Niklas Luhmann and His Slip Box
Niklas Luhmann was one of the most influential sociologists and systems theoreticians in the world. In this article, I present his famous slip box, which was the basis for his scientific work.
Niklas Luhmann was a sociologist but published on an incredible range of subjects. More than seventy books and countless essays make up his work. His considerations on systems theory also influenced scientists from numerous other disciplines.
Asked about the secret of his productivity, he once explained that he attributed this to his slip of paper. Since then, numerous myths and legends have entwined around this mysterious box. What's the secret of Niklas Luhmann's slip box?
The Origin of the Myth - Quarrel and Dispute over Luhmann's Legacy
After Luhmann first mentioned his note box in an interview, people naturally wondered what one could imagine by it. A card box that was so extensive and well-structured that it enabled Luhmann to research and write about a vast range of topics in a well-founded way had to be a huge thing.
Unfortunately, he never went into it in detail himself, although video recordings exist of how he works with his box. What exactly he was doing there, however, could not be fathomed.
You can see on this video how he sorts new notes in his box and sometimes thinks long and hard about where to put his new note.
After his death, a bitter dispute broke out over his legacy, which was finally won by his daughter after a long struggle. As the sole heir to all of his work documents, the slip box also fell to you.
Today the University of Bielefeld owns the box and is researching it extensively. The university bought Luhmann's note box at an unknown price from his daughter.
What we know today about Luhmann's slip box - The scientific evaluation of Luhmann's slip box
Today, the Bielefeld sociologist Johannes Schmidt is engaged in researching the structure of Luhmann's slip box. It is worth noting that this is a system that is reminiscent of the structure of the Internet with its hyperlinks and cross-references.
So the box is by no means strictly ordered by topic. Although there are sections that contain several notes on a topic one after the other, notes on entirely different topics often follow immediately afterward. According to Schmidt, this can be explained as follows:
Suppose Luhmann was working on systems theory. He would then have collected notes on the subject and sorted them into his box. Every note got a number. It started with Number One, followed by Number Two and so on. So far, so good.
However, if Luhmann now, in his notes, for example, came across note number 2, a side aspect of the topic or thoughts dealt with there, which at first glance did not belong to the actual topic, then he did something brilliant: Instead of starting a new topic in another box, he wrote a note on this side aspect, named it 2a and inserted it behind the note number 2.
If he then found another thought to the note 2a that did not fit thematically perfectly with this, he wrote a note 2a1. This could then be continued at will.
If, of course, the note with the number 2 gave two further aspects, then notes with the designations 2a and 2b were written correspondingly, both of which could then be supplemented by others as described above.
In this way, associative category trees of any depth were created. How exactly he worked with it to distill essays and books from these notes has still not been found out. It can be assumed that every user would handle such a box differently. As associative as the creation of the structure was, as intuitive as Luhmann may work with it.
Even if the note box in this unique form could perhaps only be used for Luhmann himself, it nevertheless shows that such a structure of a card index has the potential to arrange one's thoughts and research results in a relatively simple way.
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