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Ethics & the Environment 10.2 (2005) 175-194

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Measure for Measure

The Reliance of Human Knowledge on the Things of the World

When all things were in disorder, God created in each thing in relation to itself, and in all things in relation to each other, all the measures and harmonies which they could possibly receive.
—Plato, Timaeus (69b)
Is my body a thing, is it an idea? It is neither, being the measurant of the things. We will therefore have to recognize an ideality that is not alien to the flesh, that gives it its axes, its depth, its dimensions.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968, 152)
The search for truths differs from the search for truth criteria in more ways than those that are immediately obvious.
—M. C. Dillon (1997, 9)

The notion that all knowledge is a form of measurement can be traced back to the Socratic insight that knowledge requires the presence of some standard against which things are measured. We cannot account for our knowledge of things, Socrates argued, without appealing to some prior capacity we have for recognizing, comparing, or measuring things in terms of something else, for example, a concept or definition. In the modern era, Kant extended this insight to include perception as such, [End Page 175] arguing that even though our perceptual experience seems to be direct and immediate, upon reflection we know that some process of mediation must be at work which enables us to have a stable experience of objects. Faced with such insights, we are compelled to ask how such measuring is possible. If experience and knowledge rely on some capacity for measurement, what is measurement and what does it entail?

The most common contemporary answer to this question can be found in notion that our experience and knowledge are "constructed" by distinctly human, that is, cultural factors. Having abandoned Kant's notion of a priori knowledge and its various Idealist offshoots, contemporary constructivism nonetheless maintains that cultural structures (although not fixed or permanent ones) serve as the basic principles upon which experience and knowledge are built. Such a view has some merit, insofar as it enables us to acknowledge the mediated character of our experience, while also avoiding the problematic claims of traditional idealism. But as appealing as this view is, it raises the question of the place and role of nature in our experience. From a constructivist point of view, although we may acknowledge that our experience and knowledge depend in crucial ways upon natural elements and events, it can often seem naive to discuss the role of such natural factors within experience—except, that is, as we admit that nature itself is "constructed" by culture, for example, language, conceptual systems, theoretical constructs, ideology, political power, institutional practices, and so forth. That is, although we no longer accord cultural factors an a priori or absolute status, we remain convinced that in fact cultural norms play the final, determining role in shaping our experience. In the end, we have come to believe, it is culture that measures and defines nature, not vice versa.

My aim in this essay is to articulate an alternative view of the measurement involved in human experience and knowledge, one which helps us to overcome the privileging of culture over nature that still plagues contemporary thought. My account is inspired by Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of the body, particularly his notion that the human body serves as a "measurant of things." There are two key components of this claim. First, it describes the body's general capacity for measurement, and does not appeal to any specific measure or standard of measurement. As a measurant, the body is not any particular measure; rather, it is a thing that measures, an element of the natural world that brings measurement to the [End Page 176] things it encounters, thus bringing meaning into our experience. Second, the body's capacity to measure shows how our natural being as bodies is inherently meaningful, because measurement is, as we shall see...


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