Erik Larson

Nov 10, 2013

On Scaggling and Jaggling

On the issue of language, I might say to a friend down in California where some of my books are stored, "send me up some non-fiction books", to which my friend will ask "which ones" to which me not knowing specific titles will request a list. I might say something seemingly absurd, like:

"Look, you scaggle up a list, and I'll jaggle out the ones I'm thinking about."

What does this mean? Not to go all Wittgenstein on it, but it seems like a silly language game, and it's hard to see what the shared context is, so it seems like a risky imprecision, or in other words a _bad_ language game. Not only are there no real referents for the actions of "scaggling" and "jaggling", but only a excitable poet or someone seemingly insensitive to a host of issues in the use of language would express things this way. Wrong-o. For, a scaggling is a compact and precise wording for my friend. It tells him to get a list together, but not to worry about it too much (in a philosophically imprecise but practically effective way), and this because on the other side of things, he knows I'm only jaggling. To put things slightly differently, the intended meaning of scaggling is at least partially given by the meaning of jaggling. One is tempted to say, "if I be only jaggling, you dear Sir, be only scaggling." In this sense then we've got a classic Wittgensteinian language game, or to eschew the name dropping, we've got a couple of verbs that are bi-relational in the sense that both intension and extension or appropriately defined, seemingly _ex nihilo_ . This all, from two verbs which as near as I can tell, don't mean anything at all , in the context of producing a list of book titles for purposes of selecting a subset of them. There aren't any necessary and sufficient conditions, and _a fortiori_ , it doesn't serve to explain, but seemingly makes even more mysterious and obscure, that one meaningless verb is related to another in such a way that the pair is somehow mutually explicated.

What are we to make of this? On the charge of imprecision, the rejoinder (as I've just outlined) is that however mysterious the success, nonetheless there it is. And hence from the grossest of imprecision, we get virtual precision—just that which I wished to say, I in fact _have said_ , and no better proof is that I'll get the list, then the titles from the list, then the books, all with no one performing unnecessary work in the intended context.

So language is curious. I'm tempted to add here that, if language is this powerful, and in such a way that seems perverse to formal language analysis, then we should be hopeful that something like the analytic tradition in philosophy can be turned on its head, and made to succeed by not getting rid of a bunch of artificial problems in language, but rather by getting rid of itself, using its own methods (so to speak).

Now I'll turn to another issue, which is the issue of scientific statements. If I start scaggling and jaggling about, say, a chaotic system, I'll get myself into trouble. A chaotic system is just that system which has properties like dense periodic orbits, and something about properties of a topology (here I forget), and sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Every word means exactly what it has to mean in order that a set of mathematical statements can be produced to describe it. A nondeterministic partial differential equation like the Navier-Stokes equation will need to be summoned up out of a bag of differential equation techniques describing dynamic systems, for instance, in order to get somewhere with chaos description. You can point to a turbulent system, sure, but to describe and partial-predict a chaos system you need to get reference right, which means you need "dense" not to mean "stupid" but rather a specific propagation through a phase-space with periodic orbits.

Hence, one is tempted to say in respect to language about physical systems, that there is no corresponding statement to the effect that "If you be a scagglin', then I be a jagglin'." One can't, for instance, simply say "If we be scagglin' a Navier-Stokes equation to a problem in fluid dynamics, then we be a jagglin' some chaos", or rather, one could do this, but unlike in the book scenario no _additional_ theoretical or practical work is performed by my linguistic act. (Potentially, I'm not taken seriously by my colleagues as well. One could imagine getting escorted out of a building, too.)

I'll make one final point here, which is that the notions of "precision" and "non-vagueness" are themselves seemingly imprecise and vague, or at least contextual in the Wittgenstein sense. (I'm tempted to add here, too, that this is _a very big deal_ .) On my first example, with apparently vague locutions ("scaggling", "jaggling") we get exactly the intended result, and this too with a conservation of language (how simple and elegant that two verbs should be bi-definitional, while neither really __ has _a_ definition in the context (which would, alas, simply be more words), and that each is adequately defined by the other by simple assertion). In contrast, from the most specific language we can formulate (namely, that of modern mathematics), the vaguest and most impossibly non-predictive results seem to flow, as in with the description of a chaotic system, where most of the "meaning" of the system is given precisely by its inability to be so rendered comprehensible or predictable or precise. It should be obvious then that there's no necessary connection between precise language and precise _results_ ; or, that the goal of making our language "more precise" by making it more mathematical or specific does not entail much about its referents (if by "entail" we mean that the precision from the expression transfers to the referent somehow, "cleaning it up." This is a simple and very silly notion).

What I'm saying is that, to nature, the chaotic system may simply be scaggling and jaggling along.