Monday, April 1, 2013

Entry #6: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


We all have tastes: likes and dislikes. We do not agree about what makes things good, a truth nowhere better expressed than in the oft-cited adage among swappers:

One perfumista's trash is another perfumista's treasure.

Value theory concerns these sorts of differences of opinion, which cannot be adjudicated by appeal to empirical facts. Opinion polls cannot settle such questions, because we generally deny that the majority rules when it comes to matters of truth. Indeed, the majority is often wrong and must be somehow brought around to see the errors in their ways. This typically involves a few outsiders or deviants aggressively promoting their own, at the time, eccentric views, against the prevailing wave of adherents to the status quo. Human societies have evolved slowly over time as formerly popular ideas have been debunked as antiquated and misguided. Examples from morality abound, but let us consider more closely the case of perfume.

In the case of perfume, there are often simple reasons why we may disagree in our evaluations. Variations in sensitivity to certain chemicals probably explain much of our difference in opinion. But sometimes we simply do not like a given note or fragrance category. A fair number of people really dislike patchouli, and it is unclear that they are actually allergic to it. Instead, this seems to be a personal preference. 

Other people love to drink but not to wear citrus. Orange juice: yes; orange cologne: no. So clearly in that case it's not a matter of chemical sensitivity. Some people like simple, streamlined scents; others find them boring. It's not at all surprising that we should differ so much in our tastes when it comes to perfumeor anything else for that matter, given how different we are not only biologically but also in terms of our personal history. For every person who loves Chanel no 5, there is another who despises it, and countless other human beings who have never heard of it, much less given it a sniff.

Every successful mainstream perfume has a legion of devoteesthat's what it means to be a market success. Are those perfumes better than more obscure, much less aggressively marketed creations offered by small independent houses run by perfumers unrestrained by the yoke of a corporate master? It seems pretty clear that the "best" perfumes named by people concerned to establish their credentials as aesthetic experts about perfume have all cleared the mass-market appeal test. But should that really be a requirement when it comes to ascertaining which perfumes are in fact the best?

We know that many great perfumes have been created but discontinued because of business decisions on the part of persons who had "other priorities" or valued other things, for example, money. In some cases, it may be more profitable to sell more bottles of lower-quality perfumeseven muzak versions of former classicsthan to adhere strictly to the original recipe and continue to use high-quality ingredients. If there is a greater market potential for profit for the cheaper, lower-grade versions of a perfume sold in drugstores than for a more expensive version sold only in exclusive boutiques, then some of the business people with the power to make that call are going to follow the example of Coty.

These are questions of value, and values cannot be measured or observed or quantified by empirical means. Rather, values are projected by us upon the world. Are some values right and others wrong? What could that mean? To think more clearly about this question, we'll have to entertain the concept of relativism...


  1. I think perfume preferences has also an age factor that leads the nose during a life time.
    I also think that we can be educated to choose what we prefer.
    And there is the constant bombarding marketing to influence one's nose - not my case, but many are victims.
    As per Chanel - I detested it for a while, than I loved it for a while...strange...
    Poison - I always found this perfume a mistake and a slap on the face...but some people find it amazing...go figure...
    I used to find citrusy fragrances boring. I love more complexed and usually dirtier fragrances..but lately I found the beauty in them...
    I think we can't really frame perfumes in a label such as love it or hate it...Chanel Nº5 is a good example for me. I found out that when I wear a tiny drop of it it smells really wonderful on my skin. But it has to be minimal....

    1. Hello, Simone, and thank you for your observations!

      Yes, there is no doubt that we change our views about different perfumes over time. We tend to believe that our latest view is better than our former view (that's why we changed!), but it is difficult to see how we might validate the superiority of our current view. It is true that we can learn a lot about perfume, as in any other realm, and we may feel more sophisticated in our judgments, but the crucial evaluation itself (do I like it?) does not seem to depend upon our knowledge of facts about the perfume.

      I have encountered plenty of people who profess hatred or love of certain perfumes, but your point is well taken, that perhaps they need to modify the dose! Some would say that the only acceptable dose of their most detested perfume should be imperceptibly small! ;-)

  2. Of course there is a constant bombarding that effects the "dumb" people. But oh no, it has NO effect on Q. Q is too smart to be a victim. Advertising has no effect on "smart" people.

    Why are so many smart people

    1. This comment seems unduly hostile to me, however, because its content is relevant, I have published it.

      You are asking an age-old Socratic question, it seems to me. Or perhaps this is more obviously an example straight out of Plato: the allegory of the Cave, according to which we base our judgments of things on the appearances which are cast by sophists upon the wall of the Cave. What we see are mere shadows, not reality, but we bellow out our opinions as though they conveyed some sort of objective truth.

      I think that in the age of media, where marketing is omnipresent, Plato's allegory of the Cave is more telling than ever, and I thank you for raising this point. Can we encounter a perfume such as Chanel no 5 without having been affected by the barrage of advertisements? I do not see how, although in my case, the advertising has not succeeded in its intended goal. In fact, it has had the opposite effect: convincing me to believe that the gushing about this perfume has a lot more to do with associations with Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve, and generally perceived to be rich, glamorous, and sophisticated women...

      Of course, someone might argue that I am just as affected by the marketing hype, and react to it by simplemindedly denying the value of the product being hyped--by dismissing it out of hand for the hype alone!

      The challenge becomes recognizing that the hype is hype but developing the capacity to judge the perfume (or whatever) more or less on its own terms, rather than either celebrating it simply because it has been associated with celebrities of one or another kind (and they could be perfumers, too, the way things are going these days!), or denouncing it on essentially "emperor's new clothes" grounds.

      It seems to me that Q (above) was trying to say something along these lines. There is a difference between someone who looks at the top ten board at Sephora and says, "Wow, those are the best perfumes, so I'd better buy one of them," and someone whose response is, "This is the swill being bought these days?" Perhaps the best response is simply to take note that the top ten board is just a list of the bestselling perfumes, no more and no less significant than that.

      I should however admit that I have no objection to people enjoying perfume as a vicarious connection to some otherwise inaccessible person, or because it is popular, or because it makes them feel glamorous or sophisticated--or whatever.

      Different things make different people happy!

      Thank you for this relevant comment! ;-)

  3. A day without an entry #, is like a day without sunshine.


All relevant comments are welcome at the salon de parfum—whether in agreement or disagreement with the opinions here expressed.

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