This is a short post about thinking.

And because it’s about thinking, we will also talk briefly about an intense and highly practical method of achieving understanding called Zettelkasten.

Nearly every instance of teaching on the skills of thinking – in books, class-rooms, videos – involves an underlying pride of heart… a ground-floor of self-importance… “you too can have great success in ten easy steps” kind of stuff.  I beg to differ with that.  To understand anything, endurance and humility is absolutely necessity:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” – Prov. 1:7

All understanding begins from a foundation of humility and continues with humility each slow and sloggy barefoot step of the way.  You see, you cannot have perfect knowledge and understanding of any topic or situation in this world.  That’s what the Apostle Paul infers when he writes, “For now we see in a glass, darkly…” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  We can only see imperfect reflections of knowledge at present because the world we live in is ruined by the knowledge of evil (more specifically the juxtaposition of the knowledge of good and evil).  Humility makes allowance for this fundamental of reality by never declaring that you have it all perfectly.  We strive for perfect knowledge, but know that we will not attain it here.

Zettelkasten means “slip box” in German – it is a card catalogue-like system like in the old days of libraries.  It is a method of acquiring knowledge and active thinking that was perfected by Niklas Luhmann.  It has been said that “writing is thinking.”  The idea is that no thinking occurs outside of a structural framework and writing is an important structure befitting use of mind (it is true that Luhmann was looking for something he said, “has no structure”, but in articulating his point, it is clear he spoke of hierarchy.  He opposed the idea of Dewey’s hierarchical system of categorization, for instance, because it didn’t foster new connections –  categories and sub-catagories were too restrictive for making new connections between ideas.  He obviously used writing, however, as an important structural component).   Pondering over a cappuccino overlooking a majestic Norwegian fjord is not thinking in a meaningful sense – it’s only happening in a meta-state of mind, i.e., mentally.  It must have “feet on the ground” which requires tangibility.  Writing is that tangibility.

The truly essential thing about Zettelkasten is not the linking the cards together – which is the hard thing to grasp about the system.  How the links are made is truly important, to be sure, but the real genius of the process is the way the writing of the information is done on the cards.  You see, you don’t “cut-and-paste” what new information you find onto the card.  You write in your own language and style what you have just read or heard.  You can quote, but only in a limited context.  That means that you are having to actually think about what you just found out and reform it into your own thought.  That’s where the linking of the cards comes in handy.  You are literally taking the new information and linking it to all the other information to come up with a new thought or a re-worded thought of your own about the same material.

In fact, Luhmann had a slip box of over 90,000 cards all written like this and using thought connections to the point that he wrote numerous books directly from the cards he had already thought over and written in his own voice.  He likened book writing to dictation.  He practically completed books stringing his cards together and writing them down verbatim onto a fresh page.  Luhmann’s books were original.  He managed to think in different ways  and bring compelling insights into subjects that no one before him had thought of.

Sounds exciting doesn’t it?  Hard work, to be sure, but thinking IS hard work.  If it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be worth doing.  So… Thinking is Writing/Writing is Thinking.  What are you waiting for?  Get started will ya?  If you need an excellent primer on the Zettelkasten method, here’s the best book on the subject:  “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sonke Ahrens.