The AdlerNet Guide, Part III
Installing Your Note Cards
I woke up this morning to a passionate conversation that was underway between two philosophers of my acquaintance. The older philosopher—a man of no mean talent in the areas of the arts, science, and politics—was gently admonishing his younger, impetuous companion:
“René, the mark of an educated man is to look for certainty in knowledge only as far as the subject naturally admits! What fool would accept probability from a mathematician and demand scientific proof from a politician?”
The other man listened impatiently and replied,
“But there is nothing in all my former beliefs (or yours, for that matter!) which I can’t subject to doubt; henceforth, Aristotle, I shall withhold my belief from any such opinions until I discover the one thing which is certain and beyond doubt.”
Amused by this pronouncement, Aristotle just chuckled and patted Descartes on the shoulder. “Good luck, young man. Let me know how that works out for you in 500 years.” The brooding young philosopher, recognizing that they were at an momentary impasse, retreated to his private room to continue cogitating over his doubts.
Okay, I may have taken some imaginative liberties above but I did “overhear” a conversation of sorts between these two philosophers as I pondered their opposing attitudes toward knowledge and certainty, important ideas that continue to drive epistemological debates to this day. I find it entertaining to imagine the conversations they would have if put in the same room together. It’s one of the ways I creatively explore the foundational ideas that built our civilization.
This is what the AdlerNet achieves—it brings together the great ideas of western civilization’s most eminent thinkers in your own, private “conversation-in-a-box”. Additionally, you have the opportunity to engage in this conversation with your own reactions and contributions. The way this conversation happens is partly through spontaneous discovery and partly through an intentional method of filing and referring to your notes. This article will describe the last part of the AdlerNet process: numbering and installing your note cards. (For previous posts in this series, please see the introduction, Part I, and Part II.)
The AdlerNet Numbering System
A key aspect of Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten was its alpha-numeric numbering system which created a unique and permanent identification (“address”) for each card in his collection.1 Notably, these card IDs can be branched and extended indefinitely so that instead of a static filing system, what emerges is an organic and tree-like structure—literally, your own Tree of Knowledge! Many new practitioners of analog Zettelkasten systems find the numbering scheme confusing and intimidating at first. A typical analog card ID like 3306/2A/12/4C appears almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. But it’s only a way to situate the card within a main numerical category of knowledge (i.e. a “branch”) with subsequent sequences of numbers and letters indicating the internal branching of ideas.
Scott Scheper has popularized a numbering scheme based on Wikipedia's Outline of Academic Disciplines. I followed this method for a while but found that it didn’t work well for reading the Great Books or studying the Great Ideas. The reason is simple: modern academia tends to atomize knowledge within increasingly specialized disciplines, while classical learning aims to coalesce and harmonize knowledge across kindred disciplines. Therefore, the AdlerNet required some other classification scheme that would preserve this holistic view of knowledge.
I found the solution ready at hand—Mortimer Adler’s own Syntopicon. This 2-volume “Index to the Great Ideas” features 102 ideas that appear prominently throughout the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW). The Syntopicon itself provides an exhaustive outline for each idea with related citations to the authors found in the collection. Instead of using the 4-digit academic discipline code for my main branch number, I now base it on a number from 1 to 102 that corresponds to a Great Idea.
A Wrinkle In Time
However, I still faced an additional challenge in determining how to number my cards: I wanted to structure my classification scheme chronologically. As you may recall, one of my main classical reading goals has been to understand how the Great Ideas emerged and changed over time. Why do I care? Because every age, including our own, has had brilliant insights but also significant “blind spots” in its thinking. By blind spots, I don’t just mean passing prejudices but those faulty assumptions and contradictions which ultimately undermine rationality. The thing about blind spots, though, is that you don’t normally see them! Thus, I reasoned, if I could learn to trace these patterns of thought over time, perhaps it would help me recognize and avoid the pitfalls of our generation’s post-modern mindset.
The way I resolved my filing dilemma, therefore, was to set up my main note card box chronologically. (See “Timeline Box” here.) Beginning with 3500 B.C., I installed card dividers of 500-year increments because this is commonly how long a system of philosophy tends to last before it undergoes a major shift.2 I also include the GBWW volume number in my numbering scheme (following the Great Idea #) since this collection is already organized chronologically.
Up to this point, my filing system allowed for grouping cards first by timeline, then Great Idea, then sequentially by volume number. But I realized that I couldn’t leave it there or I’d end up with a static filing system instead of the organic, dynamically branching one envisioned by Luhmann. I still needed a way to expand into sublevels within the Great Idea main branch, to provide more granularity within each idea as well as room to follow new trains of thought. Fortunately, this was easily remedied by using the existing numbering convention from the Syntopicon outlines for each Great Idea, and simply branching off of these as needed.
So to recap, cards in the AdlerNet system are grouped in this order:
Timeline era (in segments of 500 years)
Syntopicon Great Idea # (representing the main knowledge branch)
Volume # (for books in the GBWW collection—otherwise leave blank)
Syntopicon Outline # (for the corresponding Great Idea)
Numbering and Installing Your Cards
As you can see, the AdlerNet numbering system is a fairly radical departure from Luhmann’s original system (or Scott Scheper’s Antinet), primarily due to the need to preserve a holistic and chronological approach to knowledge. I took the time to explain how I arrived here to help you understand the AdlerNet’s conceptual framework. The rest of these instructions should follow rather simply.
Numbering Bibliography Box Cards
Recall that there are 3 types of cards in your Bib Box: bibliography (pink), terms (orange), and narration cards (white). These are numbered in the top right corner as timeline date/ GBWW volume #/ abbreviation of the text’s title, as seen below. (N.E. II stands for Nicomachean Ethics, Book II.) You’ll file them alphabetically by author’s last name (or only name, as in the case here for Aristotle).
Numbering Timeline Box Cards
The timeline cards consist of blue excerpt cards (quotes from the text) and white response cards (your reaction or clarification). Instead of writing out a long alpha-numeric series punctuated with slashes (similar to above), I created a 4-square grid read left to right, top to bottom as follows: Timeline date (i.e. when the text was written)3; Great Idea #; GBWW #4; outline #. I find that this grid helps me read and file my card more quickly. The top half of the grid situates the main branch chronologically. The left half is strictly chronological, while the right half is strictly conceptual.
This grid is written at the top right-hand corner of the card. On the left-hand corner, I like to write out the Syntopicon Great Idea so I don’t have to look up the number whenever I come across the card (as I don’t have them memorized yet). Here is how it looks on a card:
Installing Your Cards
Okay, dear readers, this is where the magic happens! How did I know to classify the excerpt card above under Great Idea #68 (Pleasure and Pain)/outline #6d.1? Well, I didn’t immediately. This is part of the discovery process. First, I had to ask myself, “What is this card’s main theme”? Then I had to get out my 2 Syntopicon volumes (or open up my electronic version on Logos) and look for a matching Great Idea. Although Happiness (#33) and Knowledge (#43) were also mentioned in the quote, I thought that Pleasure was the more dominant theme. Then I searched the corresponding outline for Pleasure and Pain to find the subtopic that most closely aligned with the quote, which I found in this section:
In this quote, Aristotle is positing that happiness, as a pleasure constituting the highest good, is most worthy of our choice. I know from earlier chapters that choice involves desire. Therefore, I felt 6d was the right sub-category and since it’s my first card, I labeled it 6d.1. The next blue card in this branch would be 6d.2. But my white response card corresponding to the 6d.1 excerpt card is numbered 6d.1a and filed before 6d.2. I can extend this numbering system indefinitely as related ideas accumulate, branch, and evolve.
Once I’ve settled on the numbering, I record it on the corresponding Syntopicon Index Card filed alphabetically in the 3rd box (in this case under Pleasure and Pain). You’ll notice below that I’ve only included the left-hand of the grid (i.e. -500/8). This tells me I’ll find the corresponding card in the Timeline Box in the 500 B.C. section, grouped with the volume 8 cards (Aristotle). I don’t have to write down the right half of the grid (i.e. Main Idea # and outline #) because it’s already stated on the Index Card.
There’s obviously a fair amount of work involved in this process, but it corresponds to my level of commitment to learning. My best advice for readers is to adapt such a project to your own needs, but do make use of Adler’s Syntopicon because it’s an incredibly rich resource and will quickly refine your thinking skills. Please leave your questions or comments below and thank you for reading!
Luhmann describes this numbering scheme in his now famous article, "Communicating with Slip Boxes".
By this reckoning, the madness of post-modernism could actually be the death throes of Enlightenment philosophy and we may be heading for a new revolution in thinking.
Nota bene: a negative number = B.C.
I write the GBWW volume number in colored ink using the publishers’ color-code on the book’s spine to indicate its subject area: literature (green), philosophy (red), history (sky blue), and science (pale blue).