- Apr 2023
Local file Local file
Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062.
Cross reference published version from 1959, 1980: https://hypothes.is/a/7NmPckD4Ee2-r1NbihZN2A
Read on 2022-10-01 14:10
annotation target: urn:x-pdf:0138200b4bfcde2757a137d61cd65cb8
- Oct 2022
Local file Local file
In "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" (1952), C. Wright Mills talks about his methods for note taking, thinking, and analysis in what he calls "sociological imagination". This is a sociologists' framing of their own research and analysis practice and thus bears a sociological related name. While he talks more about the thinking, outlining, and writing process rather than the mechanical portion of how he takes notes or what he uses, he's extending significantly on the ideas and methods that Sönke Ahrens describes in How to Take Smart Notes (2017), though obviously he's doing it 65 years earlier. It would seem obvious that the specific methods (using either files, note cards, notebooks, etc.) were a bit more commonplace for his time and context, so he spent more of his time on the finer and tougher portions of the note making and thinking processes which are often the more difficult parts once one is past the "easy" mechanics.
While Mills doesn't delineate the steps or materials of his method of note taking the way Beatrice Webb, Langlois & Seignobos, Johannes Erich Heyde, Antonin Sertillanges, or many others have done before or Umberto Eco, Robert Greene/Ryan Holiday, Sönke Ahrens, or Dan Allosso since, he does focus more on the softer portions of his thinking methods and their desired outcomes and provides personal examples of how it works and what his expected outcomes are. Much like Niklas Luhmann describes in Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1981), Mills is focusing on the thinking processes and outcomes, but in a more accessible way and with some additional depth.
Because the paper is rather short, but specific in its ideas and methods, those who finish the broad strokes of Ahrens' book and methods and find themselves somewhat confused will more than profit from the discussion here in Mills. Those looking for a stronger "crash course" might find that the first seven chapters of Allosso along with this discussion in Mills is a straighter and shorter path.
While Mills doesn't delineate his specific method in terms of physical tools, he does broadly refer to "files" which can be thought of as a zettelkasten (slip box) or card index traditions. Scant evidence in the piece indicates that he's talking about physical file folders and sheets of paper rather than slips or index cards, but this is generally irrelevant to the broader process of thinking or writing. Once can easily replace the instances of the English word "file" with the German concept of zettelkasten and not be confused.
One will note that this paper was written as a manuscript in April 1952 and was later distributed for classroom use in 1955, meaning that some of these methods were being distributed from professor to students. The piece was later revised and included as an appendix to Mill's text The Sociological Imagination which was first published in 1959.
Because there aren't specifics about Mills' note structure indicated here, we can't determine if his system was like that of Niklas Luhmann, but given the historical record one could suppose that it was closer to the commonplace tradition using slips or sheets. One thing becomes more clear however that between the popularity of Webb's work and this (which was reprinted in 2000 with a 40th anniversary edition), these methods were widespread in the mid-twentieth century and specifically in the field of sociology.
Above and beyond most of these sorts of treatises on note taking method, Mills does spend more time on the thinking portions of the practice and delineates eleven different practices that one can focus on as they actively read/think and take notes as well as afterwards for creating content or writing.
My full notes on the article can be found at https://jonudell.info/h/facet/?user=chrisaldrich&max=100&exactTagSearch=true&expanded=true&addQuoteContext=true&url=urn%3Ax-pdf%3A0138200b4bfcde2757a137d61cd65cb8
Thinking is a simultaneous struggle for conceptualorder and empirical comprehensiveness. You must notclose it up too soon---or you will fail to see all that youshould; you cannot leave it open forever----or you yourselfwill burst. It is this dilemma that makes reflection, onthose rare occasions when it is more or less successful, themost passionate endeavor of which a man is capable
Thinking is a simultaneous struggle for conceptualorder and empirical comprehensiveness.
This search for order pushes one to seek out under-lying patterns and trends, to find relations that may betypical and causal.
Finding order and relations (and their particular types), is a form of linking ideas found in some of the more complex zettelkasten and knowledge management spaces. It's not as explicit here and he doesn't seem to be focusing on stating or writing explicit links within his notes. He does, however, place some focus on the quality and types of links he's making (or at least thinking about), something which isn't frequently seen in the current PKM space. For example, no one is creating user interfaces that show links between ideas which are opposite (or in opposition or antonym relation) to each other.
I am trying, you see, to build aframework containing all the key elements which enterinto the work; then to put each section in separate fbldersand continually readjust the whole framework aroundchanges in them.
Evidence that Mills is talking specifically about papers and individual folders (potentially tagged or categorized) rather than a card index system.
From these considerations, I hope the reader will un-derstand that in a way I never " s t a r t " writing on a project;I am writing continuously, either in a more personal vein,in the files, in taking notes after browsing, or in moreguided endeavors
Seems similar to the advice within Ahrens. Did he have a section on not needing to "start" writing or at least not starting with a blank page?
Compare and contrast these, if so.
Link to: https://hyp.is/DJd2hDUQEe2BMGv-WFSnVQ/www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1360144X.2016.1210153
here are several ways I havefound useful to invite the sociological imagination:
C. Wright Mills delineates a rough definition of "sociological imagination" which could be thought of as a framework within tools for thought: 1. Combinatorial creativity<br /> 2. Diffuse thinking, flâneur<br /> 3. Changing perspective (how would x see this?) Writing dialogues is a useful method to accomplish this. (He doesn't state it, but acting as a devil's advocate is a useful technique here as well.)<br /> 4. Collecting and lay out all the multiple viewpoints and arguments on a topic. (This might presume the method of devil's advocate I mentioned above 😀)<br /> 5. Play and exploration with words and terms<br /> 6. Watching levels of generality and breaking things down into smaller constituent parts or building blocks. (This also might benefit of abstracting ideas from one space to another.)<br /> 7. Categorization or casting ideas into types 8. Cross-tabulating and creation of charts, tables, and diagrams or other visualizations 9. Comparative cases and examples - finding examples of an idea in other contexts and time settings for comparison and contrast 10. Extreme types and opposites (or polar types) - coming up with the most extreme examples of comparative cases or opposites of one's idea. (cross reference: Compass Points https://hypothes.is/a/Di4hzvftEeyY9EOsxaOg7w and thinking routines). This includes creating dimensions of study on an object - what axes define it? What indices can one find data or statistics on? 11. Create historical depth - examples may be limited in number, so what might exist in the historical record to provide depth.
On this point, for instance, thebook on John Dewey's technique of thought by Bogos-lovsky, The Logic of Controversy, and C.E. Ayers' essayon the gospel of technology in Philosophy Today andTomorrow, edited by Hook and Kallen.
The Technique of Controversy: Principles of Dynamic Logic by Boris B. Bogoslovsky https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Technique_of_Controversy/P-rgAwAAQBAJ?hl=en
What was Dewey's contribution here?
The Gospel of Technology by C. E. Ayers https://archive.org/details/americanphilosop00kall/page/24/mode/2up
(2) A second technique which should be part of theintellectual workman's way of life consists of a kind ofrelaxed browsing in libraries, letting the mind play overbooks and new periodicals and encyclopedias. Of course,I have in mind the several problems on which I am activelyworking, and try to be passively receptive to unforeseenand unplanned linkages.
"Relaxed browsing and allowing the mind to wander" as a method of thinking and work is stated differently, but is highly related to the idea of diffuse thinking or working as a flâneur.
( 1) The rearranging of the file, as I have already said, isone way. One simply dumps out heretofore disconnectedfolders, mixing up their contents, and then re-sorts themmany times. How often and how extensively one does thiswill of course vary with different problems and the devel-opment of their solutions. But in general the mechanics ofit are as simple as that.
The first part of "sociological imagination" for Mills is what I term combinatorial creativity. In his instance, at varying intervals he dumps out disconnected ideas, files and resorts them to find interesting potential solutions.
I do not want toacquire any technique of work that would limit the play offancy.
You do not reallyhave to study a topic you are working on; once your areinto it, it is everywhere. You are sensitive to its themes;you see and hear them everywhere in your experience,especially, it always seems to me, in apparently unrelatedareas. Even the mass media, especially bad movies andcheap novels and picture magazines and night radio, aredisclosed in fresh importance to you.
taking random (and un-filed) notes
"unfiled notes" as "fleeting notes" which aren't expanded upon and turned into "permanent notes"
how are these related to his "fringe thoughts"
At any rate, someof this writing leads me to feel uneasy about the assump-tion that all the skills required to put a book together areexplicit and teachable, as are the deadbeat methods ofmuch orthodox social science today.
"deadbeat methods"... wowza!
A career-line study of the presidents, all cabinet members,and all members of the Supreme Court. This 1 'already have onIBM cards from the constitutional period through Truman'ssecond term, but I want to expand the items used and analyze itafresh.
Notice that it's not just notes, but data on IBM cards that he's using for research here. This sort of data analysis is much easier now, but is also of the sort detailed by Beatrice Webb in her scientific note taking.
the trans-fer of private expenses to business accounts.
All these types have a right to do as theyplease or as they must; they have no right to impose in then a m e of science such narrow limits on others.
I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoidit. It m e a n s a great deal of trouble if one has no staff; if onedoes e m p l o y a staff, then the staff is often more troublethan the work itself. Moreover, they leave as soon as theyhave b e e n trained and made useful.
Mosca backs up histhesis with this assertion: It's the power of organization thatenables the minority always to rule. There are organizedminorities and they run things and men. There are unorganizedmajorities and they are run.
In a democracy, is it not just rule by majority, but rule by the most organized that ends up dominating the society?
Perhaps C. Wright Mills' work on the elite has some answers?
The Republican party's use of organization to create gerrymandering is a clear example of using extreme organization to create minority rule. Cross reference: Slay the Dragon in which this issue is laid out with the mention of using a tiny amount of money to careful gerrymander maps to provide outsized influences and then top-down outlines to imprint broad ideas from a central location onto smaller individual constituencies (state and local).
I found in the files three relevant types of "existingmaterials": several theories having to do with the topic;materials already worked up by others as evidence forthose theories; and data already gathered and in variousstages of accessible centralization, but not yet madetheoretically relevant.
certainly surrounding oneself with acircle of people who will listen and t a l k - - a n d at times theyhave to be imaginary characters--is one of them
Intellectual work requires "surfaces" to work against, almost as an exact analogy to substrates in chemistry which help to catalyze reactions. The surfaces may include: - articles, books, or other writing against which one can think and write - colleagues, friends, family, other thinkers, or even imaginary characters (as suggested by C. Wright Mills) - one's past self as instantiated by their (imperfect) memory or by their notes about excerpted ideas or their own thoughts
Are there any other surfaces we're missing?
As I thus rearranged the filing system, I found that I wasloosening my imagination.
"loosening my imagination" !!
examine my entire file, not only thoseparts of it which obviously bore on the topic, but alsomany others which seemed to have no relevance whatso-ever. For imagination and " t h e structuring of an i d e a " areoften exercised by putting together hitherto isolated items,by finding unsuspected connections. 1 made new units inthe file for this particular range of problems, which, o fcourse, led to a new arrangement of other parts of the file.
What a lot to unpack here.
He's actively looking through all parts of his files to find potential links and connections between ideas. He brings up the idea of "unsuspected connections" which touches on Luhmann's idea of serendipity, Llull's combinatorial arts, or what one might call combinatorial creativity.
But how is this f i l e - - w h i c h so far must seem to thereader more like a j o u r n a l - - u s e d in intellectual produc-tion?
By asking this question this way, Mills is explicitly indicating that his "file" is not a journal, and by implication probably doesn't take the form of a notebook, though we should be on the lookout for more evidence of this given the long tradition of the commonplace book.
Use of File
It bears pointing out that Mills hasn't specifically described the form of his "file". Is he using note cards, slips, sheets of paper? Ostensibly one might suppose given his context and the word "file" which he uses that he may be referring to either hanging files, folders, and sheets of paper, or a more traditional index card file.
My notes seem to be of two sorts. In reading certainvery important books 1 try to grasp the structure of thewriter's thought, and take notes accordingly. But morefrequently, in the last ten years, I do not read whole books,but rather parts of many books, from the point of view ofsome particular theme in which I am interested, and con-cerning which I usually have plans in my file. Therefore, Itake notes which do not fairly represent the books 1 read. Iam using this particular passage, this particular experi-ence, for the realization o f my own projects. Notes takenin this way form the contents o f memory upon which Imay have to call.
he taking o f anote is an additional mechanism for comprehension ofwhat one is reading.
Merely to name an item of experience often invitesus to explain it; the mere taking of a note from a book isoften a prod to reflection.
nd the way in which these cate-gories changed, some being dropped out and others beingadded, was an index of my own intellectual progress andbreadth. Eventually, the file came to be arranged accord-ing to several larger projects, having many subprojects,which changed from year to year.
In his section on "Arrangement of File", C. Wright Mills describes some of the evolution of his "file". Knowing that the form and function of one's notes may change over time (Luhmann's certainly changed over time too, a fact which is underlined by his having created a separate ZK II) one should take some comfort and solace that theirs certainly will as well.
The system designer might also consider the variety of shapes and forms to potentially create a better long term design of their (or others') system(s) for their ultimate needs and use cases. How can one avoid constant change, constant rearrangement, which takes work? How can one minimize the amount of work that goes into creating their system?
The individual knowledge worker or researcher should have some idea about the various user interfaces and potential arrangements that are available to them before choosing a tool or system for maintaining their work. What are the affordances they might be looking for? What will minimize their overall work, particularly on a lifetime project?
A personal file is thesocial organization of the individual's memory; it in-creases the continuity between life and work, and it per-mits a continuity in the work itself, and the planning of thework; it is a crossroads of life experience, professionalactivities, and way of work. In this file the intellectualcraftsman tries to integrate what he is doing intellectuallyand what he is experiencing as a person.
Again he uses the idea of a "file" which I read and understand as similar to the concepts of zettelkasten or commonplace book. Unlike others writing about these concepts though, he seems to be taking a more holistic and integrative (life) approach to having and maintaining such system.
Perhaps a more extreme statement of this might be written as "zettelkasten is life" or the even more extreme "life is zettelkasten"?
Is his grounding in sociology responsible for framing it as a "social organization" of one's memory?
It's not explicit, but this statement could be used as underpinning or informing the idea of using a card index as autobiography.
How does this compare to other examples of this as a function?
In the file, onecan experiment as a writer and thus develop o n e ' s ownpowers of expression.
To be able to trustone's own experience, even if it often turns out to beinadequate, is one mark of the mature workman. Suchconfidence in o n e ' s own experience is indispensable tooriginality in any intellectual pursuit, and the file is onetool by which I have tried to develop and justify suchconfidence.
The function of memory served by having written notes is what allows the serious researcher or thinker to have greater confidence in their work, potentially more free from cognitive bias as one idea can be directly compared and contrasted with another by direct juxtaposition.
The reason theytreasure their smallest experiences is because, in thecourse of a lifetime, a modem man has so very littlepersonal experience, and yet experience is so important asa source of good intellectual work.
The antecedent for "they" here is "accomplished thinkers".
" f r i n g e - t h o u g h t s "
C. Wright Mills' idea of "fringe-thoughts" is similar to Ahrens framing of "fleeting notes".
whether he knows it or not, the intellec-tual workman forms his own self as he works towards theperfection of his craft.
Here Mills seems to be defining (in 1952) an "intellectual workman" as an academic, but he doesn't go as broad as a more modern "knowledge worker" (2022) which includes those who broadly do thinking in industry as well as in academia. His older phrase also has a more gendered flavor to it that knowledge worker doesn't have now.
And yet that is not " r e a l l y " how the project arose.What really happened is that the idea and the plan cameout o f my files; for all projects with me begin and end withthem, and books are simply organized releases from thecontinuous work that goes into them.
Surely by "files" he means his written notes and ideas which he has filed away?
Thus articles and books are agglomerations of ideas within notes (or perhaps one's retained memory, as best as that might be done) which are then broken off from them and released to a wider readership.
I had readBalzac off and on during the forties, and been much takenwith his self-appointed task of " c o v e r i n g " all the majorclasses and types in the society of the era he wished tomake his own.
We write to understand, to learn, to make knowledge our own.
Method and theory are like thelanguage of the country you live in: it is nothing to bragabout that you can speak it, but it is a disgrace, as well asan inconvenience, if you cannot.
In this essay I am going to try candidly to report how Ibecame interested in a topic I happen now to be studying,and how I am going about studying it. I know that in doingthis I run the risk of failing in modesty and perhaps even ofclaiming some peculiar virtue for my own personal habits.1 intend no such claims. 1 know also that it may be said:"WelL, that's the way you work; but it's not of much use tom e . " To this the reply seems quite clear; it is: " W o n d e r -ful. Tell me how you w o r k . "
We could use more of this in the current tools for thought space. Given neurodiversity, having a smorgasbord of options from which to choose from and then to be able to pick and choose or experiment on what works for you in particular seems to be the best route forward.
Perhaps there are al-ready too many formal discourses on method, and cer-tainly there are too many inspirational pieces on how tothink. Neither seem to be of much use to those for whomthey are apparently intended. The first does not usuallytouch the realities of the problem as the beginning studentencounters them: the second is usually vulgar and oftennonsense.
A description of the problem.
Also missing are concrete examples and modeling of behavior for students to see and follow.
E veryone seriously concerned with teaching complainsthat most students do not know how to do indepen-dent work. They do not know how to read, they do notknow how to take notes, they do not know how to set up aproblem nor how to research it. In short, they do not knowhow to work intellectually.
- - I L H
Who is ILH?
this draft,which Mills notes on the manuscript was "written in April 1952" and distributed f o r classroom use in1955, provides a fascinating self-portrait of Mills' own sense o f intellectual craftsmanship.
- note taking why
- card index as writing teacher
- secondary sources
- cognitive bias
- intellectual workman
- trend analysis
- Baader–Meinhof phenomenon
- unfiled notes
- zettelkasten affordances
- card index for writing
- historical perspective
- card index as autobiography
- Llullan combinatorial arts
- social order
- The Sociological Imagination
- frequency bias
- research process
- continuous writing
- Heyde's zettelkasten method
- compass points
- human resources
- John Dewey
- open questions
- maximizing efficiency
- fleeting ideas
- power over
- Sönke Ahrens
- ars excerpendi
- technique of controversy
- primary sources
- a writer writes always
- scientific note taking
- academic writing
- knowledge workers
- Gaetano Mosca
- intellectual history
- orality vs. literacy
- note taking affordances
- Hemingway's White Bull
- writing skills
- Johannes Erich Heyde
- building blocks
- historical context
- evolution of knowledge
- diffuse thinking
- note taking methods
- fringe thoughts
- fleeting notes
- devil's advocate
- Boris Basil Bogoslovsky
- Umberto Eco
- C. Wright Mills
- tools for thought
- idea links
- combinatorial creativity
- card index
- On Intellectual Craftsmanship
- majority rule
- zettelkasten design
- Honoré de Balzac
- social organization
- reading practices
- active reading
- user interface
- want to read
- information visualization
- minimizing work
- writing advice
- empirical work
- Niklas Luhmann's zettelkasten
- Charles Victor Langlois
- blank page
- thinking routines
- Clarence Edwin Ayres
- organizational theory
- idea play
- modelling behavior
- negative images
- mind wandering
- intellectual surfaces
- zettelkasten and memory
- Beatrice Webb
- sociological imagination
- conversations between texts
- Charles Seignobos
- tools for thought
- note taking
- bi-directional links
- index card files
- writing for understanding
- IBM cards
- conversations with the text
- knowledge work
- internalizing knowledge
- discourses on method
- gender bias