Contextual variation and objectivity in olfactory perception

Synthese 199 (5-6):12045-12071 (2021)
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According to Smell Objectivism, the smells we perceive in olfactory experience are objective and independent of perceivers, their experiences, and their perceptual systems. Variations in how things smell to different perceivers or in different contexts raise a challenge to this view. In this paper, I offer an objectivist account of non-illusory contextual variation: cases where the same thing smells different in different contexts of perception and there is no good reason to appeal to misperception. My central example is that of dihydromyrcenol, a substance that can smell both woody and citrusy depending on what other odourants one has recently been exposed to. I first argue that the subjects’ apparently conflicting reports about the way dihydromyrcenol smells are best understood as comparative characterisations of a smell. Given this understanding, different reports can be correctly made in response to perceiving the very same smell. I then argue that the phenomenal difference between the experiences subjects have across contexts can be explained compatibly with Smell Objectivism. On the account proposed, subjects perceive the very same smell but different qualities, notes, or aspects of it are salient to them, depending on the context of perception. I then consider how the proposed defence of Smell Objectivism can be adapted to other cases where the same thing is reported as smelling different in different contexts.

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Giulia Martina
University Tübingen


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