the compagnon's staircase
Niklas Luhmann always worked with a collaborator, whom he scrupulously credited: his Zettelkasten, a slip-box of pieces of paper on which he summarized ideas. The almost 90,000 slips, housed in cabinets of long, sliding drawers, was not just a collection of citations or research materials, but an extruded version of Luhmann's own thought process and his capital-S System philosophy of society, and an indirect biography. (In fact it is two collections of slips, reflecting a fundamental shift in his life and work, narrowing towards the questions that perplexed him; the first collection had 108 topics, the second had 11.) Gathering and assembling slips was how he wrote; following the associations between slips in the act of gathering them was, for him, a process of discovery, meditation, and surprise. These associations -- the connections between things -- were made possible through his finding scheme: each slip was an idea, a note, with a number in the upper right-hand corner. Note 1,1 is the first note of the first collection (which was Luhmann's way of roughly dividing by topic; the first collection of his second Zettelkasten was "Organizational Theory"). Note 1,1a is about something that refers to the idea in 1,1. 1,1b continues the thought from 1,1a. 1,1b1 branches off from the idea in 1,1b, and 1,1b2 continues that thought. In practice, over decades, this yields slip addresses like 21/3a1p5c4fB1a ("Confidentiality") and 21/3d26g53 (for the ideas of his nemesis Jürgen Habermas).
Every slip, as he wrote it, would include the addresses of other cards with which he felt it was connected, and in working his way back and forth through the network of slips he would add new connections to old cards. An additional thought or reading or discovery about an old idea could be inserted into the collection (branching off into 1,1b1a); the slip-box could expand more or less infinitely internally, as interlinked connections grew denser and ideas branched off in new directions or rolled on in consecutive digits. Quite the opposite of a neatly shelfmarked hierarchy of knowledge, where every notion has its eternal place, Luhmann's cabinets were a compost heap in need of regular pitchforking. In the Zettelkasten itself, he compared it to a cow's multi-chambered stomach ("Verdauungssystem eines Wiederkäuers," 9/8i) -- a constant process of cud-chewing, but without excretion. Luhmann would revise, but never discard, with slips devoted to mistakes and dead ends linking to their own corrections.