Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Profound Philosophical Significance of Perfume: A Reconsideration of the Historical Record

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics, Part I

Perfume has been sorely neglected, entirely omitted from the history of Western philosophy. One reason for such a glaring omission no doubt derives from the simple fact that the history of Western philosophy was written by men. White men, to be more exact.

Perfume has often been regarded as a woman's weapon for attracting men—what remains true in some circles today—and until rather recently in human history, a woman's intellectual energies appear to have been largely directed toward finding a husband to support her. Once married, many women throughout thousands of years of human society all over the world and up to the present day devoted nearly all of their time and energy to raising children. Who has time for philosophy when toddlers are scurrying about the floor attempting to turn every available object into an implement of self-mutilation, poisoning, or even death?

Times have changed, but not all that much, I'm afraid. Most philosophers still today are men, and although it has become socially acceptable for men to wear perfume and for both men and women to discuss perfume, such exchanges have yet to make it into the hallowed halls of philosophy, where the ideas of men and men alone continue to dominate. Philosophical women dissatisfied with those topics tend to end up ghettoized, talking amongst themselves about what has come to be termed “Feminist philosophy.”


Someone once said (I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead—a man, of course) that all of Western philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. Well, Plato was a man, so it's not that surprising that the same old ideas and concepts keep getting hashed and rehashed with a few epicyclic curlicues added on here and there. It is very difficult for anyone to say anything very new and be taken very seriously in philosophy. Why is that? Because the people who judge what are good ideas in philosophy were selected by people who were selected by other people who wrote footnotes to Plato. QED.

In some ways, this is just the nature of institutions, of which academia is obviously one. They are intrinsically conservative, because the individuals currently occupying the administrative posts of an institution, including the institution of professional philosophy, are interested first and foremost in institutional preservation. They defend, in other words, the status quo.

Revisionist History: Writing Perfume into the Narrative

I think that it's time that we struck out on our own, my fellow fragrant travelers, having now seen the reasons for the total neglect of perfume throughout the lengthy history of philosophy. Better yet, let us consider how the history of philosophy might be rewritten more insightfully, had only the earliest recorded philosophers grasped the supreme importance of perfume.

Let us back up to a bit before Plato, or even Socrates, and begin with the pre-Socratic philosophers. I have made a few passing allusions here at the salon to a couple of these thinkers before, Heraclitus and Parmenides, but there were others as well. Since my earlier remarks met with silence from readers, it might be a good idea to provide a bit more background on the pre-Socratics more generally.

These philosophers lived in ancient Greece and, logically enough, preceded Socrates, who arrived on the scene more than two thousand years ago in about 500BC. It is a bit misleading to talk as though the philosophers before Socrates formed a well-defined school or group, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, because the individual thinkers lumped together under this label appear to have had very different theories of reality. The monists were united in their belief that reality comprised one ultimate substance, but they did not agree about what that substance was. Other pre-Socratic philosophers, the pluralists, rejected monism, maintaining that there were multiple primary substances in reality.

Of course, similar conflations occur in perfumery as well. Consider the different types of chypre: a classic fruity chypre (YSL Yvresse, Nina Ricci Deci Dela) is very different from a classic floral chypre (Jean Patou Sublime, Sisley Eau du Soir).

Adding leather imparts to such perfumes a very distinctive demeanor (Robert Piguet Bandit), yet they are all united by their chypre quality no matter how different any two of them might be from one another. 

Modern sweet patchouli floral chypres (Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, Van Cleef & Arpels Oriens) bear very little resemblance to the oakmoss and galbanum-rich chypres of the classical era in perfumery, pre-Y2K. I would say that the single feature uniting all of these very different perfumes is a texture which makes all chypres closer to one another than they are, say, to citrus aromatic fragrances.

What was it that united the pre-Socratic philosophers, aside from the fact that they preceded Socrates? They shared a desire to explain the phenomena of empirical reality by appeal to simplifying metaphysical theories. In some ways, it would be accurate to say that they were reductionists, who looked for the fundamental principles or substances or substrates, as they are sometimes called, of reality.

What is everything else made up of? 
What is really real, behind all appearances?


These were pressing questions to the philosophers grouped together under the label Pre-Socratics. Socrates' skeptical stance may have been, in part, a reaction to what he regarded as the metaphysical excesses or the epistemological pretenses of those who would claim to have at last grasped the True Nature of Reality.

Metaphysical theories are, by definition, not susceptible of empirical confirmation or refutation, so philosophers who posit such ultimate substrata are necessarily speculating as to the true nature of reality. Whose theory is right? seems to have been Socrates' response to the flurry of substantive philosophical assertions made by the philosophers who preceded him. But it's not just metaphysicians who feel threatened by critics such as Socrates, as his own history clearly reveals.

In any case, the theories of the pre-Socratics are worth considering, especially in the light cast by the sun as refracted through perfume.

Perfume as the True Source of the Wisdom of Heraclitus

We've been experiencing a lot of very hot weather in Boston over the past couple of weeks. It is perhaps natural, then, that lately I've found the thought of Heraclitus rather persuasive. For this pre-Socratic philosopher, the ultimate substance or principle of reality was fire. Heraclitus left behind very cryptic, aphoristic texts such as

One never steps into the same river twice.”

The idea for which Heraclitus is most famous is that of change as the basis of everything:

Everything is in flux, everything is change.

Let us consider these two statements in turn. I wonder, first, whether Heraclitus in making the statement about the essentially changing nature of a river, into which one can never step twice, was not also making a statement about perfume perception. I have laid out this idea in more detail in Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is true, and I explicitly brought Heraclitus into the sequel to that lively discussion, which however ended as a monologue, since no one ever replied. Silence usually signifies complete agreement, so I cannot really claim to have been surprised.


My hunch is that Heraclitus, too, if asked a direct question about the nature of perfume perception would subscribe to more or less the same theory, which, after all, is a version of his own! The idea, essentially, is that each time we wear a perfume, our experience of it will be different. This implies, does it not, that we never wear the same perfume twice?

To those who will object that the evidence points only to the changeable nature of the perfume wearer, I rejoinder: can a person be mistaken about what she herself perceives? I am not talking about the object of the perception. I am talking about the perception itself. It seems to me that, just as a person cannot be wrong about being in a state of pain—whether or not there is a documentable physical basis for that pain—if a person claims to smell roses, cat pee, rubber, jasmine, leather, oakmoss, patchouli, vanilla or whatever, then she does.

If she thinks that is what she smells, then that is the nature of her perception. In other words, she cannot be wrong about what she thinks that she smells. This is a very different claim from saying that if a person smells dung, then dung is there. But if dung is what the person perceives, then that is what she smells, in the sense that that is the content of her perception.

But wait, there's more. This would seem to imply that the object of perception is capable of presenting itself to different noses and even the same nose in very different ways. Yes, those ways depend to some extent upon the wearer and the circumstances, but a person cannot be wrong, it seems to me, about what he or she smells.

Different notes are salient at different times and to different degrees, which implies that perfume itself is inherently mercurial, presenting itself, as it does, to different wearers under various guises. This is the primary reason why it does not make a lot of sense to me for people to base their purchases of perfume upon someone else's perceptions of them, perceptions with which they may or may not agree. The “same” perfume has many different appearances, if you will, and not only do different people attend to different facets, even the same person attends to different facets at different times, affected by not only temperature and humidity, but also the wearer's state of mind.

Now, turning to Heraclitus' second idea, that Everything is in flux, it seems equally clear to me that the wise philosopher was actually reflecting upon the undeniable fact that perfumes metamorphose over time. They change. Not only do perfume wearers change, but perfumes do, too. They do not remain the same, as much as we may wish for them to. Even when perfumes are not reformulated, they are bound to change as the ingredients used to create them depend upon the source from which they derive, and as they age, they metamorphose over time, all of which raises in a dramatic way the Question of Vintage.

Are these sorts of insights about perfume ever attributed to or said to have derived from Heraclitus? Of course not. He was a man, who could not have thought that perfume had any philosophical significance, or so have presumed perfume-ignorant scholars over the more than two millennia since Heraclitus wrote. It is time, at last, that we set the historical record straight about what Heraclitus really meant and wrote. Could stepping into a river have inspired such profound thoughts alone? I frankly doubt it. Only the joys of perfume could have created the conditions for such an epiphany.

A neo-Thalesian Theory of Reality

Thank goodness rain finally came to our rescue, and with it a swift drop in temperature of more than twenty degrees Fahrenheit! As I watched the sheets of water pour down all around me, and the heat began to dissipate, I felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A clamp holding my brain in a fixed configuration was suddenly loosened, allowing the cells of my cortex to breathe freely and my thoughts to expand. Suddenly my ways of thinking about reality began to change. Questions began to arise and circulate through my mind once again. I wondered whether Heraclitus was really right after all that fire could be the basis of everything else. Is not water, at the very least, the source of life?

It turns out that there was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales, who believed precisely that, and indeed that rather than fire, water was the basis of everything else. I am quite big on hydration, so it makes a lot of sense that I should always have found a lot to like in the theory ascribed by historians to Thales. According to the skimpy extant fragments of texts said to be penned by this philosopher:

All is water

or, in French:

Tout est l'eau

What does this mean? you may with good reason ask. Thales of Miletus was struck by the importance of water and hypothesized that water is the source and first principle of everything else. Or did he?

I would no doubt have been kicked out of graduate school for making such a bold, brash, insolent, and self-indulgent conjecture, but here, protected within the free-thinker haven which is the salon de parfum, I am able to express my true beliefs and propose what may seem initially to be provocative or even outlandish theories.


I wonder, for example, whether a couple of words may have been missing from the key fragment allegedly establishing the philosophical position of Thales. What if the fragment, if found with the words immediately following it, actually said this:

Tout est l'eau [de parfum]

or, in English:

All is eau [de parfum]

Now, since eau de parfum is a dilute solution of perfume, this would seem to imply that Thales was in fact asserting a rather different theory of reality:

All is perfume

To those who wonder why Thales would have insisted upon “eau de parfum” rather than making the more straightforward claim, “All is perfume,” I reply: where did Thales live? It was indeed a warm climate, and this makes it doubtful that pure perfumes or extraits would have been the preferred concentration in such weather conditions. I know that I've been wearing a lot of light colognes throughout this scorching summer. I do of course recognize that Thales' first stab at a comprehensive theory of reality may well have been

All is eau de toilette

But let us not decant drops. It seems clear to me that Thales' theory of reality has suffered at the hands of persons all too eager to find in his words a theory appealing to themselves, reflecting as it does what they themselves wish to believe. Yes, it easy to see how in reconstructing Thales' thought, historians of philosophy have been tripped up over and over again by their inability to think out of the male cranium. If men were not wearing perfume for most of human history, then why would they ever even have considered the eminently worthy theory above? I rest my case.


  1. Simply a masterpiece of writing about perfume !!!!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Anonymous, and a warm welcome to the salon!

  2. Hi Sherapop, very interesting point of view :) Clearly, I also need air, I have lungs :)) And the earth ... But the right amount :) (Aristotelean, I know)
    I think that you make a hasty step when you argue that when people smell roses they smell roses. One can't be wrong about perceiving. Well, I'd argue that perception is one thing and interpretation another. And when it comes to interpretation, yes one can be wrong. It is probably one of the most difficult tasks to just describe what one perceives. But once you label your perception with "rose", what you really do is offering an interpretation and very often judgement comes into play. Have you ever observed yourself saying things like, "When it happened, I thought I was angry. Now I think I was scared." Clearly you perceived something, no doubt about that, but the interpretation varies.
    Now perception in itself is also a tricky thing. Take sight. I think you're familiar with drawings which are interpreted e.g. as a duck by some people and as a rabbit by others. (There are many such pictures) Now what you see does not depend on your eyes but on your brain. In the case of these pictures your eyes transport both pieces of info to the brain, but whether you see a duck or a rabbit depends on which hemisphere of the brain is more active. It is impossible for you to "see" both duck and rabbit at the same time.
    Take psychosis. People will say that they hear voices that tell them to do or not to do certain things. These people will also tell you that the voices come from outside and are strangers. Of course there aren't any strangers telling them what to do. Rather it's the psychotic person himself / herself engaged in thinking, but doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that certain thoughts belong to him / her. Again, I'd argue yes they're hearing something, but the interpretation is wrong.
    What about people in the desert that are thirsty and see an oasis that doesn't exist?
    Philosophy of perfume, I don't know. There's already Valerie Steele who wants to bring fashion to a scholarly level. It's a tricky thing. First of all, as a scholar you need a certain amount of distance to the "object" that you study. When you're a "fashion victim" yourself, you clearly lack distance. Next, what sort of fashion? Haute couture? Well do we really study haute couture or is this the disguise to worship the lifestyle of a certain segment of society? (Have you ever read Saviano's "Gomorrha" and what he has to say about how these haute couture pieces are produced in Italy? No scholarly paper, no musuem can wash that sorrow away.) Who wore perfume all those centuries ago? When we talk about the philosophy of perfume, do we talk about drugstore fragances? I doubt it.
    However, I do believe that I can learn a lot about philosophy from perfume. Or more precisely: How it is being dealt with. But I could also learn a lot about philosophy from gardening, cleaning up, cooking whatever.
    True, most philosophers were men, but Philosophia, philosophy herself, was a young beautiful woman dressed in old ugly clothes (at least when it comes to painting :)) Let's also remember that Athena and Minerva, the godesses of wisdom were ladies :)) No feminist has explained that to me so far :))

    1. Not to worry, Girasole, soul sister of Socrates: my history of philosophy refracted through perfume has only just begun. Earth and air are both on the menu and will soon be treated here. So many dead white men, so little time!!!!! (oder?)

      Let's jump right to the voices in people's heads. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do recall that our former president, George W. Bush, claimed to heed voices in his head in making his decision to invade Iraq. So, of course, these voices can be wrong, and may be the sign of dementia or psychosis, among other pathologies. (Or did Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, slip him a mickey?) No doubt about it, these are all possibilities.

      When I say that one cannot be wrong about perceiving what one takes to be the scent of roses, I do not mean to suggest that the perceiver might be ignorant as to the nature of roses. Someone who has limited experience with flowers may perceive lavender and call it lilac. But, in reality, no human being, even a rose gardener, has a full, complete perception of roses. What we perceive are aspects of roses. And yes, we can misinterpret our perceptions. But what we are basing our descriptions on are always and necessarily our prior experience.

      A good example here is found in perfume reviews at fragrance community websites. I am always amazed by the people who find similarities between two perfumes which I find completely disparate. It's awe inspiring, actually. People will compare perfumes to other perfumes which in my experience bear no or nearly no similarity to one another. Why do they do this?

      It seems clear that they are perceiving as salient certain particular facets of the perfumes which I myself do not consider salient. Are they wrong? Well, from my perspective, yes. But no one can compare anything to anything else except by appeal to their own experience of other things. So for people who have very limited experience with perfume, many of them smell the same because they do in fact smell more like one another than any of them smells to water.

      I am not saying that people are not sometimes ignorant. Of course they are. If you do not own a cat, then you may not know what cat pee smells like. You might still identify cat pee in a perfume, ignorantly, when in fact it was civet, with which most of us have even less experience, having only detected it in perfume—if even there.

    2. Reply to Girasole cont'd.

      Oud offers a good example. I have reviewed quite a number of oud perfumes by now, but the truth is that I have never encountered oud anywhere else than in perfumes. So my claims about the presence or absence of oud in a perfume are and can only be based upon inferences I make from previous experiences of what were said to be oud perfumes. My knowledge of oud is severely limited, and I may identify it in a perfume but do not really know, in the end, whether I am not mistakenly interpreting some other non-oud note common to previous perfumes which I've sniffed.

      Think about colorblindness. A person who does not perceive red and green still has an intrinsically veridical perception of reality. She is seeing certain aspects of it. No one sees all aspects of it, so what does it mean to say that she is wrong? It means that her perception is limited to certain facets of the objects which she perceives. In fact, color itself does not inhere in the objects, so in calling someone red-green colorblind, we are simply saying that she is not like us.

      But people also differ in the fineness of their perception and in their general intelligence. Do we want to define reality only by what the smartest people perceive, say, you and Socrates? That would be perhaps close to Plato's view according to which only Philosopher Kings and Queens (hard to believe, but Plato was actually something of a feminist) should rule, since they get closer than anyone else to the true nature of reality, or The Forms. Well, that little fable has been used throughout history to justify tyranny in a variety of different guises, and Western societies have by now rejected the notion that leaders somehow have a hotline to the will of God. In this sense, Bush was a sort of neo-medieval leader, who probably has no idea what the Protestant Reformation was. But I digress...

      Am I claiming that people who hear voices make valid claims about reality? No, I am saying that they make valid claims about their own experience. That's all that I'm saying. I am not denying the reality of psychosis or anything of the sort. In some ways I am simply underscoring your own example: yes, we read the duck-rabbit or the old lady/young lady or whatever Rorschach you want to present to someone differently. But all of our perceptions of those things are necessarily finite and determined by our prior experience. When we change our view, we reject what we used to believe in the light of new information to which we did not have access before. Even after having changed our view, we may decide tomorrow that we were wrong today.

      Thank you so much for these insightful remarks, Girasole. I am sure that I missed something in your rich response, but I shall return! (-;

  3. Dear Sherapop, I have read all of your philosopher series here, and haven't yet commented on any of them not merely for tacit agreement, but loss for what exactly to add of value to the discussion! I can't hold back my gratitude any longer though--beginning with how you summed up half of the world's problems in dealing with intelligence, beauty and all things matter and non-matter:

    "Philosophical women dissatisfied with those topics tend to end up ghettoized, talking amongst themselves about what has come to be termed “Feminist philosophy.'”

    Any mention of the absence of women's voices, writings, political presence is taken with such offense that it must be immediately deemed feminist--and since feminism is dead, just like racism, it is automatically deemed insulting to behold the title--the "myopic", "extremist", and "hater". How can philosophical discussion take place when one must overcome automatic dismissal by way of the one-liner? Feminist, communist, liberal, etc...

    But how could perfume not be everything? I muse over this every time I am around other people! Whether it be a group of scented soaped and showered or unshowered--pleasant soaps or extremely laundered....
    Have you read "The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History"? I very much enjoyed it! (What deeper way is there to reflect on changing societal norms than on the norms of cleanliness--and how what was once pure and moral is now dirty, and insane...and what will the clean of the future be? Ok, moving on...)It is too easy to forget that one doesn't just hear, see and feel the touch of other humans--packed together in so many public places both by choice and lack of choice--but the smells can never be escaped--and smell being connected to taste, the presence of so many people in enclosed areas can practically be tasted every day! Everything must be perfume, right? No, no...Perhaps "everything is scent". Everything can be made into music, but noise only takes the form of music when it is declared and arranged to be so. I think that both you and the majority of philosophers could be correct--the wholeness of the incomplete statement could read:
    "Tout est l'eau--et l'eau de parfum!"

    1. Dear Kastehelmi,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I'm happy that you've been reading this series on The History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume and that my Thales idea resonated with you!

      Isn't it amazing how scent is ubiquitous and yet gets nearly no attention from intellectuals?! I need to read the book you mentioned, "The Dirt on Clean" it sounds fascinating! I'll request a copy from the library...

      I definitely appreciate your comment on the feminist issue. The problem with sexism, the reason why it persists, is because it is so subtle that it can lie low, below the threshold and so it seems on the surface to many people that it no longer exists. In fact it does, and is worse than racism because, as you say, it cannot be talked about without polarization.

      There is data, however: fifty years after the ratification of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women in this country still earn 77 cents to the dollar paid to equally qualified men doing the very same work! I suspect that the disparity is even worse than that, because many women agree to do more work for less for fear of losing their jobs. The current unstable economy has probably exacerbated the situation. When women do take issue with attempts to pay them less, then the employer can easily deny that they are equally qualified or that the work is really the same. Employers maintain the prerogative of describing these things to suit their purposes...

      Well, back to the history of Western philosophy: I'll be continuing this series, so stay tuned, and please post some more comments! (-;


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