Reading Time: 3 minutes
Pyrrho (Munich, Glypothek)

The basic principles of an encyclopedia article haven’t changed over time – but the same errors continue to be made. One of the most fundamental principles, which is the same as writing a dictionary entry for a concept, is very simple:

Always define the term using words that are simpler than the term being defined.

In other words, you shouldn’t have to look up any other terms in the course of trying to elucidate the term you are querying. Let’s see an example of how not to do it, from Wikipedia:


A school of philosophical skepticism founded by Pyrrho in the fourth century BCE… Pyrrhonism’s objective is principally psychological, although it is best known for its epistemological arguments, particularly the problem of the criterion and the problem of induction. Through epoché (suspension of judgment) the mind is brought to ataraxia, a state of equanimity. As in Stoicism and Epicureanismeudaimonia is the Pyrrhonist goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in ataraxia or apatheia.[2] According to the Pyrrhonists, it is one’s opinions about non-evident matters that prevent one from attaining eudaimonia.

wikipedia, Pyrrhonism (18 Jan 2020)

This definition comprises 10 hyperlinks. Do you really expect the reader to look up 10 separate articles to understand this one term? Let’s go to Zgusta, Manual of Lexicography (1971) and his four principles of defining:

  1. All words within a definition should be explained.
  2. The definition should not consist of words more difficult to understand than the word defined
  3. The definition should not be circular: the defined word should not be used in the definition
  4. The definition should correspond to the part of speech of the word defined

For an encyclopedia with the scope of Wikipedia, I would add another principle, what I call the “onion-skin principle”

  • If space is available, begin with a short, simple definition and then supplement and qualify it in more detail. But the essential definition should be at the start of the entry.

Let’s see if we can find a better definition of “Pyrrhonism”. Lacey, A Dictionary of Philosophy (1976) has no entry for “Pyrrhonism or for “Pyrrho”. Next, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) (OCP for short):

Pyrrhonism A sceptical tradition whose leading figure was Pyrrho of Elis … [he] argued that the reasons in favour of a belief are never better than those against, and that the only possible response to this is to stop worrying and to live by the appearances.


This is reasonable. Actually, there is a still more concise definition still at the OCP entry for Pyrrho:

Pyrrhonian scepticism, the refusal to commit oneself to any positive belief.

A typical college dictionary entry reads:

Websters New World College Dictionary (2010)


1 the doctrine taught by Pyrrho (c. 360-c. 270 b.c.), a Gr. Skeptic, that all knowledge, including the testimony of the senses, is uncertain

2 extreme skepticism

Both the Oxford Companion and the Websters New World have much better definitions than Wikipedia, although Websters New World falls into the same trap as Wikipedia, the lazy habit of converting every example of certain words into hyperlinks – including, in this case, the letter “b” (why not the letter “c”?).

To summarise: reference works (encyclopedias and dictionaries) are designed to make life easier for the user, not more complicated. There should be a quick win for every attempt to define a term. After all, we are living in the age of the internet – don’t impose more clicks than absolutely necessary!