It’s too easy to produce fragmentary knowledge

One potential problem associated with making notes according to the Zettelkasten approach is Verknüpfungszwang: the compulsion to find connections. It may be true philosophically that everything’s connected, but in the end what matters is useful or meaningful connections. With your notes, then, you need to make worthwhile, not indiscriminate links.

Another potential problem is Fetzenwissen: fragmentary knowledge, along with the illusion that disjointed fragments can produce integrated thought.

Almost by definition, notes are brief, and I’m an enthusiast of making short, modular, atomic notes. Yes, this results in knowledge presented in fragments. And in their raw form these fragmentary notes are quite different from the kind of coherent prose and well-developed arguments readers usually expect. You can’t just jam together a set of notes and expect them to make an instant essay. So is this fragmentary knowledge really a problem for note-making? If so, how can determined note-makers overcome it?

Does the index box distort the facts?

Near the start of the Twentieth Century Karl Kraus, the Austrian1 writer and editor of the journal Die Fackel (The Torch), opposed the use of the Zettelkasten (English:index box) because he believed it produced inadequate thought, memory and writing.

He particularly disliked the way the technique created what he saw as the illusion of integrated thought out of nothing more than disjointed fragments.

Kraus was well-known for his acerbic aphorisms, and he had one specially for Zettelkasten users:

“Anyone who writes in order to display education must have memory; and then he is merely an ass. If he also uses the scientific disciplines or the card index (Zettelkasten), he is also a fraud” (Die Fackel, Heft 279-80 (1909)).

The red front cover of German journal Die Fackel, or The Torch. This is the first issue.

Kraus ridiculed his literary and political enemy Maximilian Harden, a rival journalist who was the editor of Die Zukunft (“The Future”), He claimed Harden either owned a Zettelkasten or just had a mind built like one. Either or both of these, Kraus claimed, had ruined Harden’s writing style. If Hardin did use a Zettelkasten, said Kraus, it really showed. And if he didn’t use one, then he must have internalised the constraints of the Zettelkasten. Either way, according to Kraus, the result was poor writing.

More generally, and rather snobbishly, Kraus lamented the kind of memory possessed by the “day clerk”, which he held to be a mish-mash of “names and sayings one has heard, of mis-heard judgments and badly-read reports, of concepts and histories without context, of facts seen distortedly, of fifty fashionable expressions, and of the additional feature of one’s own fragmentary knowledge (Fetzenwissen)” (Die Fackel, Heft 230-31 (July 15, 1907)).

To be sure, Kraus was making at least half a fair point. Such connectivity is indeed an illusion, in the sense that it is fabricated. But as with all illusions, the trick is to do it seamlessly well. From fragments you can build a greater whole, if you do it carefully enough. Knowledge is necessarily fragmentary, in the sense that everything big is made of smaller parts. But that is no reason to present it in a clumsy manner. Just because you start with fragments, that doesn’t mean you should end there.

Can you create coherent writing just from a pile of notes?

Despite the sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s apparent canonization as the patron saint of the Zettelkasten, I’m not convinced his writing always achieved the kind of coherence that Karl Kraus would have appreciated. Here is the writer Robert Minto, lamenting his own use of the Zettelkasten approach, which he found let him down when it came to actually writing a doctoral thesis. He turned to Luhmann’s writing to review how the master had done it:

“I decided to read one of Luhmann’s books to see what a zettelkasten-generated text ought to look like. To my horror, it turned out to be a chaotic mess that would never have passed muster under my own dissertation director. It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another — very interesting, but hardly a model for my own academic work.” – Robert Minto , Rank and File — Real Life

This reader is far from alone in finding Luhmann’s prose style off-putting. In a section entitled “Why he wrote such bad books”, a scholar of Luhmann’s work wrote that Luhmann’s texts were:

“extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” – Moeller,The Radical Luhmann, 2012, p. 10.

Another example of the kind of digressive writing style of which Karl Kraus might have disapproved is that of the philosopher and historian Hans Blumenberg. According to one Blumenberg scholar:

“His writings can be disorienting in their digressiveness, at times seemingly impelled only by the desire to exhaustively transmit his enormously wide reading. The fragmented and anecdotal nature of some of his later books, composed of sometimes tenuous thematic groupings of short pieces (often originally published in the feuilleton pages of newspapers such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) seems fitting for a thinker who is said to have prepared for writing by collecting quotations on index cards. These cards were then worked through one by one and marked as ‘used’ when they had been integrated into the finished text.” – Plagne, 2017:9. See also Nicholls, 2015.2

Perhaps you should keep your notes private

The opposite extreme of this kind of writing-as-bricolage is that of the German philosopher G.W.F Hegel, who went to great lengths to hide the sources from which he assembled his own work. Hegel’s approach to writing is an excellent example of what might be termed the distinction between frontstage and backstage in knowledge work. This is a concept developed by the sociologist Erving Goffmann, but its quite familiar. In the theatre, the audience only sees part of what the actors and stage crew are up to. In the restaurant too, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes that the diners never see. For many of us, the background work is often quite different from the finished work we show to the world. Unlike Luhmann and Blumenberg, whose often clumsy final prose style was apparently conditioned by the process of its assemblage, Hegel drafted and edited his work in such a way as to deliberately obscure his production methods. His own voluminous Zettelkasten, on which he utterly depended, was kept strictly backstage. He rarely even cited his sources.

I am arguing that this practice of editing fragments to make them appear seamlessly part of whole paragraphs, sections and chapters, is precisely what’s required of those who choose to work using initially fragmentary methods. It could be argued that a sophisticated thinker such as Niklas Luhmann probably had good reasons for his opaque prose style, quite other than literary ineptitude. Indeed, in The Radical Luhmann, Moeller suggests three such reasons; and Luhmann himself wrote a quite sceptical conference paper on whether academics should try to make themselves understood! However, for most writers and surely most readers, coherence remains a key literary virtue.

Make it flow

Hegel’s rigorous concealment of sources prompted Friedrich Kittler to suggest: “Hegel’s absolute Spirit is a hidden index box” “Hegels absoluter Geist ist ein versteckter Zettelkasten." – Friedrich Kittler, quoted in Krajewski, Kommunikation mit Papiermaschinen

To my mind Kittler’s criticism of Hegel makes a good, if rather arch joke, but it isn’t much of a criticism of Hegel’s writing style. Indeed, for completed writing to seem to the reader to be coherent, the index box should be hidden. This is the well-known skill of editing your writing to make it flow, and it’s hardly too much for readers to expect this of a writer.

True, there are a few writers who seem to have been more at home in their notes than in the finished work. Walter Benjamin, author of the unfinished Arcades Project was perhaps one of them. But fragmentary writing is rarely so influential as Benjamin’s.

My own aspiration is to produce coherent writing, but a glimpse backstage would reveal that this very article is cobbled together from four separate fragments, which I added directly to the whole by means of Transclusion. My conclusion from this little exercise is that you can create coherent writing just from a pile of notes. In fact, I’d go further and claim that this is a very helpful way of writing.

To create coherent writing, make coherent notes

Although final editing is always required, it may also be possible to craft the individual notes themselves in such a way that they really do lend themselves to seamless incorporation into a larger work. If you write disjointed, incoherent notes, you’re going to find it hard to use them to write a strong piece of finished writing. But conversely, if you write clear, concise and modular notes, densely linked, you’ll find it much easier to complete readable and persuasive work. Having said that, I would never censor myself by writing nothing, just because my idea isn’t concise enough. Writing itself is thinking, and there’s always a second draft!

Obviously, this is a skill that I’m still learning. The learning never ends. Writing useful notes is a skill you can always get better at. And I’m convinced this goal, of producing seamless writing from fragmentary origins, may well be achievable. It’s already quite enjoyable and that’s not a terrible thing.

See also:

From fragments you can build a greater whole

Aby Warburg and the search for interconnection

More on the Zettelkasten approach to writing notes


Krajewski, Markus. Kommunikation mit Papiermaschinen. Über Niklas Luhmanns Zettelkasten, in Hans-Christian von Herrmann, Wladimir Velminski (Editors) Maschinentheorien/Theoriemaschinen. Bern: Peter Lang. p.283-305

Kraus, Karl, Die Fackel. An online facsimile of Kraus’s journal, Die Fackel, can be found at AAC Fackel

Kuhn, Manfred. Critique of Zettelkästen Taking Note Now. 2007.

Moeller, Hans-Georg. 2012. The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nicholls, Angus. Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth (New York: Routledge, 2015), 8.

Partington, Gill. “Friedrich Kittler’s” Aufschreibsystem”." Science Fiction Studies (2006): 53-67. PDF

Plagne, Francis Dominique 2017. “Hans Blumenberg’s anthropology of instrumental reason: culture, modernity, and self-preservation.” Thesis: School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.

  1. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said he was German. ↩︎

  2. An earlier version got these references the wrong way round. ↩︎