by Will Schreiber


Tyler and I were sitting in a diner in Nashville. He took a sip of his coffee and said, “language is consciousness. If we don’t have the words to describe something, we can’t experience it.” Being good semi-erudites, we commented how French people use big and impressive words and how they’re more romantic than us Americans.

But the mental model persists. There is something important about defining concepts.

Naming and categorizing different variants of cancer has been our biggest breakthrough in cancer research. Siddhartha Mukherjee, in Emperor Of All Maladies, discusses how once we could map and define the various cancers and pathways leading to unconstrained growth, then we could battle them in a more subtle way than intravenously pumping yellow mustard gas into cancer victims.

Similarly, in Progress And Poverty, Henry George spends the first 1/3 of the book simply defining the words Capital, Labor, Wages, Land, Rent, Interest, Wealth, and Profit. These seem like basic terms. But the definitions themselves are astoundingly important. They have cascading effects down to what theories of wealth and wages people have. George is able to disprove the Malthusian theory - widely accepted without much criticism at the time - simply by making the definitions of Labor and Capital more clear.

Without defined words, discussions can’t happen. We rely on the framework of language to open up new ways of viewing the world.

Vocabulary is table stakes. You can’t experience something unless you can describe it.