“I sense therefore I am”

Cogito ergo sum is often regarded as the fundamental element of Western thought that laid the grounds for rationalism, scientific progress and modern dichotomies: I think, therefore I am. The title of this post is less well known: I sense therefore I am.

 Some perfumista (i.e. perfume lovers) immediately associate the slogan with Sensi, a gentle, oriental-floral Giorgio Armani fragrance created by Alberto Morillas & Harry Fremont in 2002. The spectrum of responses on Fragrantica shows the ambivalence a scent can evoke. In fact, the brand used this rhetoric of philosophical sensualism as its claim (e.g. in the upper left corner of this image). Once again there are deeper meanings in advertizing: I sense therefore I am.

Descartes once divided all that exists into two categories, the material, that is the body, including the five sense and the objects they sense and the immaterial which was specifies as the mind (McEvilley 1985). The title resonates with this dualism in Western thought. Yet, above all, this creed of sensualism is another way of saying that the human condition is based on the sensory immersion in the world. And it is along these lines that the slogan serves as the guiding leitmotif for David Le Breton‘s anthropology of the senses that has just been published in an English translation as part of the Sensory Studies Series edited by David Howes:

David Le Breton (2017). Sensing the world: an anthropology of the senses. London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Knee-jerk Reactions

The chapter on the sense of smell discusses the olfactory dimension of social and cultural phenomena. It begins with a section on the Western denigration of smell and concludes with the deodorized visions of modern civilizations.
When reading Le Breton’s section on “Racist Conceptions of the Other’s Odor”  I remembered a recent conversation with a senior executive of an influential foundation supporting culture as well as research projects. I asked for feedback on some of our proposal ideas for new projects. In this context I carefully drew some attention to smell as a dimension of public discourse on migration and for example its consequences at the workplace. In response, this highly educated gentleman told me in a pretty direct way that there is one simple solution: “Migrants must wash! Basta!”.  Following this knee jerk reaction there was no chance to even make an argument…

Sensing the World & Making Sense of the World

In his section on racist concepts David Le Breton refers to Max Weber who denounced the olfactory imagination in 1910. I have just digged a bit into this debate in early sociology (a long time ago, I did my doctorate in intellectual history…) and found out that Weber’s condemnation was actually part of a broader sociological debate that openly discussed racist concepts and made frequent references to the sense of smell…
In conclusion: “Sensing the World” is a must for making sense of the world!
In case you hesitate to read an entire monograph have a look at this recent article by David Le Breton (including a passage on the sense of smell):
David Le Breton (2016). Sensory Play, Wordplay: the Common Sense of Sensing. The Senses and Society, 11(3), 251–261.
McEvilley, T. (1985). I Think Therefore I Art. Artforum, (Summer), 74–85.
We have recently started  Scent Culture Comment & Reviews. Please let us know what you think ….
Image source: www.reed.edu/anthro/faculty/mia/Images/Gallery/Pics/sensualperfume.jpg

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