Is there a Universal Tool for Thinking? If not, What Would Such a Tool Look Like?

I know there are many, many tools for storing information in computers. There are Outliners, Word Processors, Spreadsheets, Mind Mapers, Notepads, Text Editors, Web Browsers, Reference Managers, and sites like blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, you name it, but are there tools to assist with thinking? I see these tools as modern pencil and paper, or paint brush and canvas. Are there higher level tools to store and organize data? Are search engines any closer to thinking?

I’d like a system that could be used to capture ideas, tasks, projects, links to data, information about people (friends, idols, fans, celebrities, co-workers, neighbors, etc.), technologies, history, films, books, natural languages, dictionaries (spelling/meaning), encyclopedias, geography, music, photographs, etc.

With the ability to interconnect all of the captured items in various manners and display the relationships between various facets of them.

I’ve posted about a number of the aspects of my digital life that I’m trying to utilize/organize on the forum. I’ve been reading about Outlining and Organizing on and Zettelkasten on the forum. Are there any other methodologies or forums that you make it a habit to frequent?

What would a Universal Tool to Aid Thinking look like?


Here are some miscellaneous ideas.

  • The headline “Is there a Universal Tool for Thinking?” seems to ask for a single comprehensive tool.
    Perhaps this concept can be challenged in productive ways - for example with a more granular starting question like
    ** “Which types of tools (paper-based, digital, specific types of software, …)
    ** using which types of representations (text-only, diagrams, formulas, non-graphical representations, …)
    ** can provide support of which relevance (marginal, optimal, game-changing, …)
    ** for which types of thinking processes (learning facts, learning skills, understanding complicated things, generating ideas, documenting ideas for communication or for later use, …)
    ** in which types of domains (writing nonfiction prose, solving math problems , creating works of art, …)
    ** for which groups of users (age groups, novices and experts, users of different cognitive styles, …)
    ** in which types of communities of practice (single user case vs. teams, classrooms, institutional use, …)?”

  • I understand that a single tool could bring massive benefits by supporting cross-connections between items. On the other hand, the requirements for
    A) a tool for generating ideas
    seem to me fundamentally different from the requirements for
    B) a tool for information storage -
    namely, for A) you want maximum freedom in representing and interacting with ideas, for B) you want a system that works reliably over years and even decades and supports easy retrieval of items. Focusing on a single universal tool could create conflicts that simply disappear if you decide to use one system for A) and another for B).

  • I know nothing about other people’s concepts about “capturing” an idea. If this indicates some sort of “catching” an idea that is “out there” - I suspect that a large number of relevant ideas have been generated by very different processes, namely by users manipulating externalized idea representations in a substrate like paper or blackboards or on a screen. I look at the work notes of Newton or Leibniz or at whiteboards used daily in research facilities worldwide.
    Ideas that emerge from discussions between people are a different case, but again - for me, interacting with ideas seems more relevant than “capturing” them.

Thanks for the thoughts. Many valid areas of exploration in there. I’d be interested in exploring any of the approaches you suggest, however; I’m hoping that if you don’t get too deep into the details, that there is one generic description of a system that might be used to approach the various specific needs that you specified. You may be right, and there are just so many specific needs, that no one tool, could possibly address all that is necessary, for any given task. My hope is that there is a lot of common ingestion, digestion, excretion mechanism that supports a lot of the more specialized processes that you have specified. Maybe one small module needs to be tweaked to make the system handle each particular requirement.

I’m trying to formulate a picture of a system that would help me process idea discovery and understanding. I listed a number of sources of concepts, projects, possibly related thoughts in my first post. I guess I’m seeking pointers to any type of system that would allow input, processing, manipulation, and output in various formats.

I’m assuming that if there does exist such a system, that someone is already charging a lot of money for it and government agencies or corporate research departments are using it to make even more money. I assume IBM’s Watson might be such a system, although I know nothing about it, except what they used to show, on their TV commercials. Their marketing made it look pretty powerful.

I’m seeking to find, or create, something that I can understand and afford to interact with. It’s my very strong belief, that we are not utilizing the computer processing power that is available to us these days. I just got a couple of new cell phones for me and my wife. They have an Octa-core (what ever that is - think it means 8 cores) CPU, 12GB RAM, 256GB storage (flash). Not to mention GPU and all the stuff to do with communications. That just blows my mind, and I know it’s no where near the top end, just for phones, these days.

There used to be a web site named As far as I can tell, the functionality that I remember, no longer exists. It was kind of like a search engine, but would gather information based on sample input. You could provide keywords, or a sample paragraph or web page, and it would attempt to locate similar documents, web sites, etc. I think it was hosted by a company whose business is providing discovery tools for lawyers. I believe their product is still available for purchase, if you can afford it. Again, I don’t really know what it does. seems to be doing an interesting thing around, selecting a few interesting article suggestions, based on areas of interest. You can upload your bookmark collection and I guess they use that information as a starting point, in some way. I’m not sure if they know what they are trying to create, or are just making it up as they go along. It seems to be getting more feature rich as time goes on. It’s interesting to see it evolve. says: Discover, Create & Share Inspiring Ideas. Deepstash brings you key ideas from the most inspiring online sources. Join us for free to read more, save what inspires you & remember everything. I’m not sure I really get what they are trying to do, but it kind of seems like a similar, help organize and make sense of things, kind of approach.

I’m very interested in some kind of drag 'n drop, or outline manipulation, or mind map drawing/editing component, or a range of predefined functions which could be triggered in some way to manipulate the ideas/thoughts/nodes in the system.

I’m not sure if any of this makes any sense. I’m just trying to put into words some of the many thoughts that keep bouncing around in my head.

Is the universal thinking tool, actually a discussion forum?

Again, here’s a collection of thoughts.

  • “Is there a universal tool for thinking? If not, what would such a tool look like?”
    First, imagine answers like “Yes, there is a universal thinking tool, and it’s called… a notebook, or a zettelkasten, or mind mapping software…” - why would that seem highly unsatisfactory? What requirements are not met? And can we imagine an improved tool where one specific requirement after another is met - is there still something missing?
    Second, what happens if we replace “thinking” by something else, for example “transportation”? May this be a hint that we have to ask different questions?
    Third, I wonder how a concept like “universality” squares with an evolutionary view on thinking tools - can we expect such an evolution to stabilize in a final product that does not evolve further? (We are in a situation where we have the tools of today to create the tools of tomorrow.)
    Fourth, if we just focus on outlining the next steps in the evolution of thinking tools, what makes sense, in a continuum between over-the-top SciFi and somewhat boring cumulations of existing features? Which promising nonexistent features are worthy of our attention? The features with high impact and high feasibility are arguably likely candidates.
    Fifth, let’s compare
    A) the evolution of paper-based mind mapping and
    B) the evolution of software-based mind mapping.
    From all I know, B) has been vastly more active and successful, but I couldn’t name the key factors for this. What can be learned from this example about general mechanisms of tool development?
  • Besides these fairly anaemic contemplations, there are several hands-on practices I find useful, for example specific methods of thinking on paper. And there are some self-evident-ish ideas on how one could amalgamate key features from various types of software.
  • “Is the universal thinking tool, actually a discussion forum?” Michael Nielsen presents a number of ideas around this in his 2011 book “Reinventing Discovery”.

Like @dgarner I’m also searching for the or my universal tool for thinking, I call it the ideal tool. @thomasteepe has elaborated on some dimensions that might be relevant to define such a tool.

I personally look for a computer program (or a frictionless workflow) that helps with my thinking and understanding. In my case that means it helps with reading and writing, and on top of that with connecting and learning.

Around this core I would need some “auxiliary” functionality, that is

the management of

  • texts (metadata, discovery, delivery/full texts, files, rights/licenses, referencing),
  • processes (projects, tasks, prioritization, efficiency, attention/focus), and
  • teams (roles and rights).

And although auxiliary, I think it is this functionality that is crucial for a frictionless workflow and would provide what’s necessary for synergy effects that even exceed the benefits of less friction.

Well, this description is obviously too abstract to get any clue about what that tool would actually look like. But one can list the different program categories that cover parts of this ideal tool (dgarner already mentioned most of them):

  • Browsers
  • PDF/Ebook Readers and Annotation
  • Note taking
  • Word processing, outlining
  • Spaced repetition
  • Task management
  • Reference Management

And as it seems to me, there is generally a certain need to integrate the functionality of these categories

  • be it through Add-Ons that help interchange data between programs from different categories like
  • be it by adding functionality from one category to programs of another category, in the program itself or through Add-ons like
  • be it “manual” workflows that “emulate” a functionality of a different category with the currently available features of a program.

I’m pretty sure that you can find such integration “tendencies” for every category combination or that at least all categories are connected through only one intermediary. And although I’m far from knowing each available program let alone their integrations, add-ons, and workflows I’m absolutely convinced, that there is still a lot of friction to be erased and a lot of synergies to be realized - because I haven’t yet found a way do to my stuff as it ought to be done :slight_smile:

However, a little doubt gnaws at me every now and then: If this assessment is correct, why does this tool not yet exist? Do most others perhaps not have the same needs as I do? Or is it not economical to build it? Is what I dream of just a nice to have without any decisive added value? Hopefully not!

A tool that spans all your mentioned categories would need to be very feature-rich and likely tend to be “bloated” while not really excelling in any of these categories. Also, it’s hard to provide an intuitive & clean/focussed interface for such an all-encompassing program. Citavi probably came closest.

However, there would likely be even more categories to cover, like mind mapping or other forms of visualization.

Like you I think that applications for personal knowledge management benefit from good integration between categories. But IMO a well-made program probably cannot reasonably (or should not) span all of these categories. There’s value in unique tools that offer sound support for integrations (via plugins, APIs, scripting interfaces, etc) and common exchange formats.

Also, as you note, user needs differ heavily and it’s hard to impossible for a single monolithic application to please everyone. And offering lots of options / customizability can increase the perceived complexity and UI needs to undesired levels.

So I’m voting for apps that cross some categories (like e.g. in the case of Keypoints, note taking, annotation & reference management) but which don’t try to do it all and instead deeply integrate with apps from other PKM categories…

To start with a provocative question: Why is a combination of note taking, annotation & reference management not yet a “monolithic application”? So, where does “some” end and “monolithic” start? :slight_smile:

I understand your concerns about usability and fitness of a jack of all trades tool:

  • Usability: Tendency to be “bloated”, difficulty to provide intuitive & clean/focussed interface, undesired perceived complexity due to customizability
  • Fitness: Danger of being mediocre in each covered area (instead of being excellent in one thing), impossibility to please everyone

Looking closer, however, I’m not sure whether I can follow your conclusion:

To start with the “please everyone” argument and to be bluntly honest: I don’t want a tool that pleases everyone - I just want one that pleases me :slight_smile:

And to put it a little more “objectively”: no tool can possibly serve everyone. So I don’t think that that is a valid argument.

Turning to the usability questions, I agree, that it is challenging to create enjoyable interfaces and that this challenge grows with the number of use cases or “categories” you want to cover. But that is just a challenge, I’d say :slight_smile: And although there are different “categories” to cover those are nevertheless connected – what would create “interface synergies”.

The argument that convinces me most on first glance is the mediocrity argument: An integrated tool would do everything a little, but nothing well.

Well, I think, in the end it is “just” a question of resources: An excellent tool didn’t become excellent by being specialized, but because there were enough resources available and invested correctly over time. A tool that wants to excel in different “categories” “just” needs more resources and/or more time (being a resource, though) - and compared to the sum of resources necessary for each individual program perhaps even less. So, I don’t think that it is a fundamental problem connected with integrated tools, but again a general one.

Also, there would be one overlooked “category” that an integrated tool could (and should) be good at right from the start: Being integrated :slight_smile: Of course, the question is whether this “meta function” outperforms less elaborated “domain functions” in terms of value added.

So, your arguments that an integrated tool is a bad idea don’t really convince me.

But actually, they don’t have to: I’ll take whatever is first and pleases me, be it the “monolithic application”, be it the “unique tools that offer sound support for integrations” :slight_smile:

However, the latter seems to be equally ambitious: I mean, programs “normally” try to be excellent in their “category”, and not in providing a streamlined workflow across “categories”. At least, that seems to be a sensible implementation of “stay focussed”. Do they really have an interest in an integration across these “categories” with other programs? Can such an integration ever be as good as something that is explicitly tailored for each other? Can it be sufficiently good at all? is on Product Hunt today and looks like an interesting effort. Still early days, but looks promising in many respects.