Sunday, May 19, 2013

Entry #19: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

The Is-Ought Problem or Facts versus Values

From no matter of fact does any course of action follow. Descriptions do not produce prescriptions. Values must also be thrown into the mix. This is why it is impossible to argue someone into abiding by morality. They must already affirm the value of a moral perspective, and if they do not appreciate the value of morality, then nothing you can say will convert them to your view. You can show them pictures of atrocities and explain the negative consequences of acting immorally, but they will simply shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?" 

The same divisionor unbridgeable chasmbetween facts and values explains why you cannot talk anyone into loving or even liking something which they do not love or like. Many people would rather read a genre fiction "page turner" than an abstruse and labyrinthine multilayered and nonlinear nouveau roman. They may affirm the brilliance of the latter (if they understand it), but when it comes time to pick up a book to read onboard a plane en route to a land far away, they may select a paperback book from the bestsellers shelf.

In perfumery, you might recognize that a great deal of technical skill was needed to produce a given creation, but that alone will not make you like it. You might in fact detest it so much that you would never wear it. Nonetheless, we tend to think that the perfumes which we dislike are not good perfumes, because we consider our perceptions to be authoritative, and they areto us. 

"I know what I like" rings nowhere truer than in the realm of perfume, because at the end of the day, perfume is for wearing, and wearers have personal idiosyncracies and likes and dislikes which appear to determine their evaluations. Our values precede our experience of perfume, not the other way around. 

Philosophers usually talk about the "is-ought" problem as it applies in moral contexts. How can you convince a seasoned killer that what he does is wrong? In fact, you cannot. Once someone has already crossed over the line from within to beyond the pale, he may become even more inclined to do what he has already done in order to prove to himself that there was nothing wrong with what he already did. Indeed, it may be the very act of committing a moral transgression which converts some people to belief in amorality or immorality. 

Can the analogous thing happen with perfume? Can you force yourself to wear a perfume which you truly dislike initially to the point where it becomes familiar and somehow comforting to you? Can you habituate yourself to a scent which you did not initially like? I do not believe that an intrinsically unwearable perfume can work in this casesay something like Estée Lauder Intuition, which in my experience was so unpleasant that I actually returned the bottle for a refund at the counter where I had bought itThat is something which I nearly never do, but I could not bear the thought of wearing Intuition again, as it was an experience akin to forcibly removing my toenails, which, needless to say, I would never choose to do.

However, I do believe that fragrances toward which we are more neutrally inclined are easy to become habituated to. That explains the tsunami of sweet laundry and shampoo and conditioner scents which one finds littering the wall at Sephora these days. People are being slowly habituated to the idea that that sort of composition is perfume. It makes a lot of sense really, when you think about who's in on the perfume business game these days. Procter & Gamble, anyone? 

The very concept of perfume has been transforming as a result of the models being fobbed off on Joe and Jill Q. Consumer, who may go to purchase gifts for each other at Sephora and end up with an aquatic cologne for him and a pink fruity-floral fragrance for her, which they will wear until they are gone, at which point they'll go shopping again and look specifically for what they have already wornor something like it.

This explains, too, the culture shock on the part of perfumistas whose formative sniffing and wearing experiences pre-dated these new developments. Anyone who is old enough to remember what perfumes were like before the twenty-first century may simply deny that the aromachemical-heavy "stuff" being pumped out of vats into plastic-flower-capped bottles these days is perfume at all.

We are in the midst of a complete breakdown of perfume culture as a result of the fact that many perfumistas do remember the good old days, while at the same time, the ever-encroaching forces of abstraction engendered in part by the IFRA continue to act on everything produced in the mainstream realm. 

Returning to the "is-ought" problem, the fact that many women's fragrances are abstract, pink, fruity-floral fragrances does not imply that they should be. But they are. The question remains: what to do? This is a very deep question which divides perfumistas into two camps well-represented by savvy perfume writers Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos and Bigsly at In the not-too-distant future, I'll take up their debate and attempt to navigate a third way between their two seemingly incompatible and irreconcilable approaches. 

Stay tuned... 


  1. I'm currently reading "The Axemaker's Gift" which tackles the fascinating subject of the history of human culture, and it's been particularly fun today as I go back and forth from the book to your blog. The power and influence of the printed word is discussed at great length in the book and I imagine that perfumistas ability to remember the good old days is a direct example this. When reading perfume blogs like yours and Bryan's, we are 'reminded' of how things used to be and keeps it alive in our collective conscience - a fascinating subject! Love your blog!

  2. Thank you, Cymbaline, and welcome to the salon de parfum!

    I'll have to check out that book. It is amazing, isn't it, how complex the topic of perfume really is, once you start thinking about it...

  3. Excellent post, Sher, as always. Not entirely clear on your point with P&G, though - are you referring to their soaps? Sorry to ask, it's just that I'm hoping I'm connecting your references correctly. They've been in the fragrance business proper since 1990 with Old Spice, and in '91 when they bought Max Factor and Betrix they basically took over a whole slew of department store fragrances like the classic Hugo Boss line, and the original feminine Giorgio Beverly Hills and masculine Red for Men. Hardly shampoo and conditioner scents! Totally agree on that red highlighted point about "I know what I like."

    1. Good points, Bryan, thank you for calling me on my P&G pot shot! That was somewhat of an impulsive remark, I admit. I may have been thinking of the Dolce & Gabbana Anthologie Series, which includes a few blatant shampoo-conditioner entries. I knew about Old Spice, but I did not know about the other 1990s acquisitions. Examples such as Giorgio Beverly Hills prove exactly the opposite of my insinuation!

      Thank you very much, Bryan! I always appreciate your comments and criticisms: keeping me honest here at the salon de parfum! ;-)

  4. I disagree with so many statements in this post that I'm not sure which is more appropriate/polite: to go away without commenting at all or to try responding.

    Personally I'd prefer to now that somebody read what I wrote - even to disagree with me - than just glazed over and went away, so I'll try.

    The following your statement sounds strange to me:
    "Once someone has already crossed over the line from within to beyond the pale, he may become even more inclined to do what he has already done in order to prove to himself that there was nothing wrong with what he already did. Indeed, it may be the very act of committing a moral transgression which converts some people to belief in amorality or immorality."

    "may become", "may be"... It's kind of a weak argument: you are making it but at the same time you're leaving yourself a way out (something like "I'm not saying that's what is actually happenning in case you start arguing with me but I make a supposition").

    In my opinion, people behave immorally not necessary after making the crossover to the other side. Some of them has never subscribed to it in the first place. And some might realize that what they are doing is wrong - but still do it (for various reasons). It's the same as with actual laws - many people are breaking them not because they don't understand that they are doing that or think it's fine to do that; they do it despite knowing that it's wrong and punishable but hope not to get caught.

    About books: different books have different place and time. It's normal that people might tend to choose light reading for those annoying hours of travelling - even if they value more complex books and would read them under difference circumstances. And for those who don't value serious books that passage doesn't apply at all.

    As to the loving/liking something against the natural course in general, it's so not true! A lot of things are an acquired taste so people develop the appreciation of those over time. There are more or less impressionable people; there are more or less easily manipulatable subjects; but, in general, likes/dislikes are constantly influences from the outside.

    And to finish on a perfume-related note, take a look at that 180 degrees turn in personal preferences (not mine).

    1. Hello, Undina, and thank you for pressing the submit button! We love criticism here at the salon de parfum: bring it on!!!! ;-)

      First, on the point about morality: I was referring to the phenomenon of corruption, which does happen quite a lot. I admit to having recently watched a collection of videos about the history of the mafia, in addition to the first two seasons of HBO Boardwalk Empire. So lots of examples of corruption were fresh in my mind. Yes, I covered myself with the weak verbs "may be" and "may become", because I do not believe that everyone slides down the slippery slope to total moral depravity. But some people certainly do.

      I have to say that I disagree with you about people breaking the law who supposedly "know that it's wrong" but do it assuming that they won't get caught. I wonder how often that really happens. As you yourself observe, some, perhaps many, of those people surely DO NOT BELIEVE THAT IT IS WRONG in the first place. They do what they do in good conscience, hoping that they will not be detected precisely so that MISGUIDED LAW will not be used to UNFAIRLY to restrict their liberty.

      Again: the entire story of Prohibition in the United States is quite fresh in my mind and is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. People did not stop drinking when alcohol was made illegal by the Volstead act in 1920. On the contrary, they bought their alcohol illegally and continued to drink. Somewhat ironically, prohibition is largely responsible for the "organization" of organized crime in this country! None of the gangsters involved in bootlegging believed that selling and drinking alcohol was wrong, and none of their customers did either. They felt that the law was stupid, and when it was eventually repealed, they were actually vindicated!

      Unfortunately, many people were murdered in the process of protecting criminals from apprehension from the authorities for their illegal activities. Really, it was all a huge mess. If you are interested in examples of people breaking laws without believing that what they are doing is wrong, there is perhaps no better case to look at than the Prohibition era. I recommend Boardwalk Empire, if you have not already seen it.

      As for examples of the opposite behavior, where someone does something which he feels is wrong and is truly corrupted by the act, there are plenty of examples among the veterans of the Vietnam war. Those men were drafted and sent to kill people who had never done anything wrong to them, and when they returned to this country, many of them became violent criminals (in some cases, hit men), having already transgressed what had formerly been their moral belief that it was wrong to kill.

      A propos of the books example: yes, there are different times for different things. But surely people who do appreciate more intellectual works will aver that they are better than Harlequin romance novels, which are churned out according to a pre-established template. No? Of course you are right that many people only read genre fiction, and some people read very little in the way of literature at all—no argument there! ;-)

      Regarding perfume: I'm not sure that we disagree. Yes, there are acquired tastes. Are not all tastes acquired, on some level? My only example was Estée Lauder Intuition, which basically attacked my central nervous system, making it impossible for me to wear a second time. Probably I was allergic to something in it. Clearly, a person who is allergic to a food item will never eat it again!

      Thank you so much, Undina, for these feisty objections! Keep 'em coming!

    2. There are too many points to keep arguing in this format on all of them - I'm sure it would have made for an interesting after dinner talk - but I have to touch one point that I skipped in my previous post, just because you broght it up again :)

      What were you thinking while buying a bottle (!) of a perfume you haven't tried wearing at least a couple of times before?!!

    3. A gambling gal I am, Undina, and I've often acquired bottles of perfume scent unsniffed! If memory serves, that particular bottle I purchased in a gift set for my sister, who hated it. She returned it to me, but I also hated it, so it went back to the counter! ;-)

    4. Undina that's a funny question to me because literally 2/3rds of my collection was purchased dead blind. Maybe it's different for guys, though - when you familiarize yourself with fougeres and "powerhouse" fragrances you adopt a series of expectations that are usually fairly accurate in the test - plan on lots of lavender, moss, patchouli. The biggest variable is quality of ingredients.

    5. Bryan, I can somewhat understand blind purchase of a perfume that isn't easily available for testing. But with Estee Lauder's counters everywhere it puzzled me. But Shera Pop's explanation kind of answered that (even though broght up another question about buying somebody else perfumes as gifts :) ).

  5. As a newbie I had no ability to discriminate about scents other than crude preconceptions. Within approximately a year I began to think that some scents had promise, but I didn't understand why I felt that way. Probably a bit over a year into the "hobby" I began to enjoy vintage scents better but was still not sure why. Eventually I figured out that some of the new chemicals being used produced unpleasant effects, especially over time (initially many smelled good if not great). Conversely, some vintage ones that seemed "skunky" at first really came around and smelled great after 10-20 minutes or thereabouts. Today, I sampled Spicebomb for the first time. I like everything about it (unlike the similar, but unbalanced Taste Of Fragrance), but it just doesn't have the depth or particulate (some call it "tingly") qualities of the vintage greats. The good thing about this hobby is that I may learn to appreciate it enough to keep it in my rotation; I'm in no rush to make such a decision. And as you might have read on one of my recent blog posts, there is a crucial question to me that rears its head once the quality level gets down to ones like the newest 1-12 formulation: wouldn't I rather buy 12 dollar store scents (that I get to sample and know that I like) than the new 1-12? I think Spicebomb is better than owning 50 dollar store scents (assuming one has the room for them). but I can't say for sure, and that's saying something (since I'd much rather own a bunch of vintage ones that 100 dollar store scents) !

  6. Note that last part of my previous comment should read as, (since I'd much rather own one of my vintage favorites than 100 dollar store scents) !

    and not:

    (since I'd much rather own a bunch of vintage ones that 100 dollar store scents) !


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