Encyclopedia’ is now taken to indicate a widely encompassing instructional text. It seems this sense diverged from an older sense of an encircled education formed by a pedagogical system enclosed within the confines the liberal arts:

encyclopedia (n.)

1530s, “general course of instruction,” from Modern Latin encyclopaedia (c. 1500), thought to be a false reading by Latin authors of Greek enkyklios paideia taken as “general education,” but literally “training in a circle,” i.e. the “circle” of arts and sciences, the essentials of a liberal education; from enkyklios “circular,” also “general” (from en “in;” see in + kyklos “circle;” from PIE root *kwel- (1) “revolve, move round”) + paideia “education, child-rearing,” from pais (genitive paidos) “child” (see pedo-).

Modern sense of “reference work arranged alphabetically” is from 1640s, often applied specifically to the French “Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers” (1751-65). Related: Encyclopedist. (

Current usage is divorced from this classical connotation. The classical sense suggests the self-sufficiency of a closed circle. Throughout modernity, the circle of instruction was spun out into ever more intricate arabesques. The trajectory of the conception of how knowledge is collected and transmitted trends through decentralized subjectivization, and on to fragmentation into essentially structural, formal patterns, iterating through self-propagating, fractal self-reflections and encodings (memes, data sets, parameterized procedures, mechanized programs, neural networks, etc.).

What contemporary reader doesn’t think wikipedia when they hear “encyclopedia”? What is this wiki that replaced the circularity of the encyklios?

The wiki name has been borrowed from [the Hawaiin term “wikiwiki”, which means fast, swift, or quick. The father of wiki, Ward Cunningham, defined wiki as “a freely-expandable collection of interlinked Web pages, a hypertext system for storing and modifying information–a database, where each page is easily editable by any user.”


Lukács traced an analogous trajectory for the transformation of narrative as it moved from the classical epoch into the modern, and then post-modern novel:

The epic gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life. … The novel comprises the essence of its totality betwen the beginning and the end, and thereby raises an individual to the infinite heights of one who must create an entire world through his experience and who must maintain that world in equilibrium … But just because the novel can only comprise the individual in this way, he becomes a mere instrument, and his central position in the work means only that he is particularly well suited to reveal a certain problematic of life.


Analogously, the onto-theo-epistemo-logical outlook that enabled the accelerationsit logic of the wiki radically prioritized individual action and contribution. The coincident tech accelerates and superpowers with means for ever quicker inscription, dissemination, retrieval, alteration, and duplication. The objective result of these modes of technical and intersubjective operation is an explosion of documentation, collection, and connection. The task of maintaining and managing such a sprawling, ever inflating network of information and instruction becomes paramount, and the preeminent task of the knowledgeworker is now to face the problematic of big data: how can we cope with an exponentially accelerating production in the quantity of the given in a way that advances our vain striving to have this accumulated data amount to a qualitative transformation in our connection with that which intrinsically eludes extraction and acquisition.

The circle within which the Greeks led their metaphysical life was smaller than ours; that is why we cannot, as part of our life, place ourselves inside it. Or rather, the circle whose closed nature was the transcendental essence of their life has, for us, been broken; we cannot breathe in a closed world. We have invented the productivity of the spirit: that is why the primaeval images have irrevocably lost their objective self-evidence for us, and our thinking follows endless path of an approximation that is never fully accomplished.