What is a Zettelkasten

A Zettelkasten is a personal knowledge management and note-taking system used by the German Social Science professor Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann was a very prolific writer and is considered to be an important social theorist of the 20th century. He has left behind an insight-packed, high quality, body of work and attributes all his success as a scientist and an academic to his “Zettelkasten System”.

Zettelkasten is a combination of two German words translating to the word Slip Box. Beyond this point, different people describe the system on their terms. I am also working on Understanding Zettelkasten more. Luhmann’s slip-box is currently the object of a long-term research project at the University of Bielefeld.1

The system involves creating individual notes or cards for each idea, thought, or piece of information, and then linking these notes together based on their relevance and relationships. The notes are usually kept in a physical index card box, but can also be organized electronically.

The notes are not meant to be comprehensive summaries of information, but rather brief and concise statements that capture the essence of a concept or idea. The system is designed to encourage creativity and help individuals make connections between different pieces of information.

Zettelkasten can never be reduced as a simple note-taking system. Luhmann himself has noted2 that the Zettelkasten is his research partner and creating it is a much harder process than writing any one book. This statement has to be taken at face value because he created an interconnected network of notes physically without the marvel of modern computers. Maybe the analogue nature of his process has also played an important role in the success of his Zettelkasten.

Luhmann used the Zettelkasten system extensively throughout his career, creating over 90,000 notes in his lifetime. The system has gained popularity among academics, writers, and researchers as a way to organize and manage large amounts of information.

Here is an overview of the Zettelkasten process followed by Luhmann.

Interesting questions that rose while writing this

Is it possible to measure the success of a Zettelkasten system?

  1. Ahrens, Sonke “How to take Smart Notes” 

  2. Schmidt, Johannes F. K. “Der Nachlass Niklas Luhmanns – eine erste Sichtung: Zettelkasten und Manuskripte.” Soziale Systeme, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2014. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1515/sosys-2014-0111. 

Notes mentioning this note

Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.