This post is a part of The Zettelkasten Manual.
Zettelkasten is a non-linear note-filing system originated by Niklas Luhmann, which he referred to as his “second brain.” or so-called a communication partner.
The term “Zettelkasten” is German for “slip box,” referring to the collection of hand-written notes stored in a box and interconnected through references, similar to the hyperlinking of the World Wide Web1 but happened on paper instead of the Internet back to the 1950s.
While similar in form to a personal wiki, the two systems differ in their creation and capabilities. A Zettelkasten can be implemented using a wiki, but not all wikis are Zettelkasten, most of them are not.
Niklas Luhmann was a professor of Sociology at Bielefeld University for 25 years (1968-1993) and published over 500 articles and books on a wide range of topics. He attributed his unprecedented productivity to his Zettelkasten system, saying in an interview:
I don’t think everything on my own, mostly happens in the slip box.
My productivity can essentially be explained from the slip box system.
The slip box costs me more time than writing a book.
Luhmann’s Slip Box
Luhmann kept notes on small slips of paper stored in a wooden box, resulting in two collections of 90,000 hand-written cards in A6 format, numbered consecutively.
Two collections in total
90,000 handwritten cards in A6 format
Cards are numbered consecutively
The notes are not simply excerpts, it consists of his thoughts, theoretical arguments, and concepts
The first collection was created when he is a legal expert with interests in constitutional law and administrative sciences to a systems theoretical sociologist
Just before(1960 - 1961) he created the second collection, he spent a year at the Harvard School of Public Administration in Cambridge, MA(USA), where he attended lectures by Talcott Parsons, the leading sociologist in the field of systems theory at the time
There were no documents in the literary estate substantiating the claim that his visit to Harvard was the trigger to start a new collection of notes, but it seems obvious
|First Collection||Second Collection|
|Created||1951 - 1962||1963 - 1997|
|Content||His readings in political science, administrative studies, organization theory, philosophy, and sociology||sociology|
|# of Top-level Sections||108||11|
|Top-level sections||state, equality, planning, power, constitution, revolution, hierarchy, science, role, concept of world, information, etc||organizational theory, functionalism, decision theory, office, formal/informal order, sovereignty/state, individual concepts/individual problems, economy, ad hoc notes, archaic societies, advanced civilizations|
|# of Subsections||100|
|Section Separator||a comma: ,||a slash /|
|Bibliographies.||two, containing 2,000 titles||one, incomplete, containing 15,000 references|
|Keyword Index||1,250 entries||3,200 entries|
|# of References||20,000||30,000|
|Average References||nearly every card has a ref||nearly every second card has a ref|
Schmidt, Johannes F. K. “Der Nachlass Niklas Luhmanns – eine erste Sichtung: Zettelkasten und Manuskripte.” Soziale Systeme, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2014. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1515/sosys-2014-0111. ↩
Luhmann, Niklas. Bibliographie 1. Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld, 1 June 2017, http://ds.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/viewer/ppnresolver?id=ZL1Bibliographie1. Card Index Box. ↩
Luhmann, Niklas. Bibliographie 2. Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld, 1 June 2017, http://ds.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/viewer/piresolver?id=ZL1Bibliographie2. Card Index Box. ↩