Aristotle on Odour and Smell

Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 43:143-83 (2012)
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The sense of smell occupies a peculiar intermediate position within Aristotle's theory of sense perception: odours, like colours and sounds, are perceived at a distance through an external medium of air or water; yet in their nature they are intimately related to flavours, the proper objects of taste, which for Aristotle is a form of touch. In this paper, I examine Aristotle's claims about odour and smell, especially in De Anima II.9 and De Sensu 5, to see what light they shed on his theory of sense perception more generally. In the first half, I argue that neither of the two most influential recent ways of understanding Aristotle's theory of perception can adequately account for what he says about the sense of smell. In the second half, I offer my own positive account, considering and resolving various puzzles raised by Aristotle's claims about the nature of odour and its relation to flavour. Finally, I conclude that Aristotle's discussions of odour and smell suggest a plausible and interesting way of understanding the relationship, on his view, between ordinary, material changes in the sense organs and the activation of the capacity to perceive, considered merely as such.

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Mark Johnstone
McMaster University


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