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On Derrida: Voice and Phenomenon

This is a revised version of my essay that I wrote on Jacques Derrida’s key text, Voice and Phenomenon (1967). It is the same essay that I used as sample writing for my 2019 graduate school applications. In general, this essay received many positive feedback from professors in English and Philosophy departments, particularly in regards to its complexity, rigor, and clarity. One professor even told me that most graduate students don’t know Derrida the way I do (I am sure this is not true, but I was flattered).

Since I always enjoyed doing research on the human condition as a “hobby”, I might as well try and get a degree for it. But my attempts at getting into grad school was not easy. This is because I am applying for a graduate academic degree with my non-academic bachelors of design. Most graduate programs are very competitive, where I am competing with everyone who has an academic background and a GPA that is most likely higher than mine (though grades aren’t everything). I had to make up for this with my sample writing, letter of intent, and reference letters. Thus, the purpose of this essay was not only to demonstrate my writing abilities, but my Derridean savviness which were all self-taught (I have been studying Derrida for the past 4-5 years). Against these odds, I am happy to tell you that I got accepted to do my masters degree. I was also offered funding  (which will fully fund my masters) in the condition that I write my thesis / research paper on Derrida and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which I anticipate will be very difficult.

Mistakes and Clarifications

This essay was written in Chicago style where the endnotes are actually footnotes in the real version. There are a few mistakes in this essay that needs correction. For example, I did not address how Derrida translates the German word “Bedeuten” into “Bedeutung” (thanks to the prof who pointed this out). Derrida translates bedeuten into the French idiom “vouloir-dire” which translates into English as “want to say” or “to mean”. Derrida does not translate bedeutung in his works because (I think) he is trying to show how bedeutung is actually a bedeuten—a “want to say”, where the problem of intentionality via the transcendental arises. I also did not address why indication “points”. Derrida refers to this pointing as “the point of the finger”, which is entangled as an expression.

My use of the word “soul” is not as superstitious as most readers think. The term is complex with a history that crosses over to Heidegger and other philosophers like Aristotle (i.e. soul in relation to the body in metaphysics). I also did not explain protention and retention that well. When I speak of the word “now” (i.e. the “newness of now”), I am referring to protention. There are also several wordy sentences that needs to be rewritten.

Unfortunately, I currently don’t have time fix any of these errors and will leave them intact until I work out a better version. Regardless, you will get a taste of a more sophisticated, difficult, and a less diluted form of my introductory post on Derrida. This essay focuses on a Kantian reading of Derrida which excludes Heidegger, who is central to Derridean thought (I was limited to 10 pages). I also gave my essay a lame title due to it being a sample writing.



A Close Reading on Jacques Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon

In 20th century, French philosopher Jacques Derrida came to a radical conclusion that our experience of temporality divides self-reflection.[1] Derrida achieves this by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology where Husserl attempts to reach the “purity of expression”. In this essay, I will address Derrida’s thoughts on how intentionality and temporality contaminate the purity of expression through Husserl’s concepts of indicative and expressive sign. To do this, I will first introduce the entanglement between indicative and expressive signs that one encounters through external communicative acts such as writing. From this, I will elaborate on how the conveying (speaker / writer) and receiving subject (auditor / reader) animates these signs through the intentionality of their internal “solitary life of the soul”[2] which creates the issues of interpretation. Finally, I will follow Derrida on Husserl’s thoughts to isolate indication from expression only to discover that pure expression is contaminated by the consciousness of time. As we will see in the conclusion of this essay, the notion of pure expression via speech and writing will be rendered problematic before the subject expresses externally through communicative acts. This will lead us to one of the major themes of post-structural thought on “the crisis of meaning” which is found prevalent in all forms of arts and literature. To see how we arrive at such case, let us begin by extrapolating Derrida’s thoughts on Husserl’s problem of the sign.

The problem with the word “sign” is that it contains a duality of sense which can at once be indicative and expressive.[3] An indicative sign points to something, it does not have a “Bedeutung” (we will translate this word momentarily).[4] Since all words points to something, the best example of indicative sign is writing. Consequently, the written German word Bedeutung must point us to something other than its ideal sense.[5] If we were to translate the indicative sign of Bedeutung which means “want-to-say”, the word will now point to such meaning which appears as the expressive sign.[6] Simply put, the expressive sign is entangled with the indicative sign of Bedeutung, where it points to the expression of “want-to-say”. An indicative sign does not say anything, where it simply points, and an expressive sign, mixed with an indicative sign, “wants-to-say” by pointing to the unity of sense.[7] Here, we encounter two fundamental issues. First, indicative and expressive signs are impossible to distinguish because they are entangled between the conveying and receiving subject through writing.[8] This implies that indicative signs are external signs that exists in the world because it functions like a medium that transmits the possibility of expressive meaning from the conveyor to the receiving subject. Second, while an expression is entangled with indication, the opposite is not always true.[9] If one writes “iekariukedjutu”[10], the term would still be an indication since it points to something, but without any specific expression. This is experienced in our initial encounter of Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning.

If the indicative sign is external, then it must be outside of our internal “solitary life of the soul”. Writing is dead and inanimate without a living soul who gives it life by animating its indicative character into an expression.[11] When the conveying subject expresses indicatively, such sign must first be animated by their solitary life of the soul with an intention to express. This intended sign passes externally as indication (i.e. writing) which is reanimated as an expression by the receiving subject. Similarly, our body which is indicative and external to our soul, is inanimate without she who intentionally animates it from her internal soul (otherwise, our body would be dead). One expresses the self through the intention of animating the indicative sign, giving life to their body and words by turning it into external physical acts such as gestures, speech, or writing. For now, let us say that expressive signs are only possible by animating indicative signs through a certain “outside” in external discourse of the empirical world.[12] The conveying subject expresses their phenomenological experience within their soul because they desire to express (i.e. the expression of their concept of life, philosophy, beliefs, etc.). Thus, all communication consists of two poles: (1) the conveying subject whose intention animates her body into an expressive act via gestures, speech or writing, which externally indicates to (2) the receiving subject who interprets and reanimates the conveyer’s indication with their own expressive intentions and soul. From the perspective of the conveying subject, expressions must pass from their internal solitary life of the soul outwardly into an intended external bodily expressive act. From the perspective of the receiving subject, not all indicative signs that the conveying subject expresses indicatively are expressive. It is when the receiving subject who intentionally animates such indications where we recognize the contamination of the sign through intentionality.[13]

Let us return to our initial experience of the term Bedeutung, and the possibility of its contamination. For the receiving subject, the indicative experience of Bedeutung lies in how they don’t know its expressive meaning (they don’t know where it points). The receiving subject will intentionally animate Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning because they are motivated by their internal thoughts (inner monologue).[14] By reading the word Bedeutung, the receiving subject turns the term into an ideal sense of expressionwhere sense wants to signify itself even if the reader does not know its expression or is not aware of the word’s historical intentions.[15] The receiving subject’s intention will contaminate their own experience when they reanimate the indicative sign with an expressive meaning that ignores or greatly deviates from the conveying subject’s intention. Here, we are introduced with the issue of inter-subjectivity where the receiving subject is never the speaker and we can only experience the world from our own experience. Furthermore, pure expression is no longer possible when the conveying subject attempts to express their solitary life of the soul externally as indication such as Bedeutung. The animated sign that is expressed outwardly becomes corruptible through the possibilities of being misinterpreted in external communicative discourse. The impurity of expression stems from the lack of intended self-presence of the living soul which cannot be carried into indicated / expressed signs through the outside world because words are inherently dead. The receiving subject can never experience the conveying subject’s pure expression and intentions through external indications.[16]

Let us shift towards internal discourse of communication to find the purity of expression. Husserl will devote much of his effort to untangle indication from the expressive sign to reach the “purity of expression”. He saw that, since indications are external, pure expression can only occur without it leaving our internal solitary life of the soul—namely, without it leaving our inner silent monologue.[17] This leads to a question which carries out the rest of Derrida’s deconstruction on Husserl: if for the conveying subject, expression is only possible from animating the indicative sign as external acts, does she learn anything about herself when she silently expresses through inner monologue which never passes through the outside?[18] In order to address this issue, Husserl will consequently add the terms “expressive referral” (Hinzeigen) and “indicative referral” (Anzeigen).[19] Following closely to Husserl’s thoughts of finding the purity of expression, Derrida attempts to separate the indicative and expressive sign by isolating the spatial (external; empirical; indicative) from the temporal (internal; time-consciousness; inner-monologue). For Derrida, this was pursued only to discover that neither oppositions can be distinguished from each other.[20] Within inner monologue of the conveying subject, expressive communicative acts functions as a representation of sense. The conveying subject is the receiving subject who “hears-oneself-speak”.[21] These communicative acts that are expressed internally by the conveying subject are represented (imagined) in their minds as immediate psychical acts. Certainly, one can say that inner monologue is where we discover pure expressivity, not only because it is closest to the proximity of the soul where the speaker immediately hears-oneself-speak without distance, but because monologue constitutes subjectivity of self and consciousness as such.[22] However, for Derrida, such monologue is contaminated by time which is distinguished through the blink of an eye.[23] If pure expression via inner monologue is represented in our minds through the movement of time, then they must have nothing to do with primal impressions (perception and senses) which constitutes the present moment.[24] In Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, the present moment of now that is established through primal impression is only possible through the retention of this moment which had just past (the words you just read through time).[25] Retention is not constituted by our primal impression because it is an imaginary perception. Without retention that establishes a difference with the present moment, the punctuality and newness of “now” would not be possible.[26] Thus, inner monologue—the pure expressive self and consciousness—is contaminated by our experience of time. As a result, this turns inner monologue into non-perception (without primal impression of sense) because it has always been represented and imagined.[27] For Husserl, the subject will imagine as if they were silently speaking to themselves, even when they have no need to do so since their perception of psychical acts and lived experiences are immediately present.[28] Yet, by privileging such perceptions as presence, one not only forgets the effects of time, but how these perceptions and monologue are imagined representations of the present which has now past. As such, Derrida refers to language as always being “worked over by fiction”.[29] The intended self-presence within hearing-oneself-speak stems from a represented perception which makes the establishment of presence and meaning late.[30] This slight delay implies how the presence of this present moment is only possible through an imaginative supplement of sense which is what the present originally lacks. In order to privilege presence, one negates its inherent absence.

In the final analysis, three main ideas are presented in this essay. First, self-expression is no longer pure the moment we express outwardly—even before represented expression arises from the solitary life of the soul. To say that there is a purity of expression is to recognize how it is contaminated by the movement of time and the becoming-Other within internal discourse. This suggests that pure self consciousness is pre-constructed through something that is more originary and pre-phenomenological: a trace which constitutes the difference between “now” and its alterity of retention.[31] By constituting consciousness through inner monologue, the temporal division of self-reflection becomes an unavoidable and originary contamination.[32] Second, this not only shows how time contaminates the internal discourse of both conveying and receiving subject, it also reveals the main difference between Husserl and Derrida. Husserl wishes to maintain the difference between indication and expression in order to show how pure expression is possible through indicative signs that occurs within silent monologue. Derrida rejects Husserl’s compartmentalization of the two signs since the expressive sign cannot be distinguished from indication. This is recognized through Derrida’s use of “Bedeutung” as an example of indication / expression to show how the receiving subject (i.e. you, the reader) is engaged with their own animating intentions instead of the conveying subject’s. For Derrida, indicative signs are always already an expression that is influenced by time as the receiving subject engages with it. Third, the privilege of an imaginary perception as presence is where Derrida locates the notion of the supplement. This “dangerous supplement” occurs when the receiving subject substitutes their expressive intention as the conveyor’s. From the receiving subject’s point of view, the conveyor’s indicative signs are supplemented (imagined) as expressive signs, even when these indications are part of the conveyor’s animating expression that cannot be past onto the receiver through writing.[33] In another words, the conveying subject’s intention is supplemented as if it were present, even when this imaginary intention only consists of the receiver’s inner monologue which is complicated by their own experience of temporality. Therefore, we can say that, “communication” is the failure of communication. Our attempts in transmitting pure expression through speech and writing is impossible. There is no such thing as “clear writing”.

Instead of having written signs which records a truth from our soul, signs end up producing a truth where its expressive meaning varies depending on the receiving subject’s intentions. As we noted earlier, this is where we see how intentionality plays an important role on interpreting communicative acts. But it is also here, where we recognize the issues of translation. It becomes impossible to understand the indicative word which is only expressive by being reanimated through the intention of the translator / reader.[34] The longer time passes, the more difficult it is to reconstitute the originary intention of the conveying subject.[35] It is at this moment where we become lost in the crisis of meaning. Although this should not always be seen as negativity, it becomes apparent that one only reads what they desire to read under a particular “sense” (modern sense, surreal sense, classical sense, etc.) through the spell of the indicative sign, where its intentions were expressed within a specific historical time. Yet, it is from these writings, where the contemporary reader reanimates dead words and rediscover a hidden intention. Through the resurrection of the external indicative sign, we recognize Derrida’s famous aporia: the absence of originary presence that is found between the conveying and receiving subject. The internal expressions as you read this text becomes the supplement of the conveying subject’s intention which has been contaminated by your experience of space and time. This is where deconstruction begins.


Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak. Johns      Hopkins University Press, 1997.
———Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
———Voice and Phenomenon. Translated by Leonard Lawlor. Northwestern            University Press, 2011.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, trans. Leonard Lawlor (Northwestern University Press, 2011), 70.

[2] The term “soul” implies a living entity who animates / gives life to a nonliving or inanimate object.

[3] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 3,15.

[4] Ibid., 40. Indicative sign is equivalent to the Saussurean concept of “Signifier”.

[5] Ibid., 7-8. Derrida intentionally avoids translating Bedeutung for a reason slightly different to what I have demonstrated here. Derrida’s concerns are directed towards the “pure morphology” (the pure possibility of a meaningful discourse) of such word through grammar and logical a priori of language which Husserl privileged as the telos of “being present”. This pure morphology is also found in the word “is” within the fundamental question of philosophy: “What is being?”.

[6] Ibid., 40. Expressive sign is equivalent to the Saussurean term “Signified”. Bedeutung is often translated into “signification”. The reason Derrida calls it “want-to-say” is due to the problems of the receiving subject’s intentionality (yours), something which we will see later on in this essay.

[7] Most words carry an immediate unity of sense because we already know its expressive meaning.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 123. This is a word that was invented by Nambikwara tribe which means “act of writing” or “drawing lines”. Notice how the meaning of this word refers to external expressive acts.

[11] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 46.

[12] Ibid., 32. “Everything in my discourse which is destined to manifest a lived experience to another person must pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[13] Ibid., 70-74.

[14] Ibid., 24. “Motivation is what gives to something like a ‘thinking being’ the movement in order to pass in thought from something to something.”

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 34. “If communication of manifestation is essentially indicative, it is so because the presence of the other’s lived-experience is denied to our originary intuition.”

[17] Ibid., “The relation to the other as non-presence is therefore the impurity of expression. In order to reduce indication in language and attain once more finally pure expressivity it is therefore necessary to suspend the relation to others. Then I would no longer have to pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 36.

[20] Ibid., 48-55, 69-74. Husserl refers to the isolation of the spatial as “phenomenological reduction”. Derrida realizes how the temporal (internal) cannot be completely distinguished from the spatial (external) because the internal voice is complicated by our consciousness of time which opens up “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 68). Even after reduction, the spatial is never completely reduced because space is in time.

[21] This phenomenon can be experienced as one reads this text. The conveying subject internally hears herself speak as she performs external speech or written acts. Conversely, the receiving subject also hears herself speak internally as she reanimates external indicative signs from silent reading or listening.

[22] Ibid., 68. “The voice is consciousness”

[23] Ibid., 50-55, 74.

[24] Ibid., 55-58.

[25] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 67-73. The common conception on the movement of time is experienced as a straight line. This linearity is also recognized in writing when one reads through time. For Derrida, time is non-linear via the “now” being constituted by retention. The “now” is “the deferred effect of which Freud speaks”. (See also, Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 71-73).

[26] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 53, 72.

[27] Ibid., 49, 57.

[28] Ibid., 50.

[29] Ibid., 48. One can also say that language is always worked over by history.

[30] Ibid., 77-78, 83.

[31] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 69. We can also say that consciousness is constructed by the unconscious—of what Derrida calls “Spacing” or “Archi-Writing” that is found within “the fabric of trace”. For Derrida, the concept of trace, which can only be defined through specific phenomenological and ontological precautions, is the origin of thought.

[32] Derrida sometimes refers to this as the “origin heterogeneous”.

[33] Ibid., 149. The concept of “supplement” is used to take the place of what originally lacks within presence. The supplement is the addition of nothing. This originary supplement is introduced in the final chapter of Voice and Phenomenon. It is extensively discussed in Of Grammatology when Derrida deconstructs Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages. As Derrida points out, “Blindness to the supplement is the law”.

[34] For example, in Plato’s Pharmacy, Derrida questions the translation of “pharmakon” which can at once mean “remedy” and “poison”.

[35] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 70.