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?