The Inscrutable Scruton’s Stinky Cushions and the Metaphysics of Aroma

buzz-aroma-10ml-33-p Some people stare at women. Other people stare at the TV. Some people stare off into space—at nothing at all. Staring is a kind of fascination born of incomprehension. If you get it, if there is nothing more to grasp, why keep staring? What do people who stare at nothing not get?

We philosophers stare at arguments—especially ones we don’t understand. I’ve been staring at the argument below for a couple years. I still don’t get it, so maybe someone out there can help.

Warning: There is a lot of philosophy about the metaphysics of aroma in this post.

The incomprehensible argument is from Roger Scruton (from the article “The Philosophy of Wine” available here”) who is arguing that food and wine cannot be forms of art because smells and tastes are utterly unlike visual experience. The visual arts, according to Scruton, are the paradigm for what counts as art.

Here is his argument:

We speak of smelling a cushion, but the smell is not a quality of the cushion. It is a thing emitted by the cushion that could exist without the cushion, and indeed does exist in a space where the cushion is not—the space around the cushion.

Really? The smell is not a quality of the cushion. I seem to be smelling the cushion. But I guess what he has in mind here is a scientifically-informed understanding that volatile chemicals emanating from the cushion bond with and are carried away by air molecules eventually reaching the nose and olfactory sensors.So what I’m smelling is the bonded air molecules. And because those molecules hang in the air for a while even if the cushion were removed, I could have the smell without the presence of the cushion.

So what conclusion are we to draw from this? He concludes that smells are independent objects (i.e. independent of the object that causes them).

So far, I don’t really have a problem or much care about the argument. There are different ways of carving up the the world. We could view a cushion as one object or made up of separable objects—millions of molecules. We could view the cover of the cushion as not part of the cushion depending on our purposes. We can view aromas as independent objects. Fine.

But he goes on to conclude that:

I don’t “sniff through” the smell to the thing that smells, for the thing is not represented in its smell in the way that it is represented in its visual appearance…Smells exist for us, just as sounds do, and must be identified through the experiences of those who observe them.

Here he loses me. Granted, smells exist only through our interaction with the world. Without sensory experience there is no smell. But from this he seems to want to conclude that not only do smells fail to correspond to the way the world is independently of our experience, they also refer to our own experience only, not to objects in the world that smell. We get no genuine knowledge of the world from how things smell! (And thus an art based on smell or taste would lack one important dimension of the visual arts—the ability to represent the world)

This just seems a bit of nonsense. When I smell the odor of cat pee emanating from a cushion, I smell certain odiferous compounds bonded with air molecules. These compounds can be measured and identified independently of my smelling them and are just as much a part of the world as the cushion. The particular quality of the smell may be something that cannot be determined without having my subjective awareness of the smell, but the fact I’m smelling something in the world independent of the mind is not in doubt. Of course, I can be wrong about what I smell; that is not the issue. What matters is that my experience is directed at the world and ultimately at the object that smells whether that be the cushion or the molecules.

The implication of Scruton’s view is that animals, such as dogs, who navigate the world via smell in fact discover nothing about the world through that sense modality. Preposterous!

What is even less comprehensible is that he wants to distinguish smells (and tastes) from visual experience which he thinks does tell us about the world.

The object of my visual perception when I see the cushion is the cushion—not some other thing, a “sight” or image, which the cushion is not. To put it another way: visual experience reaches through the “look” of a thing to the thing that looks.

Well, yes, visual experience of an object appears to be of that object, not some separable, intervening object. But science tells a more complicated story about visual experience. We know that what we are actually seeing is information carried by light waves that have been reflected off the object (just as air molecules carry compounds we smell) and are processed by the brain. Thus, our visual experience doesn’t tell us what the world is like independently of human experience. We see only what our eyes are designed to see just as we smell what our olfactory sensors are designed to smell.

In neither case does it follow that the information received is not about the world since we have perfectly good causal accounts of how our perceptions (both visual and olfactory) are connected to the world.

In contrasting smell or taste with vision, he then sums up:

For example, we can see an ambiguous figure now as a duck, now as a rabbit; we can see one thing in another, as when we see a face in a picture. There seems to be no clear parallel case of “smelling as” or ‘smelling in”, as opposed to the construction of rival hypotheses as to the cause of a smell.

Huh? The experience of a wine as smelling of cherries or strawberries seems directly analogous. I smell these flavor notes in the wine as competing interpretations of how it smells. I am not constructing rival hypotheses about their cause. The cause is the wine.

What puzzles me about Scruton’s argument is why, with regard to smell, I cannot make ordinary inferences about the cause of the smell.To claim that our ordinary experience of smell is not directed at the object that smells just seems to be a bit of willful ignorance on Scruton’s part.

But he is a smart guy, so what am I missing? If you’ve gotten to the end of this lengthy diatribe, you probably have an interest in philosophy. So help me out here.


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