Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Luhmann on Learning How to Read

There are not many books or articles that purport to teach critical reading. One of the more famous attempts is Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book of 1940, which is, perhaps too closely bound up with the "Great Books Program." There is a short description of the book here:

Wikipedia on Adler's How to Read a Book

There is also a very short (German) essay by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann of Zettelkasten-fame on reading. It seems to be intended as advice to beginning university students. since it contains some interesting observations, I would like to present his advice her in English:

Luhmann begins with the trite observation that "modern society produces very different sorts of text that require very different kinds of reading," and then differentiates between three main types. There are poetical, narrative, and theoretical (wissenschaftliche) texts. He is, of course, most interested in the last sort. Excluding those, which are composed in what he calls the "secret code" of mathematics or logical calculus, and concentrating on those written in more or less ordinary language, he finds that even scientists and scholars
must form sentences, if they want to publish. However, the degree of randomness in the choice of words that is necessary for this is unimaginable for most readers. The practitioners of science also fail to realize this most of the time. The largest part of the text could have been formulated differently. Indeed, it would have been different, if it had been formulated the next day. The mass of words that are fillers, necessary for forming sentences, escapes any conceptual control. Take for instance the word "escapes" in the previous sentence. This cannot be avoided even if we take the greatest care in differentiating and recognizing words that are laden with conceptual significance. They make up only a small part of the body of the text. And how is the reader to identify those words, which make the difference?

This problem takes an especially drastic form in two cases: those of translators and those of beginners. In any case, I noticed how much my writing is determined by accident when I considered these two groups of readers - and this in spite of the care I took in sustaining and refining theoretical connections ...

Beginners, especially beginning students, find themselves first confronted by a mass of words, arranged in sentences, which they can read sentence by sentence and can understand at the level of the sentences. But what is significant? How should one "learn"? What is important, what is merely secondary? After several pages of reading, one can hardly remember what one has read. What advice can be given here?

One possibility is to remember the names: Marx, Freud, Bourdieu, etc. Obviously most knowledge can be ordered by names, and eventually by the names of theories, like social phenomenology, theory of reception in literary criticism, etc. Beginnings [of texts] and introductory textbooks are organized that way. But what you don't learn in this way are the conceptual connections and especially the problems which the texts attempt to answer. Even candidates in the final exams at the end of their studies wish to be tested on Max Weber, or, if that's too much on Humberto Maturana, and they are prepared to tell you what they know of these authors.

Another possibility is to read much in certain areas ... theory of socialization, research on risk, etc. In this way, one develops gradually a feeling for what is already known or what is the status questionem in a field. Something new is thus noted. But this approach leads to learning things that will soon be obsolete and must be unlearned again. This, by the way, reveals the advantage of learning ancient languages. They don't have to be unlearned, they only need to be forgotten.

Luhmann then identifies long-term memory as most important problem in reading theoretical texts and as the necessary condition of the possibility of differentiating between "the essential and the unessential, the new and the mere repetition." Because we cannot remember everything, we must by highly selective [hochselektiv] in our reading and extract "widely networked references." We must take notes - not mere "excerpts, but condensed reformulations of the reading. The re-description of what has already been described leads almost automatically to the training of attentiveness to "frames" [English in the original], to schemata of observation, or to the conditions, which allow the text to offer some solutions, but not others. In doing this, it is advisable always to reflect also on what is not meant, what is excluded, when something is asserted." All this should be written down. And in this way, we may develop our own "system of notes" [Aufschreibsystem], which teaches us what is important to know and how to read.

This leads to another question: What do we do with what we have written down? We will certainly produce mostly garbage at the beginning, but since we have been trained to expect something useful from our activities ... we should ask ourselves whether and how we transform our notes in such a way that they will be available for later inspection ... this may at the least be envisaged as a comforting illusion. And this requires a computer or a slip box with numbered slips and a register of keywords. The continual "filing" [Unterbringen ] of the notes is a further step in our work that costs time, but it is an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading, and incidentally it trains the memory.

So Luhmann's answer to the question of how we learn the reading of theoretical texts is that we need to be able to refer back to what we are already acquainted with, that is we need a long term memory, which of course does not spontaneously come into existence. "Perhaps, written reformulation [of what we read] is a suitable method."

This method to establish such a long term memory may lead to a system of notes that might be described as a secondary or external memory, something that has in other contexts been described as a "prosthetic extension of ourselves."

Based on Niklas Luhmann (2000) Short Cuts Herausgegeben von Peter Gente, Heidi Paris, Martin Weinmann. Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt/Main, pp. 150f.


nosleepingdog said...

I’ve been looking for this essay by Luhmann in English, and your excerpts are all I’ve found. How long is the entire essay? His comments on synthesis and note-taking are interesting to me (and needless to say, I am delighted to have found your blog).

MK said...

I have a translation of the whole thing (by me). If you want, I can send it to you.

I don't know about whether publishing the whole thing would violate copy right.

MK said...

It's not very long ...

Sean Lawson said...

I'm also interested in your translation if you are still willing to share it. If you could send it my way, I would very much appreciate it. sean[dot]lawson[at]

nocibambi said...

Just bumped into your blog and I find really great the writings you post on it.

Also I too would be very interested in the translation. Many thanks in advance.


the system said...

Hi MK,
Are you still sharing your translation? I'd love to read it as well, please. olenabird[at]gmail

Juan Diego said...


I'm interested on a copy of your translation, if that's ok.


I think I'm going to read all your posts on the subject of reading. I found them very serious and interesting.

Thanks a lot.

kenneth said...

Hi MK, I've been reading this blog on and off, but for some reason never read this part. If you're still emailing an English translation, I'd much appreciate it. ktachong[at]gmail[dot]com.

jwag said...

Ditto, if still available.



Could you send a translation here also, please?


Also: thank you for your work on this blog. It is becoming a real service to my research.

Eugene said...


Thank you for the post!

As many of us, I'm interested in your English translation of the article. Could you send it on eugenepriadko[at]gmail[dot]com.

Best regards,


MK said...

For the translation, see

Luis Lança said...

Hi. Very interested in your translation too. I was very captivated by your post. luismmlanca[at]gmail[.]com

Luis Lança said...

thx for the link

Brian said...

Has anyone been able to find an English translation to the essay? The link listed above is dead.

Ihar Anfimau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ihar Anfimau said...

The orginal's here:

BTW, why need ancient languages be forgotten? :)