Last night I spent a pleasant chunk of time reading a lecture called A Philosopher and His Notebooks: John Locke on Memory and Information by Richard Yeo (scroll down to bottom of page). Nicholas Basbanes referenced the lecture in his notes to Every Book Its Reader. The lecture is longish but if you are interested in John Locke or commonplace books it is worth the time.
The lecture outlines a history of commonplace books and what made Locke’s indexing system so unique. I learned that common-place books have been around for hundreds of years, Cicero even mentions them. These books were used as education tools in school and as aids to memory especially for orators or other learned individuals. There were pretty standard methods for using common-place books. There were standard headings that were used that people listed in the front of the book. Then they divided the book into sections based on how much space they thought they needed for each heading. When printed books became cheap, you could buy pre-printed common-place books, that is pre-printed with the headers and sections marked out. Since these books were meant as educational tools, it was not unusual for them to be passed along in the family.
During Locke’s time there was an explosion of information. Professor Yeo quotes from a 1680 letter written by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in which he complains of the “horrible mass of books which keeps growing.” This made me laugh. If there were too many books in 1680 he’d probably have a coronary now. So anyway, with all the information people could now longer memorize it all. Commonplace books became even more important but no one had a satisfactory way of organizing the information. Locke to the rescue!
His method of organization was a breakthrough of sorts because it allowed people to make up their own headings. Nor did anyone have to try and guess ahead of time how many pages would be needed for a heading. Suddenly people were free to do a whole bunch of things with their commonplace books. No longer were these books an aid to memory, but they could now become an information storage and retrieval system so you didn’t have to try and memorize it all.
Something else interesting about information in the way back then. It was usually local. Libraries were generally private or university holdings. If you wanted to study something like weather patterns in France to see if they had any bearing on the weather in England, you had to go to France. And you couldn’t just shack up in Paris because the weather in Paris is not the same as the weather in Nice and the only way to find out about it was to go there. Notebooks became exceedingly important carriers of information and Locke’s was a useful method of organization.
It struck me after reading this lecture that I need to create a notebook for my philosophy project. Lucky for me I am not far into it so I haven’t missed much. I have thus far only been making marginal notes and a few blog posts. This is good for immediately digesting the reading but for keeping track of it as I progress, not so much. A notebook organized in a Lockean method would allow me to compare, say, Plato’s thoughts on the sublime with Kant’s in a much easier manner than flipping through pages looking for marginal notes. Since I have never been very good at taking notes on my reading this is a monumental idea. And I am geeky enough to be excited about it.
My sister told me today that I am the epitome of nerdiness. I told her that I embrace my nerdiness. Which, she replied, was very Emersonian of me. This made me very happy because 1) it means I have been paying attention to my reading and it is having an effect on me and 2) my sister has been paying attention too.