What does it mean to write notes ‘from the bottom up’, instead of ‘from the top down’?

It’s one of the biggest questions people have about getting started with making notes the Zettelkasten way. Don’t you need to start with categories? If not, how will you ever know where to look for stuff? Won’t it all end up in chaos?

Bob Doto answers this question very helpfully, with some clear examples, in What do we mean when we say bottom up?. I especially like this claim:

“The structure of the archive is emergent, building up from the ideas that have been incorporated. It is an anarchic distribution allowing ideas to retain their polysemantic qualities, making them highly connective.”

  • Which way is up?

  • Try seeing the trees and the forest too

  • Hierarchy, heterarchy, homoarchy… am I just making these words up?

  • Get linking to get thinking

  • The key questions

  • What if I really just want a fixed structure?

Which way is up?

My own preferred Zettelkasten metaphor is the rhizome, the mass of rooty material with no obvious centre or trunk and no definite top or bottom. Imagine a fungus as it spreads underground or in a rotten log. There’s no telling where it will pop up next.

It’s quite difficult to think with this image, though, because there’s plenty of conditioning to say everything around us is hierarchical, with a clear upside and downside. Families, schools, businesses, governments, nationalities, genders, races, footwear, even accents. Everyone always wants to know who’s up and who’s down. It’s nuts! As I write, the media is full of news about the Oscars - who’s been nominated, and why, and why not. The dominant organising image all around me isn’t the rhizome at all, it’s the tree.

Try seeing the trees and the forest too

But if you think about it for a moment it’s obvious there isn’t just one tree, one hierarchy with a single top tier. No, there are many. To stick with my example here, China and India have their own ‘versions’ of the Oscars with completely different winners and losers, and so does every country that makes movies (even Wales, population 3 million). Maybe I believe the Oscars are the most important movie prize-giving event of the year, but clearly not everyone does. You can ignore all the others if you like, but a tree only really makes sense in relation to the forest it’s an integral part of.

Hierarchy, heterarchy, homoarchy… am I just making these words up?

Real life is more like a forest than a single tree. It’s structured around multiple overlapping, competing hierarchical (as well as non-hierarchical) systems. Even those who have completely bought into the idea of hierarchy can acknowledge this much.

So we live in a heterarchical world, in which any item could potentially be part of more than one organising structure. The opposite of this isn’t hierarchy, as it happens, it’s homoarchy. That’s a little-used word to describe a situation where all the elements are fixed in their location within a fixed organisational structure.

The principle of organization a society embodies depends on the way its institutions are arranged with respect to one another. Two basic principles can be distinguished: heterarchy—the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or can be ranked in different ways (as coined by Crumley), and its opposite, homoarchy,—a condition in society in which relationships in most contexts are ordered mainly according to one principal hierarchical relationship. Homoarchy and heterarchy represent the most universal “ideal” (generalized) principles and basic trajectories of socio-cultural organization. - Bondarenko, 2020.

The Zettelkasten enables us to visualise and manipulate the heterarchical reality we live in, by creating a variety of provisional structures. You want a tree? You want top down? Sure, go ahead, but you can also have a non-hierarchical bottom-up network at the same time and even using the same notes if you like. Networks absorb hierarchies. They subvert them without destroying them. How so? The secret is simply: links.

Get linking to get thinking

Bi-directional links, especially, subvert the homoarchy, because they make it harder to say for sure what comes first. If the second note links back to the first note, you could quite easily see the second note as coming first, if you really want to, especially if you actually began from the second note.

Every Page is Page One summed up a web design philosophy which pointed out that you can’t control where your readers arrive. Sure, you can construct a ‘landing page’, but that doesn’t mean they won’t enter your web site from another direction. If every page is page one, then every page also needs some kind of index, or table of contents, or at least some way into the rest of the material. This is quite normal on the Web, and I regard it as equally normal in my collection of notes.

I find it helpful to think of each note as being located both top-down and bottom-up at the same time. In Indra’s Net each point, however lowly, reflects every other point, however exulted - but that’s another story.

The key questions

Having written a note, I ask “what’s a part of this?” That’s the top-down question. What are the sub-components of this idea? Then I ask “what’s this a part of?” That’s the bottom-up question. What bigger concept is this note just a part of? But there are other, more rhizomatic questions. “What is this similar to or different from?” “What compliments or competes with this?” and so on.

My mantra is that of historian (and Zettelkasten supremo) Hans Blumenberg:

“Every note a thought that immediately makes sense as a thought, every thought a little theory.” “Jeder Zettel ein Gedanke, der sofort als nachdenkenswert einleuchtet, jeder Gedanke eine kleine Theorie.” (Ragutt and Zumhof 2016, 5)

The historian Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten - his index box

Image: Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten

In other words, each of my notes is as unitary, modular and clear as I can make it, so I can construct with it larger concepts (every note is a single thought).

At the same time, each note is highly generative. Each contains the seeds of a whole new set of notes, if I choose to take that route (each thought is a little theory).

This way, every note, at least implicitly, is at the top of a hierarchy yet to be dived into, and equally, at the bottom of a hierarchy yet to be climbed.

And if I want to subvert the structure completely, all I need to do is to make a different kind of link, just because I can.

What if I really just want a fixed structure?

It’s tempting to imagine that there really is a ‘top’ note, or a ‘top’ idea that all the other notes relate to. In some sense that might be true. For example, Niklas Luhmann’s celebrated Zettelkasten revolved entirely around his notes on “a theory of society, duration: 30 years, costs: none” (Luhmann 1997:11; quoted in Albert, 2016). But even if you do decide to write a note containing your lifetime’s single focus, within your collection of notes, it’s still just another note.

When you create a product - a book, an article, a blog post, a video etc. - you do fix the structure. A book has a clear table of contents. An academic article usually has a rigorous structure determined by the particular discipline or even the particular journal requirements. With these kinds of products a free-form structure is rare. So yes, you can and will have a fixed structure, when you eventually produce something creative from all of your note-making. But until then, you’ll benefit from letting the structure of your notes emerge and change as your thought progresses.

Now read:


Albert, Mathias. “Luhmann and Systems Theory.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. 5 Aug. 2016; Accessed 29 Jan. 2024. oxfordre.com/politics/…

Bondarenko, D.M. (2020). Social Institutions and Basic Principles of Societal Organization. In: Bondarenko, D.M., Kowalewski, S.A., Small, D.B. (eds) The Evolution of Social Institutions. World-Systems Evolution and Global Futures. Springer, Cham. doi.org/10.1007/9…

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (2004/1980). Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Continuum, pp. 3-28.

Helbig, Daniela K. “Life without Toothache: Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten and History of Science as Theoretical Attitude.” Journal of the History of Ideas 80, no. 1 (2019): 91-112. doi.org/10.1353/j…

Luhmann, N. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (2 vols.). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp. Published in translation as Theory of society (2 vols.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012–2013.

Ragutt, Frank, and Tim Zumhof, eds. 2016. Hans Blumenberg: Pädagogische Lektüren. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.