Exploring the Realm of Luhmannian Zettelkasten Notes

Sticky Note

I first learned about Roam Research and then came across the concept of “double-chain note-taking.” Although its theory is not novel, the systematic note-taking method gave me a sense of enlightenment, especially because it addressed my note-taking pain points.

This article is primarily an introductory note on “Luhmann’s Zettelkasten” after reading “How to Take Smart Notes.” Some content is sourced from Douban book notes, and image credits are indicated on the images.

What is Luhmann’s Zettelkasten?

Notes are categorized into three types: fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. Through accumulating a large number of literature and permanent notes, a note network system is built from the bottom up, emphasizing the maintenance of reference relationships to create a neural network-like, self-growing knowledge system.

What Problems Does Luhmann’s Zettelkasten Solve?

Due to the explosive development of technology and information, the rapidly increasing volume of information overwhelms us, consuming a considerable amount of time in collection, turning us into “busy digital hamsters.”

Simultaneously, the abundance of information and scattered allocation of attention make it challenging to delve deeply into the information we encounter and construct our knowledge system.

Advantages of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

Traditional notes are often categorized by topic or directory, making information more scattered. They heavily rely on the brain itself for searching and integration, resembling an “archive.” Due to cognitive limitations, it’s challenging to relate and connect them to other notes, achieving a synergistic effect. It’s also difficult to form a complete knowledge system.

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten does not rely on specific topics for classification. Instead, it establishes connections between notes through references, keywords, and tags. It transforms scattered knowledge into lines, eventually expanding into a network. Building a note network system over time provides a global perspective to enhance existing knowledge structures and discover hidden connections between different topics, enabling new research perspectives.

Differences between traditional note-taking and Luhmann's Zettelkasten

Specific Forms of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten primarily consists of three types of notes: fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. Only literature notes and permanent notes can be stored in the note box.

  • Fleeting notes: Record sudden ideas without restrictions on content, length, or form. They serve as memos for your thoughts but need to be regularly organized into permanent notes.

  • Literature notes: Record key information and points while reading. Carefully select and rephrase them in your own words, providing concise, detailed citation information. These become the material for your permanent notes.

  • Permanent notes: Processed and produced from the above two types of notes, they record an idea or viewpoint. They are condensed, refined in your own language, and include necessary citation information, allowing these notes to be understood and used independently of the original literature. Most of the content in these notes can be directly used in specific writing with slight modifications.

How to Use Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

The focus of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten is on permanent notes, which are produced from fleeting and literature notes. While reviewing fleeting and literature notes, consider their relevance to your research, current thoughts, or interests. The goal is not just to collect ideas but to develop and argue over time. Refer to existing themes of permanent notes to help awaken connections.

Consider the following points:

  1. How does new information contradict, align with, confirm, or supplement what I already know?
  2. How can I combine these ideas to create something new?
  3. What questions do these new ideas raise?

As answers to these questions emerge, record each new idea, comment, or viewpoint as a permanent note. It should be complete and concise, with necessary citation information, making these notes understandable and usable outside the original literature. Establish connections between permanent notes during the recording process, and organize the order of permanent notes through numbering, tags, etc.

Once this step is completed, delete corresponding fleeting notes and save literature notes in the card system, using simple differentiators like directories.

How to use Luhmann's Zettelkasten

Best Practices for Luhmann’s Zettelkasten

  1. Regularly feed your notes, then contemplate core issues you’re interested in. Discover new themes or connections from permanent notes and continuously update their relationships.

  2. Develop themes, questions, and research topics from the system bottom-up. Assess what you currently have, what’s missing, and what issues have arisen. Challenge and strengthen your arguments through extensive reading, altering your viewpoints based on new information.

    Take extensive notes, further develop your ideas, and explore the direction of events. Follow your interests, choose the path with the potential for the most profound insights. Build on what you already have; even if your note box is empty, you never start from scratch because your mind already has ideas to examine, viewpoints to challenge, and questions to answer. Don’t brainstorm for a topic; instead, look at the note box to see where note chains have formed and where idea clusters have emerged.

    If another more promising idea has taken shape, don’t cling to the previous one. The more interested you are, the more you read, think, and collect notes. Eventually, this leads to the expansion of research topics.

  3. After some time, accumulate enough ideas to determine a writing theme. At this point, your theme is based on the materials you possess, not on unknown ideas that literature may provide. Reflect on the intrinsic connections of this theme, collect all related notes (most of which already have a certain order), copy them into outlining software, and arrange them in order. Identify what’s still lacking and what’s unnecessary. Don’t wait until everything is collected; actively think and give yourself enough time for reading and note-taking to improve your ideas, arguments, and structure.

  4. Turn your notes into a draft. Don’t simply copy notes into the manuscript; transform them into coherent content, embed them in the context of your argument, and derive your points from the notes. Check for flaws in your argument and find ways to refine or change it.

  5. Edit and proofread your manuscript. Pat yourself on the back, and then start writing the next piece.

This is the writing process, and the description might make it seem like you only write one paper or article at a time. In reality, you won’t write just one idea but will generate many different ideas simultaneously at different stages. This is the real advantage of Luhmann’s Zettelkasten note-taking method.

Luhmann's Zettelkasten writing method