Ontology, Ontological, Ontologist
A few entries back I boldly asserted that epistemology and phenomenology were the two most reviled philosophical terms. What was I thinking? Even philosophers hate the word ontology! "Ontology, schmontology," has often been muttered by lovers of Quine and scientistic types more generally. The science worshipers and analytic philosophers (not quite coextensive, but close enough), all roll their eyes whenever anyone expresses an interest in the topic of ontology. So what is it, exactly?
We covered the basics of ontology in the episode of The History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume dedicated to Parmenides, an ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who was the ontologist to end all ontologists. The key concept for Parmenides was Being. Ontology is the study of Being. And, yes, I do believe that it is supposed to be capitalized, to underscore its importance. So what, exactly, is Being? To be or not to be, that is the question, and it's a lot more profound that you might initially have thought.
To begin with, what are the things in reality? Sounds easy, right? There are chairs, and there are tables, and there are bottles. Now we come to perfumes. Are there individual perfumes? Perfumes actually perfectly reflect the profundity of ontological studies. What makes a perfume a perfume, after all? When and how does a perfume come to exist?
In terms of chemistry, a perfume is made up of a bunch of molecules. All of the ingredients on the label, including the mystery ingredient parfum, which especially distinguishes a perfume from all others, are components which, before being mixed together are other things: alcohol, eugenol, linalool, geraniol, the list goes on and on. So in mixing a bunch of different substances together, a perfumer ends up creating something new, a perfume which did not exist before. This is a grand creation act. How can a mere human being create new objects in reality? Perfumers appear to do it all the time. Chanel no 5 did not exist, and then suddenly, thanks to Ernest Beaux and Gabrielle Chanel, it did.
But are these new perfumes really real? Or are they not merely a part of the unstable world of becoming? That was essentially Parmenides' view. All of the change and movement which we observe in reality is illusory. There is only one real thing, and that is Being. Ontology is the study of Being, but since there is only one real thing, Being, nothing can be said about it, since any spoken words are going to divide up reality into pieces.
Understood in the Parmenidean sense, ontology digs deeper than metaphysics, which is still concerned with cause and effect and ultimate divisions between things, even if those things cannot be accessed through empirical means. Ontology, my fragrant friends, is deep, and I suspect that at least some ontologists throughout history have grasped Being only under the influence of powerfully psychomimetic drugs. For now, we are mired in the world of becoming, which is of course why we are functional.
We do distinguish things from one another in what we perceive to be reality. Not all perfumes are the same. Perhaps if we were enlightened enough, we would cease making any distinctions whatsoever. For now, let's just keep reviewing all of the different perfumes which we believe ourselves to be encountering while we wallow our way through the shadowy world of becoming.
I will say that when I see the tsunami of new niche launches, I start to understand the appeal of the simpler approach. Is every single possible combination of any possible liquid substances a perfume? Are there then infinitely many perfumes? Apparently so, if the behavior of the multilaunchers means anything. So long as they can keep coming with new names—often through the use, it seems, of random name generators—then they can continue to christen new perfumes.
We sometimes identify perfumes as very similar to already existent perfumes, but as the grand map of the olfactory world becomes populated with more and more perfumes, at some point there will cease to be any iconic perfumes. At that point, perhaps, we will all be carried away in a sea of perfumes, the names of which will cease to matter anymore.
If we could adopt the perspective of Parmenides, we'd be cured forever of our disappointment and anger over reformulated perfumes. They were never real to begin with, so how could they be any less real today than they ever were? Mitsouko was always an illusion.