Yes, you can use Bear to build a zettelkasten

After seeing it referenced for the hundredth time, I finally read How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, which describes the “zettelkasten” method for nonfiction research and writing. The zettelkasten is certainly in the zeitgeist, so I thought I would try it out.

My initial instinct was to use Bear, the venerable and beautiful Mac and iOS note-taking application, as the tool for implementing a zettelkasten system. I quickly abandoned that idea since there are so many new apps like Roam and Obsidian that seem custom-built for the method.

It’s not clear to me if the explosion in interest in Luhmann’s method led to the surge of new applications that make the method practical digitally, or if it’s the rediscovery by app developers of wiki-style bi-directional linking that has led to interest in Luhmann’s method. Whatever the case, there is a wave of new such tools, and as Jeremy Wagstaff has observed, this looks like a Christensen-style disruption of traditional notes apps. While some incumbents see these new entrants as merely more note-taking apps, what’s actually happening is a shift from “productivity” tools to tools for “personal knowledge management.”

So I tried them all. While both Roam and Obsidian (and some others that I tried) have a powerful new class of features, including not just automatic bi-directional linking, but also transclusion and graph views, at the end of the day I found these apps to be heavy, complex, and fiddly. Also perhaps by virtue of being so new, they felt unrefined if not unfinished. I was destined for on one of my patented searches-for-the-perfect-app.

Then I stumbled across this video from Andy Matuschak, a “tools for thought” expert who’s talked frequently about his own take on Luhmann’s method. A couple months ago he live-streamed one of his morning writing sessions employing a very zettelkasteny system, and lo and behold he was using Bear.

Bear is even the backend for his remarkable “working notes” site, which is an experiment in making public his writing-for-thinking.

This sparked an epiphany. The only thing an app really needs to make it a fit for Luhmann’s method is bi-directional linking. That really is 80 percent of Roam and Obsidian’s value.

Bear has long had wiki-style linking. You can type [[ and it will begin to autocomplete the title of another note in the database that you want to link to; you can even link to a particular header in a note. As of version 1.7 (from September 2019, before Roam’s launch I believe), such links are auto-updating. That means that if I change the title of a note, the title will also change on every page from which it’s linked and preserves the connection to the linked page.

What Bear is missing is automatic bi-directional linking. This means that if I link to Note A from Note B, there is link to Note B added automatically to Note A; if I want that I have to go into Note A and do it manually. It obviously also doesn’t have an “unliked references” feature like Roam.

There are open-source scripts that will scan your notes and add backlinks, but this seems unnecessary to me. After all, Luhmann himself didn’t have automatic backlinking. He had to manually add the cross-references to his analog notecards, and yet the system allowed him to write dozens of books and papers. Indeed, as Christian from has said, automation might actually be an impediment to the cogitation and deep understanding the method seeks to engender. Maybe it’s better to have to deliberately choose, and not worry about the FOMO of missing connections. We still have search, which Luhmann did not.

So, if you’re considering using Bear as the tool for a zettelkasten, don’t be dissuaded. Give it a try. And if you haven’t considered Bear, you should. In my research for apps that would accommodate Luhmann’s method I found only fleeting references to Bear, and yet it’s probably a perfect fit. I hope this helps folks consider a tool that might already be in the in their toolkit.