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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Arroyo

Humboldt's Second Brain.

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

I recently finished reading Tiago Forte’s book, Building a Second Brain, A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential. It’s an excellent read. I have been super interested (obsessed) with the concept of the second brain and I basically devoured this book and will surely come back to it regularly. Also, I will be writing more about this concept and how I have been applying it to my personal and professional life. However, in this post I want to talk about an interesting connection between Tiago’s book and another book I recently finished reading and loved: Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature.

In BASB, Tiago introduces us to the commonplace book, which was literally a notebook that educated people in the 18th & 19th centuries would carry around with them and write down insights drawn from conversations, books, plays or anything that they found fascinating. The point of the commonplace book was to concentrate personal insights in a single place in order to go back to it regularly, and as a consequence new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas would become evident, which would be very useful for their creative endeavors.

For centuries, artists and intellectuals from Leonardo da Vinci to Virginia Woolf, from John Locke to Octavia Butler, have recorded the ideas they found most interesting in a book they carried around with them, known as a “commonplace book.”

BASB, page 18.

There is a lot to say about the relevance of the commonplace book in the digital era. Tiago’s book makes the case for a digital commonplace book we can all develop and benefit from, which is what he calls the second brain, which has become more relevant today than it’s ever been considering the deluge of information we’re exposed to everyday.

However, this post is not about that. This post is about another character from the 19th century that is not mentioned in the BASB book, but who I think best represents the spirit and purpose of a second brain: Alexander von Humboldt.

I didn’t know much about Humboldt, but Andrea Wulf’s book, The Invention of Nature, opened my eyes big time to the significance of his contributions to science and literature.

Alexander von Humboldt was one of a kind. His insatiable curiosity lead him to discard a life of privilege and comfort to go on expeditions no one had ever done before in order to find out for himself how the world worked. One could say that he used that privilege and wealth that he was inherited to push the limits of human knowledge in a way that probably no one has ever done before or since. I highly recommend to anyone reading this to check out The Invention of Nature to understand the reason behind all of these grandiose statements.

In order to appreciate who Alexander von Humboldt was, we need to understand that everything he’s known for he did in the 1800’s. No airplanes, no phones, no audio recorders, no computers, no internet, no Evernote, no Notion. And yet, by means of personal observations, copious notes and careful reflection…

He came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe. Most important, though, Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf.

The only way Humboldt was able to discover these facts about the world was by comparing his findings across disciplines and connecting them overtime. If this doesn’t sound very BASB already, listen to how he was able to write the five volumes of his last book, Cosmos.

Cosmos was ‘a kind of impossible enterprise’, Humboldt admitted. The only way to handle all this data was to be perfectly organized about the research. Humboldt collected his material in boxes which were divided by envelopes into different subjects. Whenever he received a letter, he cut out the important information and placed it in the relevant envelope together with any other scraps of material that might be useful – newspaper cuttings, pages from books, pieces of paper on which he scribbled a few numbers, a quotation or a little drawing.
The advantage of this system was that he could collect materials for years, and when it came to writing, all he needed was to grab the relevant box or the envelope.
Sometimes he scribbled ‘very important’ on a particular note or ‘important, to follow up in Cosmos’. At other times he glued pieces of paper with his own thoughts on to a letter, or tore out a page from a relevant book.

The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf

In the context of BASB, did your eyes open as much as mine when you read this quote? If this doesn’t sound as the first ever Zettelkasten research, I don’t know what is.

Alexander von Humboldt’s approach to knowledge was the opposite of what Diderot did with the Encyclopedia. Humboldt was not interested in collecting and classifying data, he was most interested in finding connections between the data. And this is also one of the biggest lessons from BASB: a second brain need not be a perfectly tidy place, but rather a place where dialogue happens between ideas and concepts.

And there you have it, the point of contact between The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf and Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte.

Does Alexander von Humboldt deserve a place in the BASB movement? I certainly think so. May our second brains bear as much fruit as Humboldt’s notes.

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