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Title: Self-reference  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Strange loop, Indirect self-reference, Epimenides paradox, Gödel, Escher, Bach, Complex systems
Collection: Grammar, Logic, Philosophy of Language, Self-Reference, Theory of Computation
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Self-reference occurs in natural or formal languages when a sentence, idea or formula refers to itself. The reference may be expressed either directly—through some intermediate sentence or formula—or by means of some encoding. In philosophy, it also refers to the ability of a subject to speak of or refer to himself, herself, or itself: to have the kind of thought expressed by the first person nominative singular pronoun, the word "I" in English.

Self-reference is studied and has applications in mathematics, philosophy, computer programming, and linguistics. Self-referential statements are sometimes paradoxical.


  • Usage 1
  • Examples 2
    • In language 2.1
    • In mathematics 2.2
    • In literature, film, and popular culture 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4


The Ouroboros, a dragon that continually consumes itself, is used as a symbol for self-reference.

An example of a self-referential situation is the one of self-creation, as the logical organization produces itself the physical structure which creates itself.

Self-reference also occurs in literature and film when authors refer to their own work in the context of the work itself. Famous examples include Cervantes's Don Quixote, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Denis Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, many stories by Nikolai Gogol, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Federico Fellini's . This is closely related to the concepts of breaking the fourth wall and meta-reference, which often involve self-reference.

The surrealist painter René Magritte is famous for his self-referential works. His painting The Treachery of Images, includes the words this is not a pipe, the truth of which depends entirely on whether the word "ceci" (in English, "this") refers to the pipe depicted—or to the painting or the word or sentence itself.

In computer science, self-reference occurs in reflection, where a program can read or modify its own instructions like any other data. Numerous programming languages support reflection to some extent with varying degrees of expressiveness. Additionally, self-reference is seen in recursion (related to the mathematical recurrence relation), where a code structure refers back to itself during computation.


In language

A word that describes itself is called an autological word (or autonym). This generally applies to adjectives, for example sesquipedalian (i.e. "sesquipedalian" is a sesquipedalian word), but can also apply to other parts of speech, such as TLA, as a three-letter abbreviation for "three-letter abbreviation", and PHP which is a recursive acronym for "PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor".

A sentence which inventories its own letters and punctuation marks is called an autogram.

A reflexive sentence has the same subject and object (e.g., "The man washed himself"). In contrast, a transitive sentence requires the subject and object to be non-identical (e.g., "The man hit John").

There is a special case of meta-sentence in which the content of the sentence in the metalanguage and the content of the sentence in the object language are the same. Such a sentence is referring to itself. However some meta-sentences of this type can lead to paradoxes. "This is a sentence." can be considered to be a self-referential meta-sentence which is obviously true. However "This sentence is false" is a meta-sentence which leads to a self-referential paradox.

Hofstadter's law, which specifies that "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law"[1] is an example of a self-referencing adage.

Fumblerules are a list of rules of good grammar and writing, demonstrated through sentences that violate those very rules, such as "Avoid cliches like the plague" and "Don't use no double negatives". The term was coined in a published list of such rules by William Safire.

In mathematics

In literature, film, and popular culture


See also


  1. ^ Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 20th anniversary ed., 1999, p. 152. ISBN 0-465-02656-7
  2. ^ "Recursive Science Fiction" New England Science Fiction Association website, last updated 3 August 2008
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