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Discovering Zettelkasten and Rediscovering Luhmann

Discovering Zettelkasten and Ahrens’ guide to smart note-taking has been a blessing. But so too is re-discovering Luhmann…

Zettelkasten – a method for note-taking – has been quite the rage for the last few years. It has become a favoured method of personal knowledge management (PKM), unknown to me who is so sorely in need of a good system of PKM since I am by nature curious and by habit wandering.

But three days ago that all changed when I stumbled on some YouTube videos about the Zettelkasten method, picked up perhaps the best guide to the method (Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: one simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking (2017; revised and expanded edition 2022), and installed my very own second brain in the form of Obsidian software. Now I am a convert, and my mind has been freed from many burdens.

Zettelkasten means “Slip-crate” in German, and refers to the drawers of index cards maintained by Professor Niklas Luhmann, a sociologist. Luhmann devised this method that enabled easy thought, connected insights and exceptional productivity in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It supported him in a working life of exceptional range, curiosity and productivity.

I have longed for a good system of note-taking. About ten years ago, I converted my methods to digital research with Evernote and Zotero, but the absence of a strong workflow led my system to collapse into disuse and infinite webclipping. In recent years I have been running a system with about five A5 notebooks, which worked well for a while but is not discoverable or sustainable.

So discovering Zettelkasten and Ahrens’ guide to smart note-taking has been a blessing. Over the last few days as I have been using the system together with Obsidian I have felt a real charge of creative energy, and an ease of working in my on way to take notes, sketch fragments, and build ideas, and find connections.

The magic of the system is that it does not force note-taking and knowledge work into a project plan. it is not reliant on will power, and most importantly for me it is suited to the open-ended process of research, learning and writing, especially for an eclectic old magpie-fox such as myself As Ahrens writes the system provides me a way to structure my “workflow in a way that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push us foward” (Ahrens, p. 15)

The other delight in discovering Zettelkasten is that I had encountered Professor Niklas Luhmann before. Perhaps unlike most zealots of the system, I had read some of the output of the German sociologist, back when I was a student of social theory in the early 1980’s. If I am not mistaken, there was a whole chapter on his theories of society in Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism. If only I had adopted his system back then, I could clarify my memory now, and recall what was written about him. In any case, I am grateful for his legacy, which is the perfect gift to a burning archivist.

Image Source: Luhmann at play with his zettelkasten

By Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich writes poetry and many forms of prose - this blog, history, essays, fiction, briefings, even kind questioning tweets. His podcast - The Burning Archive - talks about all things history and culture from the unusual perspective of a very minor government official. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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