Absent referent

Absent referent

Absent Referent (sometimes Missing Referent, or Missing Antecedent) is a concept from linguistics, and is the condition of a sign which has an empty, absent, non-existent, paradoxical, hypothetical, supernatural, or undefined referent.

There are many examples of this from such diverse realms as mathematics and physics to philosophy and religion.

Semantics / Linguistics


Many simple words (linguistic signs) in everyday usage refer to no actual object, and thus are examples of the absent referent:

* Nothing
* Null
* Vacuum
* Void

While seemingly trivial, the notion of "nothingness" has been studied by philosophers for many years. [See Wikipedia entry for Nothing, under the heading "Philosophy" ]

Lexical Pronouns

English and other languages use pronouns as an indirect referent or antecedent to a person, place, or object. However, sometimes this referent is missing or absent, [Henderson, Eric, "Writing by Choice", Oxford University Press, 2006; Section 8.3.1. (within 8.3 Pronoun reference) No Reference (missing antecedent)] such as in the following:

* "There" "is no merit to greed." In this example, the demonstrative pronoun "there" refers to no place in particular.

:See also: "null subject language, pro-drop language, anaphora (linguistics)"

American Sign Language

In American Sign Language, there is a notion of a space present referent and a space absent referent. [ [http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/indexing.htm Representing the absent referent in ASL] ] When the referent of a pronoun is present in the room as the person performing the ASL intrepretation (such as "I" or "she"), it is acceptable practice to gesture to the person or object. However, in the space absent case, a gesture is made into empty space.

The Sentence as Sign

Generally, a written symbol or spoken word is considered the sign, however, a cluster of words can also be considered signs with a referent idea. However, not every combination of words have meaning or a referent idea. Some combinations of words are nonsensical and constitute what some call "word salad". Linguist Noam Chomsky is famous for his phrase, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", which is used to demonstrate the idea between syntax and meaning.


The general case of the fictional character can be considered an example of the absent referent which can convey important cultural information. Gottlob Frege wrote about the non-equivalence between meaning and reference. Words can often be meaningful without having a referent. Consider all the works about fictional characters from literature and mythology which conveys important cultural or historical information (e.g., Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, Ishmael), as examples of this. An analysis of 18th century writing said "In Locke, the mind is a storehouse of absent referents." [Greenfield, Susan C. "The Absent Minded Heroine: Or, Elizabeth Bennett Has A Thought. Eighteenth - Century Studies. Baltimore: Spring 2006.Vol.39, Iss. 3; pg. 337] The term has been used in analyzing the work of William Faulkner, [Faulkner's return to the Freudian Father: Sanctuary reconsidered." Doreen Fowler. Modern Fiction Studies. West Lafayette: Summer 2004.Vol.50, Iss. 2; pg. 411.] Walt Whitman, [Wilhite, Keith. "His mind was full of absences: Whitman at the scene of writing." ELH. Baltimore: Winter 2004.Vol.71, Iss. 4; pg. 921] and Ernest Hemingway [Stoltzfus, Ben "A Post-Lacanian Reading of Hemingway's 'The Garden of Eden'." The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 1987.Vol.5, Iss. 3/4; pg. 381] as well as thefilms of Jean-Luc Godard [Maerz, Jessica M. "Godard's King Lear: Referents Provided Upon Request." Literature/Film Quarterly. Salisbury: 2004.Vol.32, Iss. 2; pg. 108] and Alfred Hitchcock. [Spinks, Randall. "Hanging with Hitchcock." Literature/Film Quarterly. Salisbury: 2004.Vol.32, Iss. 3; pg. 237]


While many people do not question the existence of the Divine, arguably no person has seen God directly. The agnostic position is that a supernatural God is, by definition, beyond the natural world and our ability to perceive with our senses. Thus, the signifer "God" can be considered to have a referent which cannot be directly experienced.

It is common for Judaism and some other religions substitute the symbol "G-d" for the written name of the Divine. While defacing, destroying, discarding, or writing the name of God is sinful, presumably doing the same to a "symbol which represents the name of God" is permissible. Thus, G-d can be considered an example of the absent referent with double indirection.


In Mathematics, the absent referent can be seen by many symbols:

* A numeral or symbol for no quantity, such as "zero", "0", or "nil",
* From set theory, the empty set, or "{}", which refers to a set with no members.
* Any symbol which is undefined, such as the number represented by "n/0" (any number divided by zero).
* Any of a number of paradoxical objects, such as the "list of all lists" from Russell's Paradox.


Practitioners of modern physics have named many hypothetical objects (such as certain subatomic particles, which are predicted by mathematical models, but which have never been observed.


In a variety of political contexts, the "absent referent" is a phrase used to call attention to some group or constituency that the author feels is being unjustly ignored. This usage of the phrase appears to arise out of Frankfurt School or deconstructionist jargon, and is usually associated with the political Left. For example, in a paper entitled "The Sexual Politics of Sneakers: "Common Ground" and Absent-Referent Stories in the Nike Debate" [ [http://oae.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/14/3/356 David M. Boje, "Organization & Environment", Vol. 14, No. 3] , 356-363 (2001) DOI: 10.1177/1086026601143007] "the author concludes that there is an absent referent spoken about but missing from the debate" between Nike and its critics: "namely, the workers themselves." The underlying idea here would appear to be that representatives of the workers should have input in discussions between the Nike corporation and Western critics of its labor practices. The condition of being "spoken about but being missing from the debate" appears to be the gist of this use of the words "absent referent". The image is that of two people talking about a third person who is standing by without being consulted.

The absent referent was written about by vegan feminist Carol Adams [ [http://www.triroc.com/caroladams/absent.html Carol explains the Absent Referent] ] to explain a psycho-social detachment which occurs in people who eat meat between the consumer and the Other. There is an implicit presumption that if people had a connection to the animal which was the source of the food, or the violence involved in the slaughter, much less meat eating would occur.

Carol Adams writes of the history of the idea:

:"Later, as I began to work on my first book I was struggling to find a way to explain why people eat animals and why it is so difficult to discuss the issue. I realized that it was because of what I call the structure of the absent referent: Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The "absent referent" is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our "meat" separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone."

Tracey Smith's use of the term "absent referent" has been widely cited and discussed in scholarly journals. [Smith-Harris, Tracey. "There's Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat and There's No Sense Flogging a Dead Horse." ReVision. Washington: Fall 2004.Vol.27, Iss. 2; pg. 12] [ Mitchell, Gordon R. "Public Argument Action Resrarch And The Learning Curve Of New Social Movements." Argumentation and Advocacy. River Falls: Spring 2004.Vol.40, Iss. 4; pg. 209] [Gaard, Greta. "Vegetarian ecofeminism." Frontiers. Boulder: 2002.Vol.23, Iss. 3; pg. 117] ["The sexual politics of meat; a feminist-vegetarian critical theory, 10th anniversary ed." book review. Reference and Research Book News. Portland: February 2001.Vol.16, Iss. 1; pg. n/a] [Evers, Deborah J., Ph.D., "Vegetarianism and identity: The politics of eating" dissertation, University of Arkansas, 2001, 173 pages; AAT 3025519] [Heinz, Bettina & Lee, Ronald. "Getting down to the meat: The symbolic construction of meat consumption." Communication Studies. West Lafayette: Spring 1998.Vol.49, Iss. 1; pg. 86]


William M Ramsey said of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,"Because each of the 58,022 names points to an absent referent the wall's script remains a half-formed discourse, or signifiers in search of a concept to signify." [Ramsey, William M. "Knowing Their Place: Three Black Writers and the Postmodern South." Southern Literary Journal. Chapel Hill: Spring 2005.Vol.37, Iss. 2; pg. 119]

See also

* Ferdinand de Saussure, who developed the theory of the lingustic sign.


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