Philosophy Olfaction
Clare Batty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0333


Historically, much of the philosophical discussion of perception has focused on vision. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, the philosophy of perception has been marked by discussion of the nonvisual modalities and a concerted effort to examine and, indeed, to question the dominant visual model. The case of olfaction, and olfactory experience, has presented significant challenges to making generalizations from the visual case. Although there are significant similarities between vision and olfaction, and their respective experiences, work since the turn the of 21st century has exposed significant differences as well. This article focuses on the themes that have emerged from this work, as well as on the limited, but important, set of texts from which that work has drawn inspiration.

General Overviews

There are several papers that provide an overview of the kinds of philosophical questions that olfaction raises. Taking the case of olfaction and vision, Lycan 2000 sets out the various respects in which we might compare the senses, and, for this reason, it is necessary reading for anyone interested in the nonvisual modalities. Arranged topically, both of Clare Batty’s encyclopedia articles (Batty 2010a, Batty 2010b) situate her own early-21st-century work on olfaction with other philosophical discussions of olfaction. Anyone new to this discussion will benefit from a primer on the basics of scientific work on olfaction. Some philosophical discussions rely heavily on this work, but it is equally helpful to approach other less empirically motivated work with a solid understanding of the nature of the olfactory stimulus and the challenges of the olfactory environment. There is a wealth of scientific publications on olfaction, many of which will seem daunting to a newcomer to the topic. Readers should be aware that many “handbooks” on olfaction contain proceedings from scientific conferences and thus require the necessary scientific background. However, there are several sources that readers can turn to for an introduction to scientific work on olfaction. Carterette and Friedman 1978 and Beauchamp and Bartoshuk 1997 provide longer overviews of areas of scientific research on olfaction. Cowart and Rawson 2001, a more condensed introductory chapter on olfaction, summarizes much of that information. Finally, for an introduction to multidisciplinary approaches to olfaction, see Drobnick 2006 and Rouby, et al. 2002. Each contains accessible papers written from perspectives other than the highly scientific or philosophical.

  • Batty, Clare. “Olfactory Experience I: The Content of Olfactory Experience.” Philosophy Compass 5.12 (2010a): 1137–1146.

    In this first encyclopedia article, Batty provides an overview of philosophical discussion of the content of olfactory experience. Although she presents her own view of olfactory content at the end of the article, her main aim is to consider the kinds of challenges that olfactory experience presents for upholding a representational view of olfactory experience.

  • Batty, Clare. “Olfactory Experience II: Objects and Properties.” Philosophy Compass 5.12 (2010b): 1147–1156.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2010.00352.x

    In this second encyclopedia article, Batty considers two issues: (1) the nature of perceptual objects and (2) the nature of olfactory perceptual properties. She not only surveys what philosophers have said about these issues so far, but considers the most plausible views and most pressing questions in each area of inquiry.

  • Beauchamp, Gary K., and Linda Bartoshuk, eds. Tasting and Smelling. Handbook of Perception and Cognition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1997.

    In addition to chapters on taste, this volume includes a helpful chapter on olfactory psychophysics, as well as chapters containing discussion of olfactory disorder and the role of olfaction in flavor perception.

  • Carterette, Edward C., and Morton P. Friedman, eds. Tasting and Smelling. Handbook of Perception 6A. New York: Academic Press, 1978.

    In addition to an overview of the history of theorizing about olfaction, this volume contains helpful chapters on the biophysics and chemistry of odor.

  • Cowart, Beverly J., and Nancy E. Rawson. “Olfaction.” In The Blackwell Handbook of Perception. Edited by E. Bruce Goldstein, 567–600. Handbooks of Experimental Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    This handbook entry provides an excellent overview of scientific research on and issues of olfaction. It covers the nature of the stimulus, the physiological mechanisms of the olfactory system, the basics of olfactory quality perception, and olfactory dysfunction.

  • Drobnick, Jim, ed. The Smell Culture Reader. Sensory Formations. New York: Berg, 2006.

    This volume contains a multidisciplinary set of short papers and excerpts on olfaction, covering topics such as perfumery, olfactory art, “odorphobia,” and scent and sensuality. All papers are highly accessible.

  • Lycan, William G. “The Slighting of Smell (with a Brief Word on the Slighting of Chemistry).” In Of Minds and Molecules: New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry. Edited by Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld, 273–290. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    A must-read for anyone new to philosophical work on olfaction. Lycan argues that if we had started with olfaction as opposed to vision, the history of theorizing about perception would have taken a different path. In arriving at this conclusion, he considers a set of “general respects of similarity and difference between the senses” (p. 277) and argues that, with respect to each, olfaction diverges significantly from vision.

  • Rouby, Catherine, Benoist Schaal, Danièle Dubois, Rémi Gervais, and André Holley, eds. Olfaction, Taste and Cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This volume contains a collection of papers that aim to approach issues of the chemical senses and cognition from an interdisciplinary perspective. It is more technical than Drobnick 2006 but provides a nice example of how interdisciplinary theorizing about olfaction can be organized and undertaken.

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