Sunday, September 9, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 4: Pluralism and Primordial Scents 2012

The Pluralist Response to Parmenides

The time has arrived at last to return to our History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume. For those new to this series, we have so far covered the thought of pre-Socratic thinkers Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander and Anaximenes, and we last left off with Parmenides. According to Parmenides, only Being is real, and it is unitary, eternal, and immobile. All of the different things which we take ourselves to perceive in what Parmenides terms the realm of “becoming” are but illusions, including all of the empty perfume bottles which we believe ourselves to have drained.

I imagine that the philosophers who immediately succeeded Parmenides were a bit daunted. How to respond to a theory—All is one—according to which nothing can truly be said? Instead of simply capitulating or wasting precious time sulking in silence, the next group of pre-Socratic philosophers leapt out of the Parmenidean monism box and boldly proclaimed the truth of pluralism. Essentially these critics' position appears to have been that their convictions in the soundness of the Parmenidean arguments against change and motion were less strong than their convictions that things really do change, motion is in fact possible, and perfume bottles can indeed be drained.

Why did the pluralists believe in the reality of motion and change? For the usual reasons: they observed them with their own eyes. Change seemed undeniable to the pluralists, so Parmenides' picture was incomplete, and there must have been something wrong with his arguments, even if they could not pinpoint exactly what it was.

This handy little skeptical parry can always be whipped out when faced with a seemingly insurmountable argument to an unwanted conclusion. At the end of the day, the plausibility of first premises is a matter of subjective intuition. From first premises everything else follows—or not.

All is one” is certainly true under some possible interpretation—everything is connected in one way or another to everything else, even Versace Blonde and Balmain Balmain—but it does indeed seem as though divisions made and distinctions drawn have much more relevance to the way people actually lead their lives than does an intangible realm of Being. Perhaps we are meandering about in a fog of delusion in the realm of becoming, but that is, in fact, where we are, where we have found ourselves, deeply mired in ignorance. For the time being, then, why not attempt to understand the realm of becoming, the fine distinctions between fine perfumes, and embrace the concepts of change and motion rejected by Parmenides? Even if he is right about the True Nature of Ultimate Reality, what relevance does that have to any person's life?

Moreover, would not a strict adherence in practice to Parmenides' theory lead naturally to one's ruin? If there is no difference between scentedness and unscentedness, or an empty bottle and a full one, then why bother to wear perfume? Why bother even to drink water? Why bother even to budge? While sitting inert, basking in the beatific light of Being, one would simply starve to death. Clearly, following Parmenidean logic consistently would be a short-term endeavor. Perhaps Parmenides is right about pristine Being, but our bodies are firmly ensconced in the gunky goo of becoming, as regrettable as that may be—or not.

These sorts of arguments may sound familiar to readers who have wrestled with the conundrum of the God hypothesis. Many self-proclaimed free-thinking nonbelievers simply deny the relevance of God to their life from day to day. “Nonbelievers” is of course a category which comprises both atheists, who religiously deny the existence of God, and mild-mannered agnostics such as sherapop, who simply withhold judgment on the question, unsure as they are as to what would constitute evidence either way. The music of J.S. Bach? The Holocaust?

I recall that when I was in college a woman living in my dormitory did not study for her final examinations because, she maintained in what appeared to be complete sincerity, if God wanted her to pass, then she would. This is precisely the stance rejected by those who scoff at petty requests directed toward the Almighty for assistance during times of need. Will God really help you with your mortgage?

Even if you find out that you are dying of cancer, is praying actually supposed to help? Well, then why did God let you get cancer in the first place? The answers to such questions offered by believers invariably cast an unflattering light upon the Almighty, and sometimes attain the level of high conspiracy. In fact, the God hypothesis itself may be the most conspiratorial of all possible conspiracy theories! God may have His inscrutable reasons, but of what relevance are they to me?

These sorts of arguments of course go on and on and on, and some smart people end up as atheists in a sort of pendulum effect. Bill Maher's film Religulous (2008) offers a clear illustration of this position, but I must say that I felt that he painted religious people in a crude and derogatory way. In my experience, not all religious people are imbeciles or (vel) ignoramuses. On the contrary, plenty of very smart people have believed in God, including some of the most esteemed Dead White Men in the history of philosophy: Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Kant, Descartes, Pascal, why even Socrates appears to have spoken of “the gods” now and then—though it's never clear with him whether he is speaking ironically or not... My suspicion is that the “voice” to which Socrates alluded was probably his conscience, not the man with the beard. George W. Bush, on the other hand, invoked “voices” to explain some of his more dubious policy decisions, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq in violation of international law—but that's another story.

Empedocles: Love and Strife and the Four Root Elements

The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles accepted the Parmenidean arguments about motion and change, but he rejected monism. Empedocles concurred with the monist to end all monists that reality was indeed a plenum, but he maintained that motion and change are possible because things trade places with one another. Rather than there being only one ultimate substrate, Empedocles posited six: four roots—earth, air, fire, and water—and two motions: Love and Strife. Love brings things together; Strife divides them apart.

According to Empedocles, in the beginning of what he called the “world cycle,” the four roots, earth, air, fire, and water, were interwoven together under the action of Love. This harmonic mesh was rent asunder through the motion of Strife, which seems to be related to the proverbial Fall from grace described in a number of religious traditions. Applying this idea to the contemporary world, we see these divisions exacerbated in contemporary wars, which seem to go on and on... Rather than focus on what connects us to one another, we tend to focus upon what divides us, to such an extent that a reunion may often seem beyond our means.

Left to my own devices, I'm not sure how I would have been able to apply Empedocles' theory directly to the case of perfume. However, I have been happily rescued on this front by Monica Miller, Perfume Pharmer, and Primordial Scents 2012, a contemporary perfume project currently underway, which commences precisely from the picture of reality painted by pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles!

In this project, a group of distinguished independent and all-natural perfumers have come together to create new perfumes based on or inspired by one or more of the basic roots of reality posited by Empedocles: air, earth, fire, and water.

Primordial Scents 2012 affirms the interconnectedness not only of all of the elements serving as the foundation of perfumic creations but also of perfume writers and perfumers. Described as “a salon of scented artists and perfumers,” Primordial Scents 2012 is essentially a celebration of first things, of which we may lose sight in the busy, chaotic jumble of the world of becoming in which we interact day to day.

The inspired creations of the perfumers participating in Primordial Scents 2012 include entire sets of perfumes which focus on one of the basic roots: air, fire, earth, and water. A fifth root, metal, has also been explored, and some of the perfumers have commenced from the concept of ether or space. For those who wish to experience these new creations, sample sets are available at the etsy website. Now that the weather has finally cooled off, I'll be posting reviews of the air and the fire series scents at Il Mondo di Odore.

Here at the salon de parfum, we'll continue to progress through the History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume and see what the other pre-Socratic pluralists would have had to say about the object of our fascination—or perhaps did, but the content of which has been suppressed by olfactorily benighted scholars in a misguided effort to deny the philosophical importance of perfume and how it can help us better to apprehend the true nature of Reality.

In the meantime, I encourage you to explore some of the sources of perfumic enlightenment which await you at these fine ateliers:

Happy Sniffing!

1 comment:

  1. I see I have power over you and you have changed your headline to include the word RELEVANT.

    Of course nothing has really changed, you are still a fascist censor before and after the semantic change.

    Have a great day. =)


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