Saturday, April 6, 2013

Entry #8: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


We have well-established conventions governing scientific and logical truth. Is there an absolute or objective truth when it comes to judgments of value? Folk expressions of relativism abound:

To each his own.

A chacun son goût.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Whatever floats your boat.

and the swapping perfumista's pride and joy:

One perfumista's trash is another perfumista's treasure

Most of the above adages are generally thought to apply to aesthetics and matters of taste, not necessarily morality. When in Rome, do as the Romans do might seem to have moral implications, but it seems to be used more often in contexts regarding social conventions. 

Think about driving conventions. In some parts of the world, drivers move forward on the left side of the road. In other parts of the world, drivers move forward on the right side of the road. There is no absolute right or wrong about the matterit's just a convention, no more and no less.

In contrast, people who believe in morality typically deny that the fact that one society kills certain types of people implies that it is "right for them". Entire cultures and societies can just be wrong, for example, in allowing slavery or child prostitution. There are some moral relativists around, who maintain that morality, too, is ultimately a matter of social conventions, but usually people's passionate reactions to what they take to be atrocities betray that they regard morality in more absolute terms than, say, taste in perfume.

Should we say, then, that there is no absolute truth about perfume when it comes to aesthetic judgment? I have pondered over this question at length here at the salon de parfum in response to what I found to be the somewhat remarkable disagreement among self-styled perfume experts on these matters. It would be one thing if "the experts" disagreed about why a given perfume was great. But how can they disagree about whether a given perfume is a masterpiece or a disaster?

On the one hand, it seems obvious that people judge perfumes by appeal to their own idiosyncratic tastes. On the other hand, many people wish simultaneously to maintain that perfume is an art and that there are genuine masterpieces to be heralded as great. Because of the nature of the perfumery business, the exaltation of some perfumes but not others as great is bound to have market effects. There seems even to be a circular approbation in some cases: that a perfume is a market success leads people to herald it as great, and once it has been heralded as great, its market success is perpetuated...

When we claim that a perfume is great or a masterpiece or a work of art, are we saying anything more than that we love it? That is the question, my fragrant friends...

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