Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century German sociologist best known for his work towards creating a grand theory (ext) of society. He did this in part through creating a vast network of interlinked concepts and their social manifestations. Due to our natural limitations with memory, he kept track of all this information over his entire academic career using a card indexing system referred to as a zettelkasten. While it isn’t unique to him, he shaped it to his particular use case and perfected it, such that it helped contribute to his prolific academic output.

Understanding Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

Luhmann Archive Resources

Zettelkasten Resources

Archive Index

Forum Index

  • Unity and Unification of the group in general 1

Forum Table of Contents

Focus of Career

Over the course of his forty years of academic work, he developed a universal theoretical framework — i.e. sociological systems theory — capable of covering nearly the entire spectrum of social phenomena.[^1]

Strong Conceptual Focus

he placed great emphasis on conceptual and terminological consistency and was receptive to theoretical developments not only in sociology but in other academic disciplines such as philosophy, law, theology, biology and cybernetics in particular [^1]

Having a strong conceptual focus was probably on of the key aspects for why he developed his zettelkasten with hyper links and fairly autonomous notes.

[^1]: Johannes F.K. Schmidt

Prolific Output

his list of publications comprised more than 500 titles on diverse topics, mostly part of his central research interest: a theory of society [^1]

[^1]: Johannes F.K. Schmidt

Impetus for Long Term Note Taking

In the mid 1950s, before he had any institutional affiliation with academia, he was already conscious of the fact that the notes he took from his readings at the time, 2 would not be collected for a limited publication project but for a far more extensive endeavour, eventually for a lifelong project.[^1]

Why he started a Card System

The shortcomings of the common methods of organizing notes by collecting them in folders motivated him early on to start a card-based filing system.3 In organizing his research in this way, Luhmann adopted a system of organizing knowledge that had emerged in the wake of early modern scholarship along with the rapidly growing number of available publications since the Sixteenth century and the practice of excerpting that followed: card indexing.[^1]

Has anyone written on why collecting notes in folder is such a bad idea, I believe some people still do this.

Benefit of the Zettelkasten

Luhmann’s card index allows the production of new and often unexpected knowledge by relating concepts and thoughts that do not have much in common at first sight: One could say that it makes — to use Robert Merton’s term 5serendipity possible in a systemically and theoretically informed way.[^1]

The difficulty here in my mind is not so much developing connection but instead developing quality connections. A quality connection is one that is true, surprising, and useful. If someone has already discovered the connection and it has become widespread knowledge then your development of it isn’t particularly useful. On the other hand if you discover a connection that unique and actionable, then it is of high value.

[^1]: Johannes F.K. Schmidt

Two Collections

Luhmann’s card index consists of approximately 90,000 handwritten cards in A-6 format organized in two collections.[^1]

First Collection Content

The first collection, approximately created between 1951 and 1962, a time when Luhmann was on his way from a legal expert with interests especially in constitutional law and administrative sciences to a systems theoretical sociologist, is based primarily on his readings in political science, administrative studies, organization theory, philosophy, and sociology.[^1]

First Collection Statistics

  • consists of approximately 23,000 cards
  • divided into 108 sections by subjects and numbered consecutively
  • two bibliographies comprising about 2,000 titles
  • keyword index with roughly 1,250 entries

Second Collection

  • second collection (1963–1997), reflecting a sociological approach
  • approximately 67,000 cards
  • eleven top-level sections with a total of about 100 subsections
  • incomplete bibliographical with ~15,000 references
  • keyword index with 3,200 entries.

[^1]: Johannes F.K. Schmidt

Very interesting set of notes.