Notes

What Matters for Note-taking is Interpretation, Not Information

Christian Tietze, “Stop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your Own Thoughts” ()

Christian Tietze used to gather complete source information when he studied, out of fear that he didn’t understand the author’s intent. He assumed that keeping the author’s words was more important than having his own. In time, his way of studying didn’t work. He had to revisit sources to rethink about them.

I’ve also fallen for this “collector’s fallacy.” I’ve spent a lot of time preserving clippings of significant articles and then having to reread them later for information, if I ever returned to them.

Tietze overanalyzes the problem, however, and makes a misguided foray into hermeneutics. In his article “Stop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your Own Thoughts,” he concludes that it’s not possible to understand the author’s intent, that texts have no information and are worthless. What matters, he says, is the information you create from interacting with a source. If Tietze were right in this regard, what would be the point of studying others and writing to build up others? Such a hermeneutic undermines our efforts to grow up and dismantle our self-centered views of the world. I don’t have faith in my own thoughts, which is why I study. Even he doesn’t agree with himself at this point. See his article “The Collector’s Fallacy” where he acknowledges that source texts do have information that matters and studying will, “integrate the text’s information into our own knowledge.” This second article comes closer to my experience: collecting materials gives a feeling of accomplishment, but it’s procrastination.

I can see how Tietze’s thinking provides motivation to stop collecting other people’s words and start writing his own. Although I disagreed with his reasoning in the middle, I shared his problem and solution:

I stopped collecting because it didn’t produce the results I wanted. Instead, I increasingly shifted my focus to writing notes in my own voice, to keep my interpretations of texts in a condensed form, and to have them available at all times instead of making the texts themselves easy to find. This produces far better results, because a note you wrote yourself is tailored to your own patterns of thought, making it easier to work with it in the future. Your own notes require less energy when you read and make sense of them than re-visiting the original source would.

I agree with his idea that we collect our own words and ideas to provide clarity to ourselves later. For the sake of learning, what matters more is not a copy of the information studied, but our summary of it. Not all of my notes are clear to my future self, but with a quick look at the source I recall what I was getting at. Of course, being faithful to the author’s intent matters: with our notes we keep a reference to the source.

Preserving source information in place of note-taking is not helpful for learning. My own notes are a record of my engagement. They not only convey the meaning of the information, but also its significance.