Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Theoretical Perspectives on Smell

In this blog post, Benjamin Young presents a new collection of papers entitled Theoretical Perspectives on Smell (Routledge 2023), edited with Andreas Keller.

Our vision-centric daily lives and research agendas often place little emphasis on smells. Smell until recently was a largely neglected area of research within philosophy such that putting together a collection with this focus would have not been possible ten years ago. 

Yet, since the start of the millennia the chemosciences and olfactory philosophy has seen a surge in research on a wide range of debates and central issues across philosophy. Theoretical Perspective on Smell is the first collection of its kind devoted exclusively to philosophical research on olfaction. The collection both address the attentional neglect of olfaction by philosophers and shows how studying smell provides a means of making lateral progress within entrenched philosophical debates within perception, consciousness studies, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, and most recently aesthetic and philosophy of art.

The collection is divided into four broad areas of interest: 

The first section is devoted to the importance and beauty of smell. Smell is often described as the neglected sense and compared to sound and vision, the arts and sciences have engaged only sparingly with it. This limited engagement with the sense of smell reflects most people’s dismissive attitude toward their fifth sense. The first two chapters by Barry C. Smith and Ophelia Deroy address the neglect of smell, while Chiara Brozzo’s and Michael A. Lindquist’s chapters focus on the newest area of olfactory philosophy concerning the aesthetics of smell. 

Section two is comprised by chapters by Clare Batty and Keith A. Wilson that progresses recent debates regarding smell in time and space. Compared to the other senses, the temporal and spatial structure of olfaction is impoverished. However, like all perception, smelling occurs in space and time and therefore has at least some spatiotemporal structure. 

The third section encompasses the largest area of debate within olfactory philosophy concerning the still open question of what we smell. A central question of olfactory philosophy has been what we perceive through smell. Two possible answers are that we perceive the source objects, for example a banana, or the odor, for example the volatile molecules emitted by the banana. 

Because neither of these answers is completely satisfying, there are several attempts to modify or combine them as well as alternative proposals. Chapters by Ann-Sophie Barwich, Andreas Keller, Benjamin D. Young, Harry Sherwood, and William G. Lycan all provide a state of the art engagement with this central debate with each building upon previously published theories, developing new avenues of research, as well as constructively criticizing each other’s published views. 

The final section, smell and the other senses, handles the perennial topic of individuating the senses that is particularly vexed for the chemical senses. Most discussions of olfaction focus on orthonasal olfaction, which most naturally occurs during inhalation through the front of the nose. The equally important retronasal olfaction, which occurs during eating and drinking when odors from the oral cavity reach the olfactory epithelium, is part of the multisensory perception of flavors. 

The complex relation of olfaction and gustation, and olfaction’s role in flavor perception have become increasingly more urgent research projects. Within this section Becky Millar’s and Błażej Skrzypulec’s chapters are devoted to the relation between smell and flavor perception, while Louise Richardson offers an argument that we can smell what many might consider to be proprietary gustatory properties such as sweetness or saltiness. 

Smells for All! 

The contributed essays bring together established and early-career philosophers working on smell in a format that allows for inclusive engagement with the emerging field and a starting point for philosophers new to olfaction with a resource to begin their journey. Additionally, the collection might be of interest to those in the chemosensory community with theoretical proclivities looking for an in-road into developing debates in olfactory philosophy. And while it is not written for a general audience the material is presented in a straightforward enough fashion that anyone with an interest in smell should be able to enjoy the collection. 

Call for papers

While great strides have been made in olfactory philosophy it remains a fecund research area with many under-explored topics: such as olfactory attention, memory, and emotions within philosophy of mind; olfactory reference and concepts within philosophy of language; a swath of issues within ethics concerning personal use of fragrances, the role of industry in developing and deploying synthetics within food and fragrance products, and a wide open area of smell within world philosophy. 

Since the collection emerged out of two previous international workshops, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to consider working on any one of these topics or any other odorific topic and submit your work to our next workshop on Olfactory Philosophy to be held as part of the ESPP conference in Prague on September 1, 2023.

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