Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lessons Learned:The Serge Lutens Wax Sample Haiku Project

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Prolegomenon 
to Any Future Phenomenology of Perfume Perception

It all started so simply, as these things always do. One small step leads to another, and then another, and then another, until finally an inexorable sense of commitment is formed, and one must follow through in order to finish what one has already begun.

That is precisely what happened in this case, believe it or not. I did not scheme for five months—from January 31 to July 1—about beginning the very first phenomenology of perfume experiment precisely on July 1, 2013. No, I did not. It happened completely by accident, or perhaps divine intervention—or reasonable facsimile (I am agnostic, after all). Something, some unknown force, led me on July 1, 2013, to pick up the attractive black wax sample folio which was sent to me last year by the house of Serge Lutens. I had thought before about when to begin sniffing the samples, but there was no real planning involved. Instead, I just pulled out one of the cards and began. It happened just like that, and I did not even realize the date, until I came to the salon to post the first wax sample haiku. But then, of course, it all made so much sense: thirty-two wax samples; thirty-two haiku. The first foray on the first day of July. The rest is history.

Yes, OCD kicked in, and I could not resist the pull to continue on and on and on. Once five were finished, then I was already committed. There could be no turning back. To stop then would have been to admit defeat. Now that it's finally over, and all six of us can finally breathe a deep sigh of relief, it is time to take stock. What were the lessons learned from this extended haiku holiday of sorts in the land of le grand Serge?

  1. I learned that perfumes are nothing but a bunch of smells stuck together. They are no different from smells in nature except that groups of them have been clustered together, and that cluster has been christened some name (often arbitrary) and captured in a form where they can be found together again (usually in a bottle). Perfumers can be viewed as matchmakers of sorts, who bring together scents which are not married naturally in nature, but which work together harmonically. Sometimes...

  1. When I sniffed each wax sample, I discovered that the different scents brought together were sometimes confusing and muddled and corresponded to no single and precise scene in reality. Could such a fixed marriage between seemingly incompatible scents be sustained? Or would they not represent a divorce waiting to happen, and accomplished through a bath?

  1. No matter how cacophonous the mixtures sometimes seemed, they did, nonetheless, manage to remind me of groups of objects. Sometimes it took a couple of minutes, but eventually something more or less clear and distinct would pop into my mind.

  1. Haiku ended up being a reasonably good way to capture small parts of my experience of these clusters of scents. In some cases, I had difficulty coming up with an image, because the cluster really smelled like nothing recognizable to me at all. But I was always able eventually to come up with an image or two or three of what the smell(s) reminded me of. The challenge then was to devise a haiku meeting the 5-7-5 syllable requirement. Sometimes I ended up changing the image, tweaking it so as to be able to conform to the rules. Perhaps a more honest phenomenological study would need to be completely free form, with no restrictions or requirements whatsoever.

  1. It can be said without hyperbole, I think, that these wax samples served more as Rorschach tests than anything else, because the images evoked were deeply embedded in my mind, or created by combinations of other images deeply embedded in my mind. Once again, Christos of Memory of Scent has been vindicated: perfume, no matter the medium in which it is delivered, above all is this:

“a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives, 
and solvents used to create, modify and recall memories”

  1. I do not have static memories. My memories are dynamically connected so that I'll think of one object and then another object and then another. When I attempted to conjure up a single image, I generally failed. Even when I came up with a scene, it was usually more like a film than a snapshot.

  1. Throughout the thirty-two trials of this project, I felt a sense of liberation in knowing that I had never promised to be delivering reviews, so no one could really take issue with what I ended up conjuring in my mind and transforming into a concise text. In some cases, each line was a different image; in others, the lines were parts of a bigger image. Sometimes I felt that I was just making something up, but then I wondered to myself: how is making something up different from finding an image in my mind?

  1. I have to admit that the haiku structure requirement made me feel a bit less free, but it also made this more fun than simply penning a free-form review. Despite the structural constraint, I still found haiku somewhat less stifling than the tugging sense of obligation to “capture” the scent for readers looking to find out “the objective truth” about a perfume. By this I do not mean to suggest that I agonize over my perfume reviews, but it seems that I do feel some sense of obligation to say something useful, which in my more reflective moments I regret, as I do not believe that reviews are ever objective, so the most that anyone can do is honestly to report their idiosyncratic experience and ideas. The “requirement” is really just this: explain how it is possible for a person to experience this perfume in certain very precise circumstances and at a certain time and under particular weather conditions and while in a certain mood. In other words, perfume testing is not really open to “scientific confirmation” at all, since it is impossible to isolate the variables or to reproduce the same experimental setting twice!

  1. Lots of smells overlap, especially perfume smells. On several occasions I found myself erroneously guessing what the identity of the perfume was—usually either Fleurs d'Oranger or Arabie. Ironically enough, neither of those perfumes, which I had tested and reviewed earlier in liquid form, was included among the wax sample folios! Part of the reason why I kept thinking of those two perfumes was that so many of the Serge Lutens perfumes are either thick and powerfully floral (Fleurs d'Oranger) or spicy and heavy, with an emphasis on culinary scents (Arabie). Each time when I guessed that I must be smelling Arabie, in fact, it was something else entirely, albeit also something with heavy spices and dried fruits—at least to my nose at that time. It seems not unfair to say that a lot of curry and cumin is circulating about chez Serge, and it is clearly an acquired taste whether in cuisine or in perfume. On one occasion, I literally expressed gratitude outloud (and HRH Emperor Oliver can back me up on this) that I had been spared the curry and cumin that night through the benevolent intervention of the scent gods—or reasonable facsimile.

  1. My impression from several tests of the liquid perfumes of this house remains that many of these creations are event scents, good for experiencing but not necessarily all that pleasant to wear, and probably not something which I wish to smell like to others. Some of the wax samples conjured negative and even ugly images. I did not like the way they smelled and would not want to smell like them nor to  smell other people who smelled like those perfumes.

  1. Negative images were elicited by some of the wax samples during my initial wearing, as I devised my haiku, but a few of them ended up smelling much nicer later on down the line. Others, however, did not. As a result of my desire to finish all thirty-two wax samples during the month of July (with one running over to August 1), I was forced to modify my bathing schedule from summers past, when I often bathed in the morning. (Occasionally, on super-hot days, I have been known to take two baths, as my humble abode is air conditioning-free.) I found this year that I needed to take a bath at night, after my wax sample haiku session, for fear that the unpleasant or simply strong scent would induce nightmares in me. My concern on this front was caused by my knowledge that whenever I eat spicy food late at night, I have dreams about murder and mayhem. No, I am not joking, and I could not take that chance, as I had other things to do this month aside from the wax sample haiku.

  1. I learned that whatever I attend to in the moment seems essential, but it's really just a selection, and had my focus been on something else, then that thing would have been essential, at that moment, to my mind. This confirms, again, my long-standing belief that perfume review experiences probably should not be stable, at least not for any perfume with a fair amount of complexity. Because I can only focus on one thing at a time, my take on a perfume will be a function of how much time I spend thinking about it. If I apply a perfume and then go do something else, I'm bound to miss many of its facets.

  1. This selective attention problem helps to explain the sometimes radical divergence in opinion about a given perfume at fragrance community websites. Some people really focus in a dedicated way on a perfume over several hours; others take a whiff of the top notes and call it a day. These two approaches are bound to produce very different reviews, even by people who have had similar experiences in the past. Of course, none of this is new, but it seems to confirm some concerns expressed eloquently by Bigsly at Bigslyfragrance on a number of occasions. He is fond of reminding readers that he ignores top notes, but it seems clear from many reviews, that perfume wearers often have neither the time nor the patience to “wait it out”, so to speak.

All in all, this was a valuable learning experience, the most important lesson of which to my mind was that perfumes are really smells. As trivial as that may seem, I somehow find it profound. Perfumes evoke memories of groups of things because those or similar things have been smelled before in reality by the perceiver. In many cases, the smells are associated with other perfumes, but they are still things in reality which have been smelled before as distinct and isolable entities which can be found again and again, as someone somewhere decided to group a certain set of scents together and capture them in a small volume of space (again, usually inside a bottle).

These findings help to explain why laymen (by which I really mean nonperfumistas!) believe that perfumes are not works of art but scents, similar to the way in which the chirping of a bird is a sound, not a work of music. Phenomenologically speaking, that is precisely what they are, and although we may wish to lay an elaborate theoretical lattice upon our experience, in the end, comparisons to non-perfume scented things occurring either in nature or in man-made reality are no less valid, and probably more, in some ways. 

As I think about all of these matters, I continue to reflect upon the elizabethW magnolia candle which sits on a bookshelf close to the computer in my living room. I notice it only about once every several days—sometimes less often than that—but each time that I do, I find myself delighted by the scent and amazed that I had not the slightest perception of it for the several preceding days, during which it ceased to exist, for all intents and purposes, to my mind.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Entry #12: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Phenomenology, Phenomenological

After epistemology, phenomenology may be one of the most reviled philosophical terms. My distinct impression is that people dislike the word phenomenological as well. Why? Because nearly every time I use it, I am advised by someone or other not to. 

Most people know that the plural of phenomenon is phenomena. but when one uses the word phenomenological, eyes are likely to glaze over. It seems to be rather like saying (**^&^#^%#$@%$@%$@%$@%$@%! As in the case of utilitarianism, a fairly ordinary term, phenomenon, has been appropriated and modified by philosophers (especially Husserl, but Hegel, too, used phenomenology in an idiosyncratic way) to refer to a specific approach to knowledge. I used this word in a comment on the previous entry, so I figured that I'd better define it. 

Phenomenon in the vernacular means more or less the same as thing, with a connotation of being special in one way or another. Maybe that's how the word phenomenal came to mean something like extraordinary.

The term phenomenology refers to the examination of direct experience, the data as they present themselves to one's senses, without any knowledge of the objects which generate the data. Imagine looking at a book, without knowing that it's a book. It's just an object with a parallelopiped structure from various angles. How do you process this image? What can you learn from the direct experience of the image before your eyes?

In an upcoming post, I intend to give a better idea of what phenomenology is, but for the purposes of this entry, I'd simply like to observe that perfume would seem to offer a splendid opportunityin fact, idealfor phenomenological analysis, particularly when one samples blind, without knowledge of the house, the nose, the notes, or anything "external", which a phenomenologist would say should be "bracketed". 

If we can experience a perfume as a thing in itself, the manner in which we describe it will still, invariably, relate back to our idiosyncratic history (what we have experienced before), including our knowledge of other perfumes. If perfume is one of the best candidates for phenomenological analysis, yet even it poses problemscan you really smell aldehydes without thinking of Chanel  no 5?this may signal that the project of phenomenology is doomed. Or perhaps it is just a bit too ambitious. Perhaps we can still learn from attempting phenomenological analysis of experience, even if it may not be possible to fully "bracket" all of our background knowledge.

Can you describe a perfume in terms of pure experience? Or must it always be mediated by a bunch of other theories, including knowledge of other perfumes? 

What say you, my fragrant friends?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Is this Creed a Fake? An essay in applied epistemology

A while back, I purchased a couple of Creed perfumes from an online discount emporium. I knew that they had a liberal return policy, so in the event that I received fakes, I'd be able to return them for a full refund. I had bought Creeds from discounters in the past with extraordinarily good luck. I base this claim on the fact that I tested nearly the entire set of Creed perfumes about three years ago using house-prepared vials provided by an officially authorized Creed dealer. I wrote reviews at that time, and so when my experience matched my reviews, and the perfumes also proved to have excellent longevity and smell natural, I was confident that they were authentic. Needless to say, I was delighted in those cases to have saved a wad of cash by taking a chance on acquiring those bottles from unauthorized dealers.

 Note the peridot green color!

This more recent time, however, I may not have been so lucky. I spoke with a woman at Creed headquarters at length regarding the purchase, as I had also in the past about various issues regarding their distribution and the problem of fakes. Creed is extremely helpful and understanding about this problem and they go out of their way to take the time to talk to consumers of their perfumeswhether or not they are customers of the boutique itself. 

The people at Creed know very well that many of us who wish to own Creed perfumes would also love to be able to save $100 or even $200 a bottle, if possible. But is it possible in a world rife with Creed fakes? that is the question, my fragrant friends. Of course, many consumers believe that genuine Creeds can be had for significantly less than MSRP, as evidenced by the amazing fact that, despite countless "Creed fake" threads at Dnotes, all of which relay basically the same story over and over again, people continue to acquire Creed bottles from e-bay. 

As a matter of fact, even the Creed staff avers that it is possible to obtain genuine Creed perfumes from unauthorized dealers. The problem, they are swift to warn, is that there is no guarantee, as there is when one purchases from an officially authorized Creed dealer. One way for real Creed perfumes to show up at discounters is when an authorized dealer closes up shop for one reason or another (usually going out of business), and they sell off their entire stock in one big lot. 

The structure of the cap and spray mechanism appear to be genuine

The problem, of course, is that discounters obtain bottles by any and all other means as well, and this means that it's always a gamble. Discounters, too, hope to peddle only genuine wares, but because there is not a direct and documentable path from the provider back to the producer of the perfumes, there is no way to prevent fakes being slipped into the system now and then. For most perfumes, this is not a problem, since no one would bother to invest the time and energy needed to produce a plausible fake because it would not be profitable enough. Only for expensive perfumes such as Creed does this make the enterprise worth the criminal's effort and guile. 

The lot numbers engraved on the bottle and printed on the box match

The good news is that, unlike ebay peddlers, discounters tend not to be fly-by-night ventures but reputable businesses working hard to build and maintain a loyal clientele. This is why when customers are dissatisfied, the store permits them to return the merchandise, and the store even pays the postage for the return, provided that there is a legitimate reason for the disgruntled consumers' concern.

I believe that I may have received a fake bottle of Tabarome, which for that reason I returned (once a good friend of mine had taken these photos for me). What is the evidence? skeptical minds are already asking. What are the key signs of a fake Creed? Having looked into this matter a few times before, I am familiar with the tell-tale signs of egregious fakes, and many of them are missing in this case. Here is what is as it should be:

1. There are no misspellings of the text on either the box or the folio. 

2. The cardboard of the box has the raised impressions with the Creed logo. 

3. The lot number etched in the bottom edge of the glass matches the lot number on the label affixed to the bottom of the box. 

4. The inner sprayer is made of white plastic and is a separate piece from the outer sprayer. 

5. The cap has a separate inner plastic insert, and the crown insignia is on a separate piece from the rest of the outer cap.

6. The white calling card included in the box appears to be genuine, as it is empirically indistinguishable from the ones included with bottles which I am confident contain authentic Creed perfume.

Folio and Calling Card included in the box

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there are a few outstanding problems. If this bottle is a fake, it is not an egregious one, but is it a fake after all?

Let us list the evidence, and then consider the various explanations for the evidence. Are there other ways to explain what I identified as disparities? I found problems with each of these:

1. The scent 

2. The color of the liquid

3. The box top

4. The folio

5. The front of the box

6. The marbled quality of the plastic inner layer of the cap.

The Scent

The moment I sprayed on the liquid from this bottle, the first word which came out of my mouth was: aromachemicals. The scent smacked decidedly of the current craze among both designer and niche perfumers for the use of some combination of iso-E-super and ambroxan and what-not, and I do not like it at all. Would I want to wear this perfume? In a word: No.

Why in the world did she buy it? inquiring minds are now pondering. The answer is found in the review which I penned at Fragrantica on May 7, 2010:

I am beginning to wonder whether I might have been a chain smoker in a past life, as I find myself delighted by every fragrance in which tobacco plays a central role, and especially in savory presentations. Part of my excitement may be due to the relative dearth of the tobacco note in women's perfume, and especially outside gourmand territory. 
Creed TABAROME is a delectable tobacco composition with no sweetness, no ashiness, and no dirtiness. This is not the smell of cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. TABAROME is clean, wet, green, freshly harvested piles of tobacco leaves, beautifully framed by a few gentle aromatics. Fresh tea leaves are present as well, along with sandalwood, vetiver and musk, serving to anchor the composition and impart good longevity and medium sillage. 
I do not believe that TABAROME is suited only for men, nor that this is an "old school", "landed gentry" frag. I find this sumptuous in the way in which so many patchouli perfumes are--the clean ones, not the dark, dirty ones.  
Perhaps tobacco land owners should abandon their doomed projects to create new smokers and instead divert their energies, resources and time to the perfume industry. I honestly believe that now that patchouli has achieved market saturation, tobacco could be the new patchouli...
Highly recommended. On my wish list, too!

So there you have it. Why I boughtor tried to buya bottle of Tabarome. My experience of the liquid in the bottle in question unfortunately bore no relation to the experience relayed in the above review. 

Now, there are several possible explanations for the disparity. Perhaps in my first encounter with Creed Tabarome I was succumbing to the power of suggestion. Perhaps I imagined the scent of tobacco in my original testing of a house-sourced vial. But why, then, would I not similarly conjure up the scent of tobacco in this instance as well? I suppose that it is possible that I was already skeptical, having purchased the bottle from a discounter. 

What if this creation has been reformulated? Perhaps I smelled another scent because the name Tabarome is now being attached to a different perfume. Or perhaps the disparity can be explained by the natural variations in natural ingredients, often cited in explaining inconsistencies especially in different batches of perfumes built from natural materials. 

The problem with that explanation is that the substance in this bottle of Tabarome did not smell natural to me at all. I smelled none of the wonderful notes of what I believed earlier to have been Tabarome. I smelled aromachemicals. Is it possible that in the interim I developed a hypersensitivity to aromachemicals having encountered them in some many perfumes of late? Perhaps I did not smell the ginger and the tobacco and the other notes in this batch of Tabarome because my nose was distracted by the aromachemicals which perhaps were being used now in place of some of the former materials.

Could the disparity be explained by a change in taste? I do not believe so, because I detected none of the notes present in the earlier testing. Before, I was able easily to identify the tobacco note. It's not that I detected tobacco in this batch and did not like it. No, I did not detect it at all!

The Color

Am I imagining this, or is this the only bottle of Tabarome pictured on the entire World Wide Web which is peridot green? I've googled and googled, and looked at everyone's images, and the liquid in only this bottle is a wacky hue of green! What can this mean? Could this radical difference in color be explained by a particularly verdant crop of tobacco? Needless to say, I'm skeptical, given that I smelled no tobacco but only aromachemicals here.

The Box top

Every single box of Creed which I own and have ever seen uses all caps for the text on the box top. This one uses lower case. Was this due to a deviant designer who happened to be working at the time of the production of the box housing this particular bottle of "Tabarome"? Are there other boxes around with lower-case text, and I simply have never encountered them? If I owned more Creed perfumes, would I encounter this variant again? Can anyone out there speak to this question? Have you a box with lower-case writing on the top? If so, are you sure that yours is authentic Creed? How is it that you know?

Only one of these boxes (in the lower left-hand quadrant)
uses lower case for the list of historical figures who wore Creed perfume.
The other boxes all use all caps 

The Folio

The informational folio included with all of my other Creed perfumes has four pages, in multiple languages. This one? A single page in English, with no text on the backside and no other languages. 

Page 1 of two different folios: the one on the left is only in English;
the one on the right offers the text in English, French, Italian, and German 
on the subsequent pages (missing from the dubious Tabarome folio)

Page 2 of the dubious Tabarome folio; Page 2-3 of an authentic Creed folio

There is no text on the backside (page 2) of the dubious Tabarome folio;
there is text on the backside (page 4) of the authentic Creed folio

I do not believe that the severely abridged folio alone proves that the Tabarome is fake. But it requires some imagination to explain why the text is only the first page of the four-page authentic folio. Could it be a printer error? Books are sometimes printed with pages in the wrong order or missing pages, or even with the pages of a completely different book interpolated. Could something bizarre like that have happened here? Is it plausible that a fake-Creed producer would make this sort of mistake, when it seems one of the easiest parts of the production to mimic?

The Front of the Box

The issues which I found on the front of the box are subtle, but perhaps important. First, the word père appears to be split in two, as though the person setting the text did not know French and so thought that there were two words: and re.

père  or  and re ???

The second issue is the missing next to 120ml. This is present on all of my other boxes. However, there is a possible problem. This Tabarome was the only 120ml bottle box ever in my possession. Could it be that the 120ml bottle box does not have that symbol for a reason? I am skeptical, especially because my 250ml bottle of Jasmin Impératrice Eugénie (which is undeniably authentic) does display that symbol next to the volume. 

a suspiciously missing e

Again, the possibilities proliferate. Could this, too, have been a printer's error on a specific lot of boxes? The raised insignia looks perfectly in order. The cardboard is clearly the same. Even the silver ink matches. Could these variations be the work of an incompetent typesetter, perhaps?

The Inner Cap

The inner cap is a separate piece from the outer cap, which seems genuine because the crown insignia is also separate. However, there is a problem:  the inner cap exhibits a marbled quality absent from every other Creed cap I've seen. 

Is this marbled quality common in Creed caps?
Have I just happened on homogeneous plastic in my experience with genuine Creeds in the past? 

This, too, could be some sort of fluke. Or perhaps I simply have not looked at a wide enough range of Creed caps. Or perhaps, again, there are significant differences in the case of 120ml bottles. But wait: aren't the caps the very same size???? Needless to say, I am confused.

Is this a fake? Who knows? Does it even matter? I only knew in this case what I needed to know: that I did not like this perfume and would not use 120 mls of it in even 120 years.


Perhaps all of the deviations can be explained somehow. Perhaps the dubious Tabarome was a real Creed perfume. But it is also quite possible that the perfume in the bottle was not  genuine Creed perfume. I've read many, many dismissive reviews of Tabarome. Does this mean that the perfume itself is bad? Or that fakes such as mine are rife? I suspect that the latter is the best explanation of the poor (sometimes scathing) reviews, given that there is a handful of glowing reviews brim with praise. My suspicion is that the bottle I returned is now in the hands of some other perfumista who purchased it in the hope of receiving a genuine Creed for a fraction of MSRP. It is even possible that a decanter acquired this or another bottle like it, and by divvying it up into tiny (grossly overpriced) samples, has sown falsehood and deception far and wide.

Now I'd like to open up the floor. Come forth Creed fans and foes! Share your Creed fake stories. If you are a Creed detractor, ask yourself whether you can trace the source of your juice back to the Creed boutique or headquarters. If not, I need to know whether you believe that there is some reason why you, too, might not have been testing a bogus dupe when you took Creed to task for producing a "boring, synthetic, derivative, and overpriced excuse for a niche perfume." 

It's time to come clean, my friends. Please share your epistemological trials and tribulations. Or explain why you should be free from the above sorts of concerns.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Entry #3: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Skepticism and Skeptics

The word skeptic is used quite a lot in a loose way to refer to someone who harbors doubts about a particular question or subject matter. In philosophy, skeptic and skepticism refer more specifically to a type of epistemological doubt. Skeptics are people who start out as epistemologists, attempting to determine the conditions and extent of our knowledge, but they end by concluding that the answers to the following questions are rather dim: 

What do we know? Diddly.

How do we know? We don't.

Can we know? No.

Do we know anything at all? No.

What is truly fascinating about skepticism is that it knows (pardon the pun) no bounds. It is possible even to be a skeptic about skepticism! So a consistent skeptic ultimately ends up in a quandary: how does he know that he does not know?

Socrates appears to have been a skeptic, who did not espouse any positive views of his own about the world, but famously exhorted people to Know thyself. When it came to matters transcending the self, Socrates was all questions and no answers, and this really annoyed his contemporaries, who in the end sentenced him to death for his irritating habit of walking around the streets of Athens and badgering people with questions until they revealed the truth: that they had no idea what they were talking about.

Socrates revealed this truth to his interlocutors by catching them in contradictions. It cannot be the case both that p and that not-p (where p is any proposition), but when Socrates persisted in his questioning, he invariably found that the people with whom he conversed contradicted themselves, thus demonstrating that, despite their sophisticated airs and alleged expertise and experience, reality and appearance diverged.

Are there skeptics in the world of perfume? Of course. One of the most common examples is the Creed skeptic, who denies that the house of Creed really is all that it purports to be. To the Creed skeptic, a Creed skeptic skeptic (such as Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos) retorts: how do you know that Creed is a sham? 

Is a skeptic about Creed skeptics a true believer? Or does he simply deny that the grounds for Creed skepticism are sound? I encourage you to read some of the many excellent pieces on these matters over at From Pyrgos.

We'll pick up tomorrow where we left off, with the skeptic's mortal enemy: the metaphysician!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Entry #2: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


The word epistemology means theory of knowledge or the study of knowledge. This branch of philosophy is concerned with the most fundamental of questions: What do we know? How do we know? Can we know? Do we know anything at all?

Naturally one of the first questions to be addressed by epistemologists (the philosophers who spend their time primarily on questions of knowledge) is simply this: 

What is knowledge? 

According to one orthodox answer to this question, knowledge is justified true belief. That may sound complicated, but it's really just common sense. If I know that the perfume which I just donned after my bath is Clinique Aromatics Elixir, then presumably it is true that I just donned Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and I do in fact believe that to be the case. Furthermore, I must be justified in believing that the perfume in the bottle which I just sprayed on is indeed Clinique Aromatics Elixir. Are there any reasons for doubting any of this?

Or to turn the question on its head: What precisely are my grounds for believing that the perfume which I just donned is Aromatics Elixir? It certainly seems reasonable that the brown liquid inside this frosted glass bottle is Aromatics Elixir. I did not buy my bottle from an ebay hawk, who in an effort to maximize profit may have decanted half the liquid and refilled the vessel with anti-freeze, adjusting the color back to that of the original perfume by adding some dye. 

Of course, it's possible that some perverse factory employee of the Clinique company pulled a practical joke such that an entire batch of what was bottled as Aromatics Elixir was in fact a completely different perfume. It's also possible that an incompetent employee simply made a big fat mistake, say, by confusing the various recipes in the factory fragrance book, and combining the ingredients needed to produce Clinique Happy instead of Aromatics Elixir.

Nonetheless, I feel justified in my belief that the perfume which I donned after my bath is not Clinique Happy, because happily it does not smell like that fragrance. In fact, the perfume wafting up my décolleté smells exactly like Aromatics Elixir

There is still a problem, however: my alleged knowledge of what Aromatics Elixir smells like derives solely from the bottles in my collection (one was produced in the United States, the other in Switzerland). If those bottles do not contain Aromatics Elixir, though I believe that they do, I could still be wrong. They both open with a bitter and intense chamomile but eventually dry down to oakmoss-patchouli bliss.

Now, of course, the astute reader is wondering about the probability that the liquids in the two different bottles, produced in entirely different countries, could possibly both be erroneously filled with some substance other than Aromatics Elixirand the same one, at that! To my surprise, the color of the liquids in the two bottles is not at all the sameone seems more yellow, the other much more brownbut the scent seems quite similar, especially by the drydown. 

Would it not take a conspiracy of grand proportion for both of these bottles to be filled with any perfume other than Aromatics Elixir, even though empirically speaking they are in fact quite distinct? Can we not explain the difference in color by factors such as the particular crop of patchouli used in the two distinct batches? 

I think that you can see where all of this is leading. Epistemologists really do spend time on all of the various ways in which we can be mistaken in our beliefs. If knowledge is justified true belief, then when we are mistaken in our beliefs, we lack knowledge. Perhaps it should be obvious why epistemologists have so few friends and are hated above all by people whose beliefs are grounded in faith. 

There are so many very different ways in which we might be mistaken that after thinking about these questions for a while, one may simply capitulate to skepticism. But that's tomorrow's word, so stay tuned, especially since Creed may be mentioned...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Intro and Entry #1: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


My mother is fond of reminding me every several months or so that "normal people don't use words like epistemology and phenomenology." She is an intelligent woman with a graduate degree in political science, so I feel that she's not just picking on me. The last time she mentioned this, she adduced as further evidence of the truth of her claim that when she asked her husband, an attorney (not my father, who is an engineer) whether he knew what the word epistemology means, he shrugged his shoulders and replied, "No."

Needless to say, I've been doing some soul searching and have decided that it's time for me to start defining my terms. I realize that the salon de parfum has been in existence now for more than fifteen months, but, as they say: Better late than never! If my highly educated parents don't even know what epistemology means, can I really expect even astute perfumistas to know what I am talking about when I pepper my texts with such terms as ontology, metaphysics, phenomenology, and the like? 

Effective right now, I am building a philosophical lexicon for ready reference by visitors to the salon de parfum who wish to debate deep issues about perfume but have no idea what I am talking about. This will take me a bit of time to complete, so I'm going to approach this as a blogger, which you may have noticed is not really my style. I prefer to post essays, but for about the next month or two, I'm going to try to put together, piece by piece, a philosophical lexicon. Composing such a reference source in a single sitting would be too tedious for me, and you can be sure that my ADD would be fighting it every minute of the way. 

Instead, I'm going to post a separate entry for a new word each day, and combine them into a full-length lexicon, which by the end of this process should provide all of the definitions and examples needed to be able to participate fully in philosophical debates about perfume. 

Let us start at the very beginning, a very good place to start:

Entry #1: Philosophy

The word philosophy comes from the Greek (and Comrade Christos from Memory of Scent can back me up on this) for "love" and "wisdom". Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Love is probably not going to cause anyone to pause. But "wisdom"? What could this mean? 

My own take on this concept is that some people seek out the truth and a deep understanding of subject matters and their own place in the universe. Is wisdom the same as knowledge? Not exactly. One could know everything there is to know about the chemical components of a perfume without appreciating its beauty or greatness. On the other hand, a person entirely ignorant of the chemical components of a perfume may intuitively grasp truths through their experience of it. 

I believe that many perfumistas are philosophers in this sense: they are seeking to deepen their understanding of perfume and also themselves through traveling around the olfactory universe and testing lots of different perfumes. It seems to me that philosophy (love of wisdom) and love of perfume go hand in hand in cases where people are interested in perfumes not solely for functional benefits (pleasure, seductive appeal, fame and fortune, etc.) but also as things in themselves. Perfumistas who actively acquaint themselves with new perfumes are engaging personally with them, because scents elicit memories from the wearer's past and help to connect disparate things together to make more sense of the world.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 7: Pythagoras and the Importance of Proportion

Pythagoras stands apart from the other pre-Socratic philosophers for having focused primarily on mathematics rather than observable phenomena to be explained in terms of other observable phenomena such as air, earth, fire, and water. In the view of Pythagoras, number is the first principle of the universe, which is ordered in a mathematical sense. The word cosmos, which means order, was first applied to the world by Pythagoras, although some of the other pre-Socratic philosophers are now referred to as cosmologists and regarded as the earliest scientists in human history.

The colony founded by Pythagoras is sometimes characterized as having been a religious cult of sorts, yet his prodigious contributions to the history of mathematics are beyond dispute and have to a large extent saved his legacy. Every child learns the Pythagorean theorem in grade school:

a2 + b2 = c2

The sum of the square of each of the two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse.

Pythagoras was essentially the founder of the discipline of mathematics. In his view, embraced still today by modern thinkers, numbers reflect structures in the universe, beginning with 0, 1, 2, and 3, corresponding to the zero-dimensional point, the one-dimensional line, the two-dimensional plane, and the three-dimensional volume of space. Later mathematicians have worked in many more dimensions, but everything started back in ancient times with this man in awe of the mathematical beauty inherent in the universe.

Unlike Parmenides, whose contribution, that “All is one,” may escape attention by the vast majority of humanity past, present, and future, Pythagoras provided us with the foundations of all modern applied science and physics.

Many people dislike mathematics, or at least they claim to dislike mathematics. In truth, they appear not to understand mathematics. It was never presented to them in the proper way and from the proper perspective. They were forced by martinet schoolmarms to memorize the principles of mathematics rather than being taught how to deduce them.

As a result, mathematics remains for such people an arcane, inaccessible, and even painful subject. Because physics is the most directly mathematical of the sciences, requiring the use of many abstract formulas and mathematical concepts, it, too, has left many people with bad memories. Organic chemistry is another case where the logic of the theory must be understood in order to achieve an understanding of the profound beauty which it embodies.

It is unfortunate that many teachers of these subjects either do not themselves grasp the essential logic involved or else they are for some reason unable to communicate it to their students. The truth is that mathematics exhibits a profound beauty in its aesthetic simplicity and symmetry, as do the more theoretical of the sciences.

To see the patterns of mathematics in these disciplines requires that one ascend above the formulas to the spheres from which they derive, and this was naturally Pythagoras' strong suit. Among the theories devised by human beings, mathematics offers the one source of and glimpse into eternity, because nothing that happens on the planet which we happen by chance to inhabit will ever change the truths of mathematics.

Psychologists have discovered correlations between mathematical and musical ability, and not without reason: all of music is grounded in the proportions of mathematics. In this way the beauty of mathematics is inherent to that of music. Most people never study music seriously and have no idea why the compositions of J.S. Bach are perfect or what is meant when someone makes this claim, which may strike them as the ravings of a zealot. People who have never studied and played an instrument may enjoy music in a superficial way, but they will never be able fully to grasp the highest pleasure of musical art, to participate directly in its production, which can be likened to traveling to another sphere of reality.

Is there a parallel mathematical universe, where musicians and physicists interact? In a sense, yes. They are privy to secrets to which most people have no access. Plato, who arrived on the scene in ancient Greece a bit later than Pythagoras, attempted to capture the distinction between mundane appearance and eternal truth with his theory of the Forms and the Allegory of the Cave, to which, he claimed, most people are effectively chained. We remain mired in delusion and tricked by images cast on the wall by politicians and other shucksters who wield flickering candles to persuade us to believe in their opportunistic lies. Plato's Allegory of the Cave has never been more relevant than today, as images and packaging have come to take precedence over content in the internet age.

Plato was influenced by all of the pre-Socratic philosophers in one way or another, but his metaphysics reflects a belief in truth and and beauty clearly captured by the Pythagorean world view. The realm of knowledge is separate from the realm of opinion or mere belief, which is a fluctuating sea of ideas deriving from the contingent ephemera of the perceived world. Beyond the realm of the senses lies the realm of truth. This is the insight of Pythagoras which explains the magical effect of music and also the more mathematical sciences, at least to their practitioners.

It is probably worth observing here that in the worldview of Plato and some of his pals, art and beauty are not at all the same thing, despite the common tendency on the part of modern people to conflate them. Plato disliked poets because he thought of them as deceivers or even liars. Beauty and Truth are absolute and immutable Forms in which both instrumental music and perfume would seem to be able to participate because they cannot “lie”. Why? Because they are non-representational and therefore have no propositional content

All of this poses problems for people who erroneously conflate beauty and art. The two are conceptually distinct. A naturally existing canyon is beautiful. When Christo “wraps” it, he thereby creates a work of art—one which many local residents may regard as ugly. We shall return to the important distinctions between art and beauty, art and design, and truth and artifice, in future episodes of the History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume.

Valley Curtain, 1970-2
by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The Pythagorean-Perfume Connection

As we have seen in the other theories of pre-Socratic philosophers, perfume has been omitted or deleted from the version of the story to survive. It might seem that since the world of mathematics is divorced form the senses and the world of perfume is intimately connected to sense perception, that the two do not intersect.

By that argument, however, it should follow that because we apprehend music through our ears, therefore, it can have nothing to do with the eternal realm of mathematical truth. These misunderstandings arise when we make the same mistake as the schoolteacher who forces his students to memorize mathematical formulas rather than teaching them how to deduce them from first principles.

Most people wear perfume in the way in which they listen to music and balance their checkbook. They use perfume functionally, just as they use music for entertainment and numbers for the math needed to accomplish this or that task. Music is there in the world and they hear it, and perfume is there in the world, so they use it, But their limited appreciation of perfume's beauty is similar to the person who enjoys the chirping of birds or the sound of rain in the springtime. It's there, and they notice it, and it gives them pleasure, but that's where their understanding ends.

There is more to perfume than just the superficial scent, just as there is more to music than the sound waves by which we apprehend it. Pythagoras, as a master of mathematics, no doubt appreciated perfume as well, having recognized that the mathematical proportions so crucial to music are equally important to perfume.

Any professional perfumer will aver that the distinction between a masterpiece and a disaster may lie only in the proportions used. The ingredients of a perfume are obviously very important, but even more important, once the basic shape and demeanor of the perfume have been determined, are the precise proportions of the various components used. We laypersons might consider a comparison in the case of cooking: a dash of salt may perfect a batch of carrot ginger soup. A spoonful may ruin it by rendering it inedible.

Lists of notes are only the most basic way of approaching perfume. The experience of perfume is subjective and intimate, and the joy of perfume is found at the first level in the judicious proportions of ingredients combined by a skilled perfumer. But the perceiver contributes to the creation as well, just as the beauty of a poem emerges only upon its conscious appreciation by an interpreter. Poetry, too, pace Plato, exhibits mathematical proportions of cadence and rhythm, in addition to the use of colorful metaphors to produce something far more valuable than the sum of the letters used to write it.

Pythagoras no doubt recognized that perfume, like music and poetry, offers a transcendent glimpse into the only certainty in the universe: mathematics. The heavens may fall, but the truth will persist. The truth is unassailable. Behind all of the deceptive techniques used to market fragrances in the modern world, there is a reality. Not all that glitters is gold, and hidden treasures are out there, ready to be found by those who do not allow themselves to be distracted by all of the hype and folderol and focus instead upon the quality of the perfumes which they seek out and test.

We may disagree about which precise perfumes achieve a transcendent level of beauty, but that is because we perceive them from our own peculiar and idiosyncratic starting points, which are determined not only by our biological constitution, but also all of our past experiences and memories. Just as people exhibit various degrees of awareness about other aspects of reality, we should expect them to disagree, too, when it comes to perfume. We are all on a journey, and while our perceptions may sometimes coincide, often they do not.

The music of the spheres is ringing in the background, beckoning us to seek out the truth by whatever means available to us. We are fortunate to be among the select few to have access to perfume, through which we are able to travel to an olfactory universe unknown to the vast majority of humanity but nonetheless real.