Thursday, March 28, 2013

Entry #2: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


The word epistemology means theory of knowledge or the study of knowledge. This branch of philosophy is concerned with the most fundamental of questions: What do we know? How do we know? Can we know? Do we know anything at all?

Naturally one of the first questions to be addressed by epistemologists (the philosophers who spend their time primarily on questions of knowledge) is simply this: 

What is knowledge? 

According to one orthodox answer to this question, knowledge is justified true belief. That may sound complicated, but it's really just common sense. If I know that the perfume which I just donned after my bath is Clinique Aromatics Elixir, then presumably it is true that I just donned Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and I do in fact believe that to be the case. Furthermore, I must be justified in believing that the perfume in the bottle which I just sprayed on is indeed Clinique Aromatics Elixir. Are there any reasons for doubting any of this?

Or to turn the question on its head: What precisely are my grounds for believing that the perfume which I just donned is Aromatics Elixir? It certainly seems reasonable that the brown liquid inside this frosted glass bottle is Aromatics Elixir. I did not buy my bottle from an ebay hawk, who in an effort to maximize profit may have decanted half the liquid and refilled the vessel with anti-freeze, adjusting the color back to that of the original perfume by adding some dye. 

Of course, it's possible that some perverse factory employee of the Clinique company pulled a practical joke such that an entire batch of what was bottled as Aromatics Elixir was in fact a completely different perfume. It's also possible that an incompetent employee simply made a big fat mistake, say, by confusing the various recipes in the factory fragrance book, and combining the ingredients needed to produce Clinique Happy instead of Aromatics Elixir.

Nonetheless, I feel justified in my belief that the perfume which I donned after my bath is not Clinique Happy, because happily it does not smell like that fragrance. In fact, the perfume wafting up my décolleté smells exactly like Aromatics Elixir

There is still a problem, however: my alleged knowledge of what Aromatics Elixir smells like derives solely from the bottles in my collection (one was produced in the United States, the other in Switzerland). If those bottles do not contain Aromatics Elixir, though I believe that they do, I could still be wrong. They both open with a bitter and intense chamomile but eventually dry down to oakmoss-patchouli bliss.

Now, of course, the astute reader is wondering about the probability that the liquids in the two different bottles, produced in entirely different countries, could possibly both be erroneously filled with some substance other than Aromatics Elixirand the same one, at that! To my surprise, the color of the liquids in the two bottles is not at all the sameone seems more yellow, the other much more brownbut the scent seems quite similar, especially by the drydown. 

Would it not take a conspiracy of grand proportion for both of these bottles to be filled with any perfume other than Aromatics Elixir, even though empirically speaking they are in fact quite distinct? Can we not explain the difference in color by factors such as the particular crop of patchouli used in the two distinct batches? 

I think that you can see where all of this is leading. Epistemologists really do spend time on all of the various ways in which we can be mistaken in our beliefs. If knowledge is justified true belief, then when we are mistaken in our beliefs, we lack knowledge. Perhaps it should be obvious why epistemologists have so few friends and are hated above all by people whose beliefs are grounded in faith. 

There are so many very different ways in which we might be mistaken that after thinking about these questions for a while, one may simply capitulate to skepticism. But that's tomorrow's word, so stay tuned, especially since Creed may be mentioned...


  1. Dear Shera

    Necessary but inherently irritating epistemology.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Seeing the way that the word 'epistemology' rolls off your fingertips, Perfumed Dandy, I sense that you have struggled with these issues yourself! Perhaps you, too, are at heart a skeptic, incessantly attempting to counter doubt with doubt at every turn????


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