MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This is a question about self-reference: Has anyone established an abstract framework, maybe a certain kind of formal language with some extra structure, which makes it possible to define what is a self-referential statement?

share|cite|improve this question
If there is, it would be interesting to use it to decide if your question is self referential. :-) – Dick Palais Sep 22 '10 at 15:40
If it turns out that not, I would have to rephrase my question :-) – Peter Arndt Sep 22 '10 at 16:06
Are you familiar with Vicious Circles by Barwise and Moss? – Noam Zeilberger Sep 22 '10 at 16:24
The "Recursion Theorem" of classical Recursion Theory, covered e.g. in Hartley Roger's "The Theory of Recusive Functions and Effective Computability" gives the beginnings of such an abstract framework. Also check out Smullyan's book "Diagonalization and Self-Reference", which tries to abstract as much as possible from Godel numbering. – SJR Sep 22 '10 at 16:46
Now Smullyan together with Lawvere's diagonalisation argument, as exposed at, leaves me quite satisfied... – Peter Arndt Sep 23 '10 at 14:41
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I am not quite sure if it fits the bill but you can also check out:

N. Yanofsky - A Universal Approach to Self-Referential Paradoxes, Incompleteness and Fixed Points

share|cite|improve this answer
Ah, another exposition of Lawvere's argument - it certainly fits the bill, see my last comment to the question. Thanks! – Peter Arndt Sep 23 '10 at 23:40

Perhaps the right question to ask is if the statement is expressible in any system whose proof-theoretic ordinal is smaller than the Feferman–Schütte ordinal.

share|cite|improve this answer
Hm, could you clarify that? So, to make sense of proof-theoretic ordinals I need a language in which I can talk about some fragment of arithmetic. So maybe your proposal is to say a statement in a formal language is selfreferential if under some/any translation (to be defined, maybe via a Gödelization?) into the language of arithmetic it becomes self-referential (this depends on a Gödelization of the language of Arithmetic)? – Peter Arndt Sep 22 '10 at 16:11
I don't quite like the dependence on a Gödelization, but maybe there is no other way. Maybe there is always a choice of Gödelization that renders a given statement self-referential... – Peter Arndt Sep 22 '10 at 16:11
I think that before I can make a more rigorous proposal about what a self-referential statement is, we first need to set boundaries on what qualifies as a statement. If we need to take into account such sentences as "colorless green ideas sleep furiously", then I wouldn't know where to begin. – dfranke Sep 22 '10 at 16:18

Raymond Smullyan, "Diagonalization and Self-Reference", 1994

share|cite|improve this answer
Thanks, I already got it, following the advice of SJR in the comments. It is indeed excellent! – Peter Arndt Sep 23 '10 at 14:19
@Peter: Sorry, I didn't see his comment. – Kaveh Sep 23 '10 at 15:10
No "sorry": It deserves an answer of its own:) – Peter Arndt Sep 25 '10 at 20:06

For pleasure only I can at least give you the shortest definition of self reference.

You need only to look in a good dictionary ( from Borges world of course) it says:

Self-reference : see self-reference.

share|cite|improve this answer
+1 :) – Peter Arndt Sep 25 '10 at 20:08

I have heard that Kapranov once said that he really wants to understand what is self-reference (i.e. is/was working on the question).

share|cite|improve this answer

I found another one:

John Bell, “Incompleteness in a General Setting”. Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 13, 2007. It's paper number 66 here

share|cite|improve this answer

Have you checked Craig Smorynski's work such as "Modal Logic and Self-Reference" (Google Books)?

share|cite|improve this answer

You might also be interested in Graham Priest's article "The Structure of the Paradoxes of Self-Reference", Mind 103 (1994) pp. 25-34. (Journal page ; JStor) and similar work by Priest. He has a general framework that he argues captures the various self-referential paradoxes. I believe he also discusses this in some of his other work and monographs.

share|cite|improve this answer

There's a bunch of writing on this topic by the philosopher of mathematics Charles Chihara, includng a book called "Ontology and the Vicious Circle Principle". I haven't read that one but he also discusses the topic in his later book "Constructability and Mathematical Existence". You can probably find reviews of these books online that would help you decide if they are relevant to your interests.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.