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.
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?
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.