Monday, October 21, 2013

Entry #23: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

reductio ad absurdum

One Latin expression leads to another... I was replying to a comment on the non sequitur lexicon entry post, and I used the expression reductio ad absurdum, so it occurred to me that I should define it. Basically the phrase means that the assumption of a certain idea leads to absurdity. The example in my comment had to do with perfume, so why not simply repeat it here? 

Some have claimed that it is artificiality which makes perfume art. Scents occur in nature, but perfumes are composed, bringing together combinations of scents in new ways which do not exist in that combination in nature untouched by human beings. By this definition, every scrap of clothing, every rag worn by any human being throughout the history of our desire not to run around naked, is a work of art.

My favorite reductio ad absurdum of that idea is the manmade, artificial creation known as "dryer sheets". Are dryer sheets works of art? Presumably not. So the assumption that what makes perfume art is its artificiality has been reduced to absurdity, since it would imply, too, that dryer sheets are art!

Perhaps some will play the devil's advocate and retort that dryer sheets and loin cloths and leaves worn to cover private parts really are works of art. In that case, the original assumption is simply reduced to vacuity. If everything is art, then nothing is art!


  1. Hi, it's been quite a while since I last answered one of your posts. Well, if artificiality constitutes art then I wonder why I read "chemical vat juice" in so many reviews. Perfume lovers that share this particular notion of the art definition should embrace these perfumes :)))
    My favorite reductio ad absurdum is actually a joke (and a modern fairy tale by James Thurber) that plays around with the assumption that if sth is done by a large enough number then it is the right thing to do. The joke goes like this: People let's eat shit, million of flies can't be wrong. The story, incidentally also involves a fly goes like this: A fly passes a spider's web and the spider tries to allure the fly into resting a while on its web, which the fly declines since there aren't any other flies. The fly flies on and comes to one of those sticky paper strips. As there are many many flies "resting" on it, the insect decides that this is a good resting point since there are so many other flies likewise resting on it.
    Perfume-wise I'm sorry to report that I'm going steady: Calyx by Prescriptives.
    Heath-wise I have to report that I'm currently suffering from the flu. Today I crawled out of bed as I decided that I had stared at the ceiling long enogh.
    So long, die Sonnenblume

    1. Guten Morgen, meine liebe Sonnenblume!

      So nice to read you here again. Thank you for these fine examples of ochlocracy gone awry (see: Stop the Oud Madness! lol).

      I hope that you feel better soon! I prescribe lots of tea and hot baths, preferably scented.



  2. I do think perfume is art but, like visual art, sometimes it is done very badly. This reminds me of the Supreme Court's muddled attempts to define pornography in the 1960s. Shall we use the Justice Stewart definition? (I know it when I [smell] it.)

    1. Hello, pitbull friend! Thanks for weighing in. I'm glad that you brought up pornography, because I was thinking about whether porn fans also wish to think of that genre as an art form. Are perfumistas like porn addicts, in the end, desperate to validate the object of their fascination as something more than it is (= sex on tape, in the case of pornography)?

      Your point about "bad art" is a good one, too. However, I would distinguish between bad perfume and bad poetry (doggerel) or bad art. Let's take doggerel, and restrict ourselves to the vast majority of the stuff, for which the scribbler is not remunerated in any way (so let's exclude commercial jingles, greeting card verse, and the like).

      The composition of bad poetry strikes me as VERY different from the case of a perfumer who composes a perfume under the yoke of some manager concerned above all to yield a big profit for the launch and who insists that the perfumer use only laboratory-produced aromachemicals in order to keep the production cost at an absolute minimum.

      What I'm trying to say is that these cases are quite distinct because the bad poem is wholly the creation of the writer, who selects all of the ingredients (the trite flowery language, the lame rhymes, the corny emotional content...), while the bad perfume may be essentially determined by the business manager, and that's why one is art (though bad), while the other is design (also bad!).

      What say you, pitbull friend?


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