You Underestimate the Power of the Dark Folgezettel

This post is a reply to Sascha’s post about Folgezettel. I recently was invited by the Niklas-Luhmann-Archiv research group, to give an overview of my Zettelkasten and discuss aspects of the technical implementation of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method. After that, I had the chance to look at the original Zettelkasten, seeing how Luhmann actually filed notes etc. It was an interesting insight into Luhmann’s working principle, which showed me, that my approach of the Zettelkasten implementation is very similar to what Luhmann did. If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend looking at this presentation about Luhmann’s method (and the Niklas-Luhmann-Archiv-Website, of course).

Sascha writes

The possibility to create a direct reference, for example as a link, reduces the importance of the Zettel coming next in the sequence. The technique Folgezettel creates value from the position of a Zettel in the archive. But the technique of creating a link reduces the value of the position of a Zettel. (…) So it seems that although Folgezettel were indeed a very important factor for Luhmanns success, this is mostly due to the physical nature of his archive.

and concludes

We don’t have a physical Zettelkasten and we can connect notes with links.

However, this is not the fact. There are two aspects which are overseen here (which I also mention in my talk):

  1. A Folgezettel or a note sequence was not primary used by Luhmann because of physical limitations of small paper where to write notes on. Writing very short notes is a technique itself.
  2. A manual link or reference between two notes is, technically and regarding the context, something different than continuing an idea via Folgezettel (note sequences).

Links or references do not emphasize the relationship between notes (ideas, content). The context of connections usually remains unclear due to arbitrary relationships. Folgezettel, however, create specific relationships – adding manual links (references) to these relationships create relationship of relationships, the core aspect of Luhmann’s working principle (which he describes as „Relationierung von Relationen“).

Furthermore, Sascha writes that a workaround of the shortcoming of limited note space and Folgezettel was the keyword register:

Luckily, his register is available online, too. You can clearly see that Luhmann had to deal with the shortcomings of his method of Folgezettel. (…) Folgezettel create some kind of category. Similar principles are applied: You have one and only one connection to the level above.

This impression may come from the fact that technically implementing such a feature with a so-called tree component requires a root element – with all following elements being „children“, thus it seems that the first element – the root – defines a specific category. But, all notes in a note sequence are on the same level. There are no categories. The functional equivalent, which is – however – more powerful and allows multiple storage, is the keyword register, which defines certain notes as thematic „entrance“ into the Zettelkasten.

Some final words:

Should you copy a method just because Luhmann used it?

No, indeed it doesn’t make sense to copy a method just because it appears sexy. One should find the best fitting method for himself. Yet, I would say that „to have a Luhmann-esque Zettelkasten“, you probably should follow his techniques. Using special links (direct and intended connections) seems to me not very comfortable in practice. Why not work on improving a technical solution for Folgezettel?


5 Kommentare zu „You Underestimate the Power of the Dark Folgezettel

  1. Small update: In a former version I wrote „Keywords do not emphasize the relationship between notes“, now it was corrected and reads „Links or references do not emphasize the relationship between notes“.

  2. I’m still trying to understand the concept of Folgezettel.

    It seems similar to the concept of „trails“ put forward by Vannevar Bush as he described his idea of Memex in his 1945 article „As We May Think“ (original article:

    Synopsis of the Memex including illustration:

    Is this anything similar to Folgezettel? If so, then I agree with you that we have not sufficiently developed a technical solution to this sort of knowledge work. And simple text links are not sufficient to capture the trail of movement of a human mind through a body of knowledge. It is a problem I also am keen on solving.

  3. Hi Daniel, thank you for your wonderful app. I recently discovered it and am very intrigued by it. I read with great interest your comments surrounding the recent debate on the utility of the Folgezettel structure and became convinced of your position that it is a critical feature underlying the creative power of Luhmann’s method. You went on to say that incorporating a Folgezettel architecture adds extra importance to the placement of each new note. Can you expand on this with regards to your own practice and how you evaluate your placement of notes? Do you ever have the need to add a new note to multiple locations if you want to crystallize the note’s role in different discourse sequences or storylines?

    Also, you briefly discussed Luhmann’s process of extracting notes from his ZK onto his desktop in preparation for writing. Do we know more about his method of pre-writing, i.e. arranging his notes, creating outlines, etc? I feel one of the limitations of a digital ZK in this regard is that you’re less free to manipulate notes in full view and examine their connections compared to a physical note cards. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Finally, would you consider subtitling your video tutorials? I know you must be extremely busy, but I’d really like to understand the different dimensions of your app and how they come together in a workflow before committing to importing all my notes.

    Thanks again for all your efforts and I hope this reaches you well!

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