Monday, April 22, 2013

Entry #12: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Phenomenology, Phenomenological

After epistemology, phenomenology may be one of the most reviled philosophical terms. My distinct impression is that people dislike the word phenomenological as well. Why? Because nearly every time I use it, I am advised by someone or other not to. 

Most people know that the plural of phenomenon is phenomena. but when one uses the word phenomenological, eyes are likely to glaze over. It seems to be rather like saying (**^&^#^%#$@%$@%$@%$@%$@%! As in the case of utilitarianism, a fairly ordinary term, phenomenon, has been appropriated and modified by philosophers (especially Husserl, but Hegel, too, used phenomenology in an idiosyncratic way) to refer to a specific approach to knowledge. I used this word in a comment on the previous entry, so I figured that I'd better define it. 

Phenomenon in the vernacular means more or less the same as thing, with a connotation of being special in one way or another. Maybe that's how the word phenomenal came to mean something like extraordinary.

The term phenomenology refers to the examination of direct experience, the data as they present themselves to one's senses, without any knowledge of the objects which generate the data. Imagine looking at a book, without knowing that it's a book. It's just an object with a parallelopiped structure from various angles. How do you process this image? What can you learn from the direct experience of the image before your eyes?

In an upcoming post, I intend to give a better idea of what phenomenology is, but for the purposes of this entry, I'd simply like to observe that perfume would seem to offer a splendid opportunityin fact, idealfor phenomenological analysis, particularly when one samples blind, without knowledge of the house, the nose, the notes, or anything "external", which a phenomenologist would say should be "bracketed". 

If we can experience a perfume as a thing in itself, the manner in which we describe it will still, invariably, relate back to our idiosyncratic history (what we have experienced before), including our knowledge of other perfumes. If perfume is one of the best candidates for phenomenological analysis, yet even it poses problemscan you really smell aldehydes without thinking of Chanel  no 5?this may signal that the project of phenomenology is doomed. Or perhaps it is just a bit too ambitious. Perhaps we can still learn from attempting phenomenological analysis of experience, even if it may not be possible to fully "bracket" all of our background knowledge.

Can you describe a perfume in terms of pure experience? Or must it always be mediated by a bunch of other theories, including knowledge of other perfumes? 

What say you, my fragrant friends?


  1. This skimpy little entry #12 must be a rejected Seinfeld episode. It's about nothing.


    1. I actually agree that this entry is slim on content. My excuse is that I have a bad cold! I cannot smell a thing and can barely think! ;-/

      I'm sure that I'll return to elaborate on the topic once I emerge from my fog...

  2. Effective March 14, 2013, comment moderation has been implemented in order to prevent the receipt by subscribers of unwanted, irrelevant remarks.

    10 Most Censored Countries.
    North Korea
    Equatorial Guinea
    Saudi Arabia
    Runners-up - salondeparfum
    You are in good company, as always. =o)

    1. Well, I certainly got a chuckle out of this one... Maybe it's the Nyquil?

  3. I'm not sure what "pure experience" in case of describing perfumes would be. Even if we were to leave aside any parallels and comparisons to other perfumes, the only generic way to describe a perfume along the line with "It's just an object with a parallelopiped structure from various angles" would be something like: it's something that has a [strong/weak; pleasant/foul; persistent/evanescent] smell. As soon as we would try to add any descriptives it would involve the previous experience - either with other perfumes or other smelly things (flowers, plants, food, etc.).

    1. I agree with you, Undina. It's not entirely clear to me how the phenomenology project can even get off the ground! But I do think that there is something to be said for reviewing perfumes as they are worn, in a kind of stream of consciousness mode. That's also pretty challenging to do, since focusing on the perfume without getting distracted by a million other things (including thoughts in one's head) is rather like focusing on music, which, too, flows through time, making it quite elusive and probably impossible to capture in any sort of finite text.

      That's a good point, too, that we are likely to assimilate perfumes with other scented things--why not, after all? What else, in the end? We have developed words for identifiable things in reality, and scent words apply to scented things!

      I'm not synaesthetic, but I sometimes refer to colors when reviewing perfumes. Those are metaphors, I suppose, but the pure phenomenologist would want to start from which basic language, I wonder?

      Thanks so much, Undina! It's nice to read you here again! ;-)

  4. I took some philosophy courses as an undergrad and really thought about studying it at the grad level, but over time I came to view it as too removed from "reality," and instead became more interested in the social sciences. My view these days is that I just don't want to be burdened by abstractions any longer. There are so many other things I want to do that I feel are more connected to "reality" that I don't feel at all deprived. If society is "socially constructed," so be it (though I would take issue with the concept of society, and again, it's too much of a burden to argue endlessly about what society "really is"). Scents are fun and cheap, etc. so "I'm in."

    1. Hi biglsy,

      I think that your view about philosophy is shared by many people, since it seems to be "useless". I must say that I was not impressed with my first courses as an undergraduate. I found chemistry more engaging and challenging and ended up earning a degree in that subject instead. Only later did I become interested in and earn a graduate degree in philosophy--after I had already decided that I did not want to be a career research scientist, having discovered that I was too skeptical for that line of work. ;-)

      It seems pretty clear that people who philosophize find it an enjoyable form of intellectual exercise, but your point is well taken. Perhaps it is ultimately a matter of taste...


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