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"It is ironic that Cervantes's Don Quixote is described as the first novel (an extended work of prose fiction, written in "vulgar Latin", i.e. the people's language), the first modern novel (and the first psychological novel) due to its focus on the psychological evolution of a single character (an antihero) as well as the first postmodern novel (due of its use of self-reflexivity in the second volume)." --Sholem Stein

 This page Self-reference is part of the meta series. Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.
This page Self-reference is part of the meta series.
Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 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.



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 Don Quixote, Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, 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" 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).


In language

A word that describes itself is called an autological word (or autonym). This generally applies to adjectives, for example sesquipedalian, 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 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.

Self-referential sentences include "This sentence contains thirty-eight letters.", and Quine's paradox of "Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation" which yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

Fumblerules are a humorous 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

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

In cognition

Neuroscience research suggests the existence of neuroplasticity, a phenomenon in which thinking processes unconsciously change the neural circuitry and structure of the brain via sensory experience, input from the environment or reactions hitherto.

In popular culture

  • In Mel Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles the villain is killed outside a movie theater premiering Blazing Saddles. Similarly, Brooks' 1987 film Spaceballs uses the video release of the movie that the audience is watching to see what will happen in the future.
  • Some Monty Python sketches involves characters consulting or referring to the script to determine what to do next. Their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is extensively self-referencing, including numerous on-screen references to incidents in "Scene 24"; soundtrack music being repeatedly noticed and silenced by a character; a sotto voce admission that a castle is "only a model", and the like.
  • The 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction is about a character's knowledge that he is apparently living out a story written by an author, complete with narration which is audible to him. He eventually confronts the author, identifying himself as a character from one of her books.
  • Several classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes animated cartoons show characters going into a movie theatre, where they watch a version of the cartoon they're in.
  • In DC Comics' Legion of the 3 Worlds, The main antagonist, Superboy Prime, is the Clark Kent from a destroyed iteration of the real universe, supremely displeased from how his favourite comic books turned out while journeying in their multiverse (depicted as coexisting with the real one). Eventually, Clark returns to our dimension, where is confronted by his distraught parents and girlfriend, having read the chronicles of his villainous action from the comic books published after his "departure".
  • In the Tintin adventure "Cigars of the Pharaoh", Tintin finds himself the relenting guest of a sheikh who recognizes him and shows him another album of his adventures. In earlier editions, the album was Tintin in America, then Tintin in the Congo in the color version. But later (current) editions go even further by showing the album cover of an adventure yet to come (Destination Moon) at the time of the story, but which is by now known by modern readers of earlier adventures.
  • In Ain and David Gordon's Obie Award-winning play The Family Business, a character who is a playwright is asked what he is writing. "This," he replies, "I'm writing this."
  • The folk song "Goober Peas", which dates from around the time of the American Civil War contains the lyrics: I think my song has lasted almost long enough. / The subject is most interesting, but rhymes are mighty tough.
  • In Arlo Guthrie's 1967 recording of his song/monologue "Alice's Restaurant", he says at one point to the live audience he's performing for: "I've been singing this song for 45 minutes now, I can sing it for another 45; I'm not tired ... or proud."
  • Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain", which contains the lyrics, "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."
  • Da Vinci's Notebook's song "Title of the Song" is composed entirely of self-references.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Self-reference" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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