Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Entry #13: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


Many people lead their lives for other people or in accordance with what they believe to be the dictates of their religion. Existentialism challenges us to face up to our own responsibility in making of ourselves what we become and in living in accordance with our own selected or created values. I was reminded of existentialism by a couple of comments on a recent post relating to why we write perfume reviews. 

The thinkers most associated with existentialism have been Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, in the nineteenth century; and Jean-Paul Sartre in the twentieth century. All three had very different takes on the idea, which makes sense, given their views about our subjective role in determining what to do and why.

Kierkegaard was a Christian, but he was not fond of religion in its politicized form. One of his famous mottos is "Truth is subjectivity," an idea which fits right in with our recent discussion of whether there are objective truths in perfume reviewing. In one of his insightful comments, Andrew Buck likened perfume reviewing to a "subjective science," and in that sense it is similar to Kierkegaard's own understanding of man's relationship with God. Perfume experience appears to be equally subjective and must, of necessity, vary from one person to the next.

Nietzsche famously announced "the death of God," by which he appears to have meant that God had ceased to provide man with a value structure anymore. Sure, plenty of people call themselves religious, but the reality of the lives which they lead need not necessarily reflect their alleged beliefs. Consider the case of Catholic mafia members who go to confession after whacking some poor soul. Nietzsche may have meant something like this, that there is a schism between what people say when they mouth words such as "I am a Christian," and then what they do. Another example might be self-proclaimed "Christians" in the twenty-first century who visit YouTube to watch what has regrettably come to be known as "war porn." Are you a Christian? Really? 

Nietzsche also famously denied that morality is absolute. He offered a complex genealogy of the origin of moral concepts, and he appears to have felt that people are driven ultimately by a "will to power". We can convince people to do what we want by imposing our values on them, by getting them to agree with us. Nietzsche wrote thousands upon thousands of fascinating pages of texts, all of which are multiply interpretable, so it's misleading to suggest that he had some sort of "theory". What tends to happen when scholars read Nietzsche is that they find their own ideas in his texts, and then of course they praise him as brilliant! 

People occasionally blame the abysmal behavior of some people at certain points in history on Nietzsche. This seems to me to be a mistake, according to the very basis of existentialism itself. No one forces anyone to interpret the words of Nietzsche in one way or another. We bring our values to bear on the text and decide or choose (whether consciously or not) to find certain meanings in his words.

Sartre added his own distinctive embellishments to the concern with subjectivity expressed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche before him. One of his most famous ideas is that we are responsible for what we are, and what we do, and who we become. There are no excuses for Sartre. We are free to act or not to act, and to choose not to choose is already to choose. Freedom is the condition of humanity, and this freedom imposes burdens. We must decide what to do with our life. We make of ourselves what we become, for better or for worse. Only we can decide for ourselves. Even if we think that we are following a religion or the guidance of another person, we are choosing to do so, and therefore bear full responsibility for our actions. People who attempt to shirk responsibility suffer from mauvaise foi or bad faith, in Sartre's view.

Which brings us back to the question of why we do what we do, and why in particular some of us write perfume reviews. The existentialists would deny that we must write reviews to please other people or to promote certain perfumes and demote others. No, the answer to the question why we write reviews is just as subjective as is the content of the reviews. Perfume reviews serve the purposes of readers when they interpet them in certain ways. But those purposes are determined by the readers no less than the act of penning a review reflects the writer's values and beliefs.


  1. I've written all kinds of things before deciding to write some scent reviews. Way before writing these reviews, I had come to realize that I'm mostly doing it for myself, though they may benefit many others, because they are a learning aid. When I am compelled to write concisely (though I know some others like to go on poetic journeys in their reviews) I find that I think about "fundamentals" and that I question my assumptions, for example. As I'm writing, I often say to myself things like, "well that's not quite right," and I reconsider exactly what I'm trying to convey. I have to admit that I'm not all that concerned about what others think, despite trying hard to be clear and specific !

    1. Hello, bigsly, and thanks for sharing your own perspective on your perfume reviews!

      I, too, am a self-critic as I write, but by the end of a review it's a finished text, which I usually leave as is, even when I change my mind about the perfume later on down the line. Occasionally, I make a later edit, if I have become convinced that I made a factual mistake of one or another kind, but in terms of my basic like or dislike of a perfume, I prefer to leave the trace of the person who once felt the way that I no longer feel.

      There are some readers who are looking for advice; others are looking for writing about perfume, just for the pleasure of reading it. The people who are looking for short and simple prescriptions probably find my reviews annoying, but that's okay, since it's easy enough to scroll past the texts with my avatar next to them.

      I once saw a comment in the forum at Fragrantica to the effect that "poetic" reviews are not "helpful", so that person obviously is looking for more of a Consumer's Report-type review. Just as some people enjoy reading cultural criticism while others do not, people are bound to vary in their reactions to all of the many different kinds of reviews.

      I am quite sure that there are readers who find the comments about the compliments which some people report that they receive while wearing a perfume very helpful. I myself do not, but that's another perfectly valid way of talking about one's experience, it seems to me. (It's just not mine.) The vast array of different kinds of perfume reviews is simply a reflection of our heterogeneity, which is how it should be, in the existentialist view, given that people create or choose their own values.


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