Smelling objects

Synthese 196 (10):4279-4303 (2019)
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Objects are central to perception and our interactions with the world. We perceive the world as parsed into discrete entities that instantiate particular properties, and these items capture our attention and shape how we interact with the environment. Recently there has been some debate about whether the sense of smell allows us to perceive odours as discrete objects, with some suggesting that olfaction is aspatial and doesn’t allow for object-individuation. This paper offers two empirically tractable criteria for assessing whether particular objects are exhibited in perceptual experience— susceptibility to figure-ground segregation and perceptual constancies—and argues that these criteria are fulfilled by olfactory perception, and thus there are olfactory objects. I argue that there are, in fact, two different ways that olfaction allows for figure-ground segregation. First, I look at various Gestalt grouping principles, which are thought to govern when features are perceived as grouped into structured wholes, segregated from everything around them. I argue that these principles apply to olfactory experience, providing evidence of non-spatial figure-ground segregation. Second, I defend the contentious idea that a spatial variety of figure-ground segregation can also occur in olfaction. To see this, however, we need to look to empirical evidence showing that tactile stimulation and bodily movements play a crucial role in olfactory phenomenology. Finally, I draw on empirical evidence and olfactory phenomenology to argue that there are perceptual constancies in olfactory experience, allowing us to perceive odours as coherent objects that survive shifts in our perspectives on the world.



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Becky Millar
Cardiff University

Citations of this work

The nature of perceptual constancies.Peter Https://Orcidorg288X Schulte - 2021 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 103 (1):3-20.
Perceiving Smellscapes.Benjamin D. Young - 2020 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 101 (2):203-223.
A Critique of Olfactory Objects.Ann-Sophie Barwich - 2019 - Frontiers in Psychology 10.
Tracking representationalism and olfaction.Błażej Skrzypulec - 2022 - Mind and Language 38 (2):446-463.

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