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This essay introduces the term arbitrary cause as a precise description of the contingent structural relationship of figurative language to social reality. At the present time our critical vocabulary lacks a term that characterizes that relationship. The aim of the present essay is to establish the importance of the notion of arbitrary cause in understanding the process of figurative representation. The essay examines Saussurean linguistics, structuralist and poststructuralist revisions of Saussure, and provides a detailed set of examples demonstrating the instability of the concept of the arbitrary in common usage. The essay concludes with a discussion of literary expression.