Sunday, September 15, 2013

Entry #21: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

a priori, a posteriori

The expression a priori is used by native French speakers in everyday discourse to mean something like "ahead of time" or "in advance", but among English speakers it is much less common and sounds very sophisticated and recherché. In fact, the only people I know who use the expression are philosophers.

In philosophy, a priori is contrasted to a posteriori and there's a lot of controversy specifically about a priori knowledge, which would be knowledge "before or without" experience. I know, it sounds impossible. How could you have knowledge of anything unless your neurons were firing? But isn't that an experience? Really the terms are meant to separate the sort of knowledge which is dependent upon the contingent way which the world happens to be, and knowledge which is independent of such historical fortuities.

One example would be the truths of mathematics or logic. Presumably they would still be true even if all of chemistry was completely different so that the most common atoms in our bodies were not carbon and hydrogen but WOEIFWI and XKCNQ. Anywhere in the universe, presumably, 1 + 1 = 2.

Do we have any a priori knowledge of perfume? Evidently not. It's all a posteriori, though we might base predictions on past experience. When people grumble about a reformulation which they assume is going to be bad, they are not grumbling on the basis of a sensory experience of the new version, but because they have been disappointed in the past, with other cases of reformulation, and they expect that this reformulation, too, will be bad.

What is the basis of that belief? It's not entirely irrational, because it commences from a recognition of certain trends in the perfume industry--which is based on experience. So a conjecture about a perfume yet to be experienced is based upon empirical information. I don't want to say that it's knowledge, because that's another whole huge controversy. This information strikes me as true: new fragrances, on the whole, are becoming more abstract and simpler than they were in the twentieth century.

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