particularly love the way this highlights the phrase “‘placed’ in the memory” because the idea of loci as a place has been around so long that we tacitly use it as a verb so naturally in conjunction with memory!

Note here how the author Richard Yeo manages not to use the phrase memory palace or method of loci.Was this on purpose?
Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:56PM

While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations.
On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge.
On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. 

As most humanists of the time may have had incredibly well-trained memories (particularly in comparison with the general loss of the art now), this is particularly interesting to me. Having had a great memory, the real value of these writings and materials is to help their memories dramatically outlive their own lifetimes. This is particularly useful as their systems of passing down ideas via memory was dramatically different than those of indigenous peoples who had a much more institutionalized version of memory methods and passing along their knowledge.

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:00PM

“Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton 

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:03PM

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant. 

This is incredibly important for me, though in a more technology friendly age, I’ve got tools like Hypothes.is for quickly highlighting and annotating pages and can then later collect them into my commonplace book as notes to work with and manage after-the-fact.

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:07PM

The aim of these books wasn’t regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity. People were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play. 

I was really hoping for so much more in this essay on the combinatorial creativity, espcially since the author threw the idea into the title. The real meat must be in the two linked articles about Seneca and Einstein.

There is a slight mention of combinatorics in the justaposition of pieces within one’s commonplace book, and a mention that these books may date back to the 12th century where they were probably more influenced by the combinatoric creativity of Raymond Lull. It’s still an open question for me just how far back the idea of commonplaces goes as well as how far back Lull’s combinatoric pieces go…

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 11:13PM

Read John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books (Farnam Street)
“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.”  In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of ind...

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity. 

I’m wondering if I’m going to see signs of Raymond Lull’s ideas here?

Annotated on May 19, 2020 at 10:05PM

Link between Lullism and the Jesuits’ descent into the particular

While reading The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, I ran across the phrase “descending from ‘generals’ to ‘specials'”and it reminded me of the Jesuit idea of “descending into the particular”.

Yates indicates, I think rightly, that this is:

a notion implicit in Lullism as it ascends and descends on the ladder of being [scala naturae] from specials to generals and from generals to specials. This terminology is specifically used of memory in Lull’s Liber ad memoriam confirmandam in which it is stated that memory is to be divided into specials and generals, the specials descending from the generals.

This seems like it is very closely associated with the Jesuit’s concept of “descending into the particular” (or the specials) within their teaching on thinking. (For those unfamiliar, I recall that Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting podcast episode within Revisionist History on this area of moral reasoning.)

Given that Raymond Lull (c. 1232 – c. 1315) has significant philosophical and religious sway in his lifetime, it is highly likely that the Jesuits (founded 1535) may have picked up the foundation of the concept from him. Yates writes this section in Chapter X, in relation to the ideas of memory with respect to Lullism which assuredly influenced Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and his ideas of memory.

I can’t help but think about why the Jesuits didn’t also include the idea of ascension into their philosophy? Perhaps some additional research into the topic will reveal some more direct associations. I think Yates’ link between Lullism and Ramism are pretty solid. I’d like to see some more direct evidence between Lullism and the Jesuits. I’d love to delve into the use of the art of memory within the Jesuit tradition as well.

The scala naturae or great chain of being has had a profound effect (not necessarily a positive one) on religion and modern culture. Far too many people are completely ignorant of what it is or what it entails, yet it underpins a huge swath of Western thought.

Miniature in an illuminated manuscript of Raymond Lull next to a ladder indicating the the levels of being
Scala Naturae or Ladder of Being in Breviculum ex artibus Raimundi Lulli electum – St. Peter perg. 92 [page 13 (5r)]
Replied to a tweet by Ela_HadrunEla_Hadrun (Twitter)

[Raymond] Llull is the first author to use the expression “Immaculate Conception” to designate the Virgin’s exemption from original sin.[19] He appears to have been the first to teach this doctrine publicly at the University of Paris.

–via Wikipedia referencing Mary in the Middle Ages: the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians, Fr. Luigi Gambero, S.M., Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2005.