Our senses of taste and smell are tightly interconnected, but psychologically distinct. The way we develop and feed these two senses has changed throughout our history, prompting our most ambitious thinkers to ponder what these shifting societal sands say about us and the ways we perceive our world.
‘Tasting, Smelling, Sensing: an Aesthetic of Flavour and Aroma’ is the second chapter of ‘An Odyssey of Flavours and Fragrances’ – the exclusive Givaudan anthology. In this chapter, researcher and philosopher Caroline Champion walks us through the philosophical ideas that explore our perception of taste and scent.
“Fear of truth from taking pleasure in it”
This quote from poet Friedrich Hölderlin is where we begin a discussion of the problems inherent in trying to capture, in words, the enormous sensory kaleidoscope of taste and smell.
Perfume historian Annick Le Guérer sums up how many great philosophers have given the sense of smell ‘short shrift’: “Accused by Plato and Aristotle of lacking finesse and language… considered by Kant to be an unrewarding sense… considered inferior by Schopenhauer, excluded from aesthetics by Hegel…”
The palpable versus the intelligible
Champion points out the irony that while the philosophical community struggled to conceptualise taste and smell, figurative phrases like ‘smells fishy’ and ‘leaves a sour taste’ were common.
She states that philosophers often struggled to discuss sensory information detached from any kind of thought or idea. Quoting Plato: “I am sometimes disposed to imagine that there is nothing without an idea; but I repress any such notion, from a fear of falling into an abyss of nonsense.”
Nature and nurture
Much philosophical discussion of taste and smell relates to our separation from the animal kingdom – the idea that both senses are ‘linked to our wild instincts’. This is mainly based on them being most relevant to hunting.
Their close relationship to biological needs meant flavours and scents were often perceived as being incompatible with pure thought – with Rousseau noting that “hungry men would find little pleasure in scents which did not proclaim the approach of food.”
The unclean and the sordid
The association with ‘wild tendencies’ extended to the concepts of hygiene and decency. And this further distanced discussion of taste and scent from sophisticated study.
Freud stated that: “There is an unmistakable social factor in the cultural striving for cleanliness too, which was later justified on grounds of hygiene, but manifested itself before this connection was appreciated.”
Champion summarises that ‘whatever the period, filth and crude approximations of hygiene imply, above all, a connotation of doubtful morality.”
The liberation of desire
The twentieth Century brought about a huge shift in the perception of the senses. Most notably during the ‘flower power’ era of the 1960s, which heralded a new bodily and sexual freedom among the masses, along with a rethinking of our relationship with nature.
Champion examines the tendencies of the modern fragrance and culinary industries and identifies a trend towards ‘vaporisation of the body’. She states: “By turning to the evanescence of taste, perfumes, and desire in general, it tends toward a disappearance of the object with defined contours, heading toward, despite its reticences, an absolute interiority.”
“Our relationship to others is determined, despite ourselves, by the symbolic effect engendered by our most intimate sensations, by their appeal to these common depths.”
In ‘An Odyssey of Flavours and Fragrances’, Caroline Champion paints a brilliant canvas on the musings of great minds through the centuries – illustrating how flavours and fragrances are not merely sensory, but cultural too.