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The Ouroboros, a dragon that bites its tail, is a symbol for self-reference.

Self-reference is a phenomenon in natural or formal languages consisting of a sentence or formula referring to itself directly, through some intermediate sentence or formula, or by means of some encoding.[1] In philosophy, it also refers to the ability of a subject to speak of or refer to themself: to have the kind of thought expressed in English by "I".

Self-reference is possible when there are two logical levels, a level and a meta-level. It is most commonly used in mathematics, philosophy, computer programming, and linguistics. Self-referential statements can lead to paradoxes (but see antinomy for limits on the significance of these).


An example of a self-reference situation is the one of autopoiesis, as the logical organization produces itself the physical structure which create itself.

In metaphysics, self-reference is subjectivity, while "hetero-reference", as it is called (see Niklas Luhmann), is objectivity.

Self-reference also occurs in literature when an author refers to his work in the context of the work itself. Famous examples include Cervantes's Quixote, 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, and Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. This is closely related to the concept of breaking the fourth wall or meta-reference (which often involve self-reference).

The surrealistic painter René Magritte is famous for his self-referential works.

"The Treachery Of Images" (1928-9) by René Magritte depicts a pipe along with text meaning, "This is not a pipe."

"The Treachery of Images," shown at right, includes words claiming, in French, it is not a pipe, the truth of which depend entirely on what the word "ceci" (in English, "this") is taken to refer to. Is it the pipe depicted—or is it the painting or even the sentence itself?

Self-reference is also employed in tautology and in licensed terminology. When a word defines itself (e.g., "Machine: any objects put together mechanically"), the result is a tautology. Such self-references can be quite complex, include full propositions rather than simple words, and produce arguments and terms that require license (accepting them as proof of themselves).

Self-reference in computer science is seen in the concept of recursion, where a program unit relies on instances of itself to perform a computation. The Lisp programming language is especially designed to exploit recursion. Object oriented languages use special keywords to refer to the current instance of an object: this in C++, Java, and PHP; self in Smalltalk and Objective C; and Me in Visual Basic.


Many of the following examples appear in Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid or Metamagical Themas.



The Fumblerules

Fumblerules state rules of good grammar and writing through sentences that violate those very rules. George L. Trigg and William Safire have made their own lists, but anyone knowledgable on grammar can do the same. See List of Fumblerules for a comprehensive (yet non-exhaustive) list.




  • Hofstadter, D. R. (1980). Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. New York, Vintage Books.
  • Raymond Smullyan (1994), Diagonalization and Self-Reference, Oxford Science Publications, ISBN 0-19-853450-7
  • wikidoc contributors (2023). "Self-reference". wikidoc. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved 2023-09-22.

See also

External links

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