Synthese Library Volume 138, 1979, pp 17-36

The ‘What’ and the ‘How’

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Abstract

Kierkegaard remarks, with no great originality, that “the objective accent falls on what is said, the subjective accent on how it is said”.1 Kierkegaard’s originality lies in his identifying the notion of truth with the ‘how’rather than the ‘what’: truth for him is subjectivity. Although I suspect that on Kierkegaard’s own premisses and in the context of his ethico-religious concept of truth (a context which puts ‘objective’ information rather in the shade) this switching of the normally accepted roles of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ makes good sense, that is not a claim I wish to argue here. I want instead to concentrate on something which like most philosophers Kierkegaard identifies with the ‘what’, namely thought-content. I want to do that in order to raise some questions about how the thought and its content should — or at least can — be presented in a philosophical account of the scheme of things. In particular I wish to question an unquestioned tendency to identify the ‘what’ of the thought with a mind-independent, and therefore thought-independent, reality, to assume that any specification of a thought’s content for which there is no counterpart in the thought’s strictly public reference must be relegated to the lowly status of a subjective ‘how’.