Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Notes and Philosophy

Greg Afinogenov

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

Six considerable PAPER-BAGS, carefully sealed, and marked successively, in gilt China-ink, with the symbols of the Six southern Zodiacal Signs, beginning at Libra; in the inside of which sealed Bags lie miscellaneous masses of Sheets, and oftener Shreds and Snips, written in Professor Teufelsdröckh's scarce legible cursiv-schrift; and treating of all imaginable things under the Zodiac and above it, but of his own personal history only at rare intervals, and then in the most enigmatic manner. Whole fascicles there are, wherein the Professor, or, as he here, speaking in the third person, calls himself, "the Wanderer," is not once named. Then again, amidst what seems to be a Metaphysico-theological Disquisition, "Detached Thoughts on the Steam-engine," or, "The continued Possibility of Prophecy," we shall meet with some quite private, not unimportant Biographical fact. On certain sheets stand Dreams, authentic or not, while the circumjacent waking Actions are omitted. Anecdotes, oftenest without date of place or time, fly loosely on separate slips, like Sibylline leaves. Interspersed also are long purely Autobiographical delineations; yet without connection, without recognizable coherence; so unimportant, so superfluously minute, they almost remind us of "P.P. Clerk of this Parish." Thus does famine of intelligence alternate with waste. Selection, order, appears to be unknown to the Professor … Only as a gaseous-chaotic Appendix to that aqueous-chaotic Volume can the contents of the Six Bags hover round us, and portions thereof be incorporated with our delineation of it.

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.