Just as Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus gets going in earnest, the fictional editor publishing the book’s centerpiece—a fictional treatise on the “philosophy of clothes” by the equally fictional German philosopher “Teufelsdröckh”—receives a package from his correspondent in Germany. Inside are
The treatise and the note seem to be opposites of one another: where one is solid, unified, complete, the other is fragmentary and ephemeral, “unimportant,” “minute.” Yet Carlyle knew how indispensable notes were to his work. His marginalia on a book about Voltaire reveal not just the workaday underlining of a professional reader, but a distinctly personal voice: “Oh dear!”
Notes aren’t just an appendix: in their very evanescence, they can give us direct access to a whole mode of thinking. It was no accident that Vincent Placcius’s note closet, intended to prevent a chaos like Teufelsdröckh’s, was inspired by Francis Bacon’s collaborative vision of science; neither was it accidental that it ended up in the hands of Leibniz, who played a leading role in spreading scientific societies beyond London and Paris. It is not hard to imagine William James, doodling on his notes in medical school, asking himself if the factual truth of “reflex paraplegia” was really so pragmatically meaningful for his purposes.
Just as they reveal individual patterns of thought, notes can show us what happens when different ways of thinking collide. The pages of an annotated book bridge different times and places. The Scot Alexander Speirs, purchasing a copy of a German treatise, interleaved it with blank pages so he would have the freedom to muse on the philosophy of crime and punishment beyond the limits of its narrow margins. The Japanese intellectual Shinsuke Tsurumi, upon arriving at Harvard in the 1940s, dove headlong into the history of Western philosophy, especially the work of Kierkegaard, annotating his books in English as well as in Japanese.
At their most compelling, philosophical notes can constitute a whole century-long conversation on the meaning of a text or an idea. If the conversation in the pages of Rollo May’s pop-existentialist Man’s Search for Himself is simply an amusing aside, Walter Burley’s thirteenth-century commentary on Porphyry and Aristotle is a slow-motion debate about logic. The text itself, of course, is an interpretation of two major ancient writers. A fifteenth-century student, evidently in awe of the “most famous of doctors Burley,” carefully annotates the commentary. Finally, in the nineteenth century, the renowned semiotician Charles Peirce provides the book with a simple descriptive flyleaf that belies the thoroughgoing influence of scholastics like Burley on his own thinking. In one text, we move from classical to modern philosophy—a capsule history through the fractured medium of notes.