Smell is the most elusive of the senses. Sight is beautifully structured and amenable to analysis in terms of consistent geometry and a coherent domain of colours. Smells… how does one smell relate to another? There just seems to be an infinite number of smells, all one of a kind. We can be completely surprised by an unprecedented smell which is like nothing we ever experienced before, in a way we can’t possibly be surprised by a new colour (with some minor possible exceptions). Our olfactory system effortlessly assigns new unique smell experiences to substances that never existed until human beings synthesised them.
There don’t even seem to be any words for smells: or at least, the only way we can talk about them is by referring to “the smell of X”, as in a “smoky smell” or “the smell of lemons”. We don’t have to do that to describe shapes or colours: they can be described as “blue”, or “square” without our having to say they are “sky-coloured” or “the shape of a box”. (Except perhaps in the case of orange? Is “orange” short for ‘the colour of oranges’?) Even for taste we have words like “bitter” and “sweet”. The only one I can think of for smells is “nidorous’, which is pretty obscure – and in order to explain it I have to fall back on saying it describes the “smell of” burning/cooking meat. All we have to describe smells is “strong” and “faint” (my daughter, reading over my shoulder, says what about “pungent”? She does not consider “pungent” to be merely a synonym of “strong” – you may be indifferent to a strong smell, but not to a pungent one, she claims).
With that by way of preamble, let me introduce the interesting question considered here by William Lycan: does smell represent? When we smell, do we smell something? There is a range of possible answers. We might say that when I smell, I smell sausages (for example). Or that I smell a smell (which happens to be the smell of sausages). Or I might say I just have a smell experience: I may know that it’s associated with sausage smells and hence with sausages, but in itself it’s just an experience.
Lycan (who believes that we smell a gaseous miasma) notes two arguments for something like the last position – that smell doesn’t represent anything. First, introspection tells us nothing about what a smell represents. If I were a member of a culture that did not make sausages or eat meat, and had never experienced them, my first nose-full of sausage odour would convey nothing to me beyond itself. It’s different for sight: we inherently see things, and when we see our first sausage there can be no doubt we are seeing a thing, even if we do not yet know much about its nature: it would be absurd to maintain we were merely having a visual experience.
The second argument is that smells can’t really be wrong: there are no smell illusions. If a car is sprayed with “new car” perfume to make us think that it is fresh off the production line, we may make a mistake about that inference, but our nose was not wrong about the smell, which was real. But representations can always be wrong, so if we can’t be wrong, there is no representation.
Lycan is unimpressed by introspective evidence: the mere fact that philosophers disagree about what it tells us is enough, he feels, to discredit it. The second argument fails because it assumes that if smells represent, they must represent their causes: but they might just represent something in the air. On getting a whiff of my first sausage I would not know what it was, but I might well be moved to say “What’s that appetising (or disgusting) smell?” I wouldn’t simply say “Golly, I am undergoing a novel olfactory experience for some opaque reason.” I think in fact we could go further there and argue that I might well say “What’s that I can smell?” – but that doesn’t suit Lycan’s preferred position. (My daughter intervenes to say “What about ‘acrid’?”)
Lycan summarises a range of arguments (One is an argument by Richardson that smell is phenomenologically “exteroceptive”, inherently about things out there: Lycan endorses this view, but surely relying on phenomenology is smuggling back in the introspection he was so scathing about when the other side invoked it?). His own main argument rests on the view that how something smells is something over and above all the other facts about it. The premise here is very like that in the famous thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist, though Lycan is not drawing the same conclusions at all. He claims instead that:
I can know the complex of osphresiological fact without knowing how the rose smells because knowing is knowing-under-a-representation… that solution entails that olfactory experience involves representation.
That does make some sense, I feel (What about “osphresiological”! we’re really working on the vocabulary today, aren’t we?). You may be asking yourself, however, whether this is a question that needs a single answer. Couldn’t we say, yes sometimes smells represent miasmas, but they can also represent sausages; or indeed they can represent nothing.
Lycan, in what I take to be a development of his view, is receptive to the idea of layering: that in fact smells can represent not just a cloud of stuff in the air, but also the thing from which they emanated. That being so I am not completely clear why we should give primacy to the miasma. Two contrary cases suggest themselves. First, suppose there is a odour so faint I don’t even perceive it as such consciously, but have a misty sense of salsiccian (alright, I made it up) presence which makes me begin to think about how agreeable a nice Cumberland sausage for lunch might be. Wouldn’t we say that in some sense the smell represented sausages to me: but we can’t say it represented a miasma because no such thing ever entered my mind?
Second, if we accept layering we might say that the key point is about the essential or the minimal case: we can smell without that smell representing a sausage, but what’s the least it can represent and still be a smell? Can it represent nothing? Suppose I dream and have an odd, unrecognisable experience. Later on, when awake, I encounter a Thai curd sausage for the first time and find that the experience I had was in fact an olfactory one, the smell of this particular kind of comestible. My dream experience cannot possibly have represented a sausage, a miasma, a smell, or anything but itself because I didn’t know what it was: but, it turns out, it was the smell of curd sausage.
I think your reaction to that is likely to depend on whether you think an experience could be a smell experience without being recognisable as such; if not, you may be inclined to agree with Lycan, who would probably reiterate his view that smells are sensing-under-a-representation. That view entails that there is an ineffability about smell, and Lycan suggests this might help account for the poverty of smell vocabulary that I noted above. Interestingly it turns out that this very point has been attacked by Majid and Burenhult, albeit not in a way that Lycan considers fatal to his case. Majid and Burenhult studied the Jahai, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe on the Malaysian peninsula, and found that they have a very rich lexicon of odour terms, such as a word for “the smell of petrol, smoke and bat droppings” (what, all of them?). It’s just us English speakers, it seems, who are stuck with acrid nidors.