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On The Philosophical Relevance of Smell and Taste

On The Philosophical Relevance of Smell and Taste

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Laura Kennedy. Originally submitted for TSM English Literature and Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Dublin, with lecturer Professor David Berman in the category of Philosophical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Laura Kennedy. Originally submitted for TSM English Literature and Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Dublin, with lecturer Professor David Berman in the category of Philosophical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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01/26/2015

 
 1
On The Philosophical Relevance of Smell and Taste
 The relevance of sight and touch is generally accepted within modern philosophy. Thedivision of psychological types into the visual and the tactual seems viable since these twosenses are certainly paramount to the human experience. It is generally believed that theybring us into greater contact with the physical world than hearing, taste, or touch; and soindeed it would seem. However, the significance of smell and taste seems greatly overlooked,and this needs to be remedied. Herein, I shall argue for the existence of a prominentlyolfactory type which avails of the sense either of touch or of sight (depending upon theindividual mind in question) as a point of reference, similarly to the manner in which themore common visual type uses the tactual sense and vice versa. I shall argue for the ability tonavigate the external and internal milieu (theoretically and even spatially) via the sense of smell with reference to the inextricable links between the olfactory and mental imagery.Lastly, I shall examine the relationship between smell and taste in an attempt to undermine
the common notion of the definition of „flavour‟ and call into question its very existence
.There is an argument to be made for the
olfactory type
. Rather than a combinationof the visual and the tactual, in which one is considered the dominant means of collectingrelatively impartial sense data regarding the external world, and the other more viscerallyconnected to the sense of self respectively, is it not possible that sight, touch and smell can beinterchangeable insofar as we are limited to a dominant and supporting sense? It is easy to
fall prey to the so called „Typical Mind Fallacy‟
in claiming that a less common type cannotbe and is not a valid type. We see this in Ryle (1949) when he, a seemingly obviously tactualtype, rails against the visual nature of mental imagery by referring to it as-
 
 2
“...a peculiar paper 
-less snap shot, though one which, oddly, cannot be turned upside
down.”
1
 This seems to clarify but one uncertainty
 – 
it shows us that Ryle himself, as an obviouslyweak imager, assumes that everyone conforms to that particular typological reality.
 
It iscertainly possible for the sense of smell, as sight or touch, to be a source of practical dataregarding the external world, as well as a source of pleasure or distaste. For example were Icortically blind and devoid of the sensation of a series of pressures in my extremities knownas touch, I would still be able to tell by smell alone that when I am sitting in a waiting room,the stranger who decides to sit next to me is a man. Not only can I tell this from the subtlechemical reactions undertaking to produce the scent of testosterone in the man, but I can tell(from the pungency of this aroma) whether the man is young or old and his current proximityto me
. The strength of the man‟s body odour can tell me whether or n
ot he has washedhimself today
. The „size‟
, as it were, of the aroma of shampoo and the direction from whenceit approaches my face can give me an intimation of the length of his hair etc.Thus it is clear that smell conducts itself on the plain of perception, as much assensation. I am receiving spatial data about the man through smell in the same manner as Iwould through touching him with my hands or viewing him with my eyes. We generally failto recognise our sense of smell as a spatial navigator. In the same manner through which thetactual type gains practical knowledge through his sight, but deems touch as a visceralsensation which resonates with him more fully because he gains pleasure and a knowledge of himself therein is it possible for the olfactory person to use her sense of smell to collate anduse sense data and gain a less practical pleasure from her faculty of sight/touch
or vice versa
.When I am familiar with a person and their unique associated scent, I can tell that they haverecently been in the room in which I am now standing. This knowledge may impress upon me
1
Ryle, Gilbert, 1949, 1975,
The Concept of Mind 
, Hutchinson & Co. p. 255
 
 
 3
a pleasurable experience, or indeed one of distaste, depending upon my feelings for theperson. This illustrates another of the aspects of scent, albeit one generally agreed upon
 – 
thepropensity of smell to link itself with association.Undoubtedly, we experience smells - that is the physical sensation of smelling via thenose through the olfactory apparatus -
and „smells‟; the latter being rather harder to define.„Smells‟, obviously, are not experience
d through the physical apparatus, but rather throughsome sort of mental shadow apparatus which allows us to differentiate between smells and
„smells‟ where a „smell‟ seems to be an image of a smell. „Smells‟, then, are a form of mental
image just as an internal non-physical visual experience is a mental image. All mental imagesseem to have their foundation and existence in a pattern of i) perception, ii)recognition/categorisation, iii) recollection. They arise as a result of our physicallyperceiving
i
an object, proceeding to recognise it as an object previously perceived or if it issomething that we have not previously perceived, placing it in a category composed of objects of a similar type. The mental image itself, visual or otherwise, is then composed, notof the object itself, but of our recollecting subsequently a likeness of the particular physicalsensation; though we may blend it with other images to form, as it were, a heterogeneousmesh image in the mind. James (1890) refers to this
 – 
 
“Sensations, once experienced, modify the nervous organism, so that copies of them ar 
ise
again in the mind after the original outward stimulus is gone.”
2
 
The argument around mental imagery seems heavily focussed on the fact that mental imagescannot be physical. I argue that this is not in dispute; rather they can result from physicalstimuli
 – 
 
2
James, William, 1890, 1981,
The Principles of Psychology, Volume II 
, Harvard University Press, p.690

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