Ralf Konersmann in conversation with Catherine Newmark

“The fact that we can manage in the world is because it has a measure,” says Ralf Konersmann. But can the world cope with our excesses? (imago / Ikon Images / Nanette Hoogslag)

Overheated consumption, ecological crisis, political extremes, has our time lost all measure? Philosopher Ralf Konersmann recalls how much measure and morality were once linked. The end of this alliance would have fatal consequences.

Numbers, data and balance sheets dominate the news. This is not only true since the Daily Value of the corona incidence was used as a benchmark for policy decisions. The principle on which this is based is typical of our time: scientific studies must determine how our living conditions are represented and evolve, and draw concrete recommendations for behavior. Your measurement results become the benchmark for our actions.

Between moderation and indulgence

Language already suggests that the right amount has always been an important guide. There seems to be a connection between “taking action” and “taking action”, resulting in some tipping points: the belief that anything can be measured can turn into a presumption. Those who do not know how to moderate themselves fall into the excess.

The link between measurement and implicit morality is deeply rooted in European thought, explains cultural philosopher Ralf Konersmann. But now he threatens to be forgotten. The existential crises of the present seem to confirm it: the destruction of ecosystems is progressing rapidly. Do we lack a reliable measure of the place of man in the context of nature? Political and social polarization is driving deeper and deeper gaps. Have we lost track of what goes too far in this area as well?

Mathematics and Moral Standards

In ancient thought, the task of measurement was to “mediate between the world of the cosmos, nature and the world of man,” Konersmann explains. “Measure is, so to speak, the part of the world that faces us as human beings: the fact that we can cope in this world as human beings and, to some extent, shape this world. , it’s because the world has a measure. “

Mediator between humans and the cosmos: Ralf Konersmann fears that, although we measure more and more precisely, we lose the sense of right measurement. (S. Fischer Verlag / Paula Markert)

Ancient philosophy linked this to the belief “that we humans have reason to trust the world and its order.” And, according to this view, it didn’t just apply to measured mathematical variables and order relations that architects, for example, could literally rely on. In the minds of many ancient philosophers, measurement also had “a moral dimension”, according to Konersmann:

“This means that there is a measure in behavior, in appearance, in action – even in thought – which in turn is also appropriate to the world, that is, to the problems that the world poses us. “

A new guardian of world order

This anchoring of morality to the measure of all things has gradually loosened over the course of history, as shown by Ralf Konersmann in his book “Welt ohne Maß”. At first, the authority that represents the right measure is passed to another sphere:

“In the Middle Ages, this function passes to a God who appears as the keeper of measure, and the Bible, the book of wisdom, describes this God as the one who brought measure and weight in the world.”

At the beginning of the modern period, measurement and its norms have become more and more independent, “because the two great guarantors, the world order and the creator of the world, are now visibly effaced and quantification appears purely as such. “.

Make the measure and number independent

Above all, the philosophers Francis Bacon and René Descartes have now completely detached quantifying thought from morality, according to Konersmann, and thus promoted the emancipation of the science of measurement:

“This is a massive change in the world view, because things are no longer related to measure, but measurands are brought to things. Right now, things become objects. And we have this practice to this day. . ” “

The result is, on the one hand, that the measurement of research and technology becomes independent and that it is no longer limited by a given measurement, underlines Konersmann: “There is basically no limit here that does not can be formulated as a challenge for future generations.

The virtuous terror and the question of happiness

At the same time, ethical claims could no longer be derived from a supposed world order. On the contrary, modern thought has shifted to “making morality independent and presenting it as demands on reality and against reality,” Konersmann said. This development reached a tragic climax with the French Revolution:

“We must never forget that: ‘The Terror’, the reign of terror, arose in the name of virtue, from people who understood it in a particularly moral way and believed that on the basis of integrity of this requirement, they could also practice terror. “

That the question of the right measure, of a real life – in the political sphere as in the private sphere – must be asked again and again today, that it is henceforth considered above all as an object of negotiations which do not potentially never come to an end, there is definitely a moment of freedom in her.

Ralf Konersmann responds by saying that we must not lose sight of what things, which people and which situations would be appropriate in themselves. It could be a good guide to a sustainable lifestyle and a personal compass for balance and contentment instead of the constant pursuit of intense, fleeting happiness.


Ralf Konersmann: “A world without measure”
S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2021
320 pages, 26 euros

Also in this issue of Being and Strife:

Commentary on the Greens commercial: Philosophy of grinding teeth
The Greens’ new election advertising was deemed embarrassing by many this week – and with “cringe!” »Commented. But what is cringe from a philosophical point of view? David Lauer asks himself in his commentary.

Philosophical places: Epimenides among the liars in Crete
What good is a warning against lying if the one who speaks it is not trustworthy? The philosopher Epimenides would have raised this problem in ancient times. Hans von Trotha follows in the footsteps of the Cretan, whose paradox thinkers still question themselves today.