Much discourse on the senses and perception (e.g. phenomenalism, representationalism and forms of realism) uses vision as the primary source and example of sense and perception, followed distantly by hearing and touch. As Le Guerer puts it, 'olfaction has generally been considered by Western philosophers as useless, or even contrary to science'.
The rational component of our unified experience is rooted in our ability to 'map' some representation of the objective onto a shared experience and reference of space and time. This, in turn, is the basis for our ability to communicate so effectively with a shared language of symbols and words. However, not all the senses fit nicely into this scheme. Kant (1978) erected a hierarchy of the senses and placed smell last. Smell's rank falls below even that of taste and well beneath the more noble senses of sight, hearing and touch. For Kant (1978), smell and taste are inferior philosophically, because they are more subjective than the other three senses, which are more objective or objectifying. Unlike the purely subjective senses of smell and taste, those of sight, touch and hearing lend 'an empirical thrust' to the perceptions of external objects. In the act of seeing, one remains oneself; in the act of smelling, one dissolves. The eye looks at something out there and the mind's attention is out there. The perception of the nose seems invasive to the mind because there is an immediacy of the self with the subjective emotion elicited by odor. According to Kant, because the sense of smell is the most subjective it is therefore the least rewarding and the most easily dispensable. Humanity, he thought, could do without the sense of smell, since trying to cultivate it or refine it is not worth the trouble. Kant referred to the stench of European cities, which provided more objects of disgust than of pleasure. The pleasure provided by smell can always only be fleeting and transitory if it is to be enjoyed. What is fleeting and transitory is of little interest.
No doubt, the nature of olfaction was bothersome for Kant. The doors of olfactory perception were less secure than the other senses if their opening and closing invited an unruly imposition upon an otherwise orderly separation of self and object. Indeed, this raised a doubt: olfaction may not be a reliable source of knowledge, or mappable to a rational framework of knowledge. Thus, according to Kant, seeing, hearing and touching are more reliable and necessary as sources of truth about the world. Eventually, the long history of the condemnation of olfaction was interrupted by Freud (1961), who turned the hierarchy of senses upside down. He argued that smell's higher truth was being concealed by the force of a taboo. At the same time other forces in Western thought were building to change the way we think about the world.
Fundamental to the Kantian programme is that the character of our experience, the way things appear to ...