Absent referent

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The empty set is an example of the absent referent.[dubious ]

Absent referent (sometimes missing referent, or missing antecedent) is a concept that originated in linguistics, and is the condition of a sign that has an empty, absent, contingent, paradoxical, hypothetical, supernatural, or undefined referent. The idea is used in a number of disciplines.


William Mitchell Ramsay 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."[1]


The sentence as sign[edit]

Generally, a written symbol or spoken word is considered the sign, but a cluster of words can also be considered signs with a referent idea. However, not every combination of words has 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.

American Sign Language[edit]

In American Sign Language, there is a notion of a space present referent and a space absent referent.[2] When the referent of a pronoun is present in the room as the person performing the ASL interpretation (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.

Mathematics and physics[edit]

In Mathematics, the absent referent can be seen by[weasel words] many symbols:

Physicists have named many hypothetical objects, such as certain subatomic particles, which are predicted by mathematical models but have never been observed.



Occurring in some sects of Judaism, and in other religions, there is a practice to substitute the symbol "G-d" for the written name of the Divine. This act both recognizes the sin of blasphemy, and simultaneously tries to circumvent it. While writing the actual name of God is considered sinful by certain sects, writing "G-d" apparently is permissible, because it is not a direct pointer to the Divine. It is a direct pointer to nothing, and is thus example of the Absent Referent.

The God concept[edit]

In logical positivism, atheism, rationalism, empiricism, epistemology, general semantics, metalinguistics and related disciplines, there is a suggestion that communicated symbols should represent observable truths. Any symbols which are not pointers to observable truth represent either arbitrary preferences, or meaningless fictions (which the Logical Positivists called metaphysics).

The word God is thus argued to be a meaningless symbol, since this transcendent concept cannot be directly observed. However see divine revelation.

Implicit vs. Explicit[edit]

Any written symbol for the Absent Referent (e.g., {}, "G-D", 0, "null", etc.) is by nature explicit. However, there is also the implicit Absent Referent, where the symbol for the missing thing is also missing. Examples:

  • "wife" -- A person with self-identity, yet exists relative the "husband" (implicit absent referent)
  • "pet" -- Barely a thing of its own right, a "pet" mostly exists in reference to the Owner/Master, implicitly absent referent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Representing the absent referent in ASL

Further reading[edit]

  • Gaard, Greta. "Vegetarian ecofeminism." Frontiers. Boulder: 2002.Vol.23, Issue 3, p. 117.
  • Heinz, Bettina & Lee, Ronald. "Getting down to the meat: The symbolic construction of meat consumption." Communication Studies. West Lafayette: Spring 1998, Vol.49, Issue 1, p. 86.
  • Mitchell, Gordon R. "Public Argument Action Research And The Learning Curve Of New Social Movements." Argumentation and Advocacy. River Falls: Spring 2004, Vol.40, Issue 4, p. 209.
  • 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, Issue 2, p. 12.