Scents and Sensibilia

Chair: Richard Brown

Presenter: Clare Batty, University of Kentucky

 a larger version of her video


Commentator: Richard Brown, Laguardia Community College, CUNY

Richard’s paper or a larger version of the video


  1. Hi Clare,

    I very much enjoyed your paper and am looking forward to the discussion here. I’ve alway thought that transparency theorists have focussed too much on the visual case and that we could learn more about transparency by thinking about other sensory modalities and other kinds of phenomenal experiences, although I confess that I did not expect such reflection to lend further support to transparency. Granted, you have argued that we must give up Tye-transparency in light of consideration of olfaction, but your Generalized transparency seems very much in the Tye-ian spirit — we “smell” through the experience directly to the world, even if not to discriminate external objects, and we cannot attend directly to the olfactory (olfactual?) experience itself. So I wanted to think a little more about whether Generalized transparency is really true of our olfactory experiences. Basically, while I find convincing your argument against Tye’s positive-O transparency, I find less convincing your argument for Generalized transparency.

    I haven’t thought much about smells before, so I’m feeling my way as I go — but maybe you could tell me how to think about this sort of case. I’m in a room, I start to smell something. I don’t know and don’t really care what external thing the smell is emanating from — I’m just concerned to pinpoint what the smell is, and how to describe it. Is it lavender-like, or is it more thyme-like? etc. What exactly am I focussing on when I’m trying to figure this out? It seems to me that I am (or that I can be) focussing on my experience — my attention doesn’t seem outwardly directed at all.

    I’m going to be thinking more about this, and I’m sure I’ll be popping back in to the Comments. Thanks again for such an interesting paper.

    Amy Kind

  2. Hi Amy, yeah I was getting at something similar in my comments on the paper, though I like the way you put it here better. In that kind of case i think it is plausible to say that I am learning how to spot my (modest) qualia as qualia. In fact, thinking about it now the kind of case you describe seems to me to be the position that subjects in an olfaction discrimination task are in. They are presented with a certain smell and are asked to attend to it and compare it to other smells.

    In that case generalized transparency fails. Though Clare may want to claim that she is only talking about a “normal’ olfactory experience, and so want to claim that it is only in those cases that the experience is transparent. But if so then transparency cannot be a point against the candid qualia folks.

  3. Hi Amy, Hi Richard, Hi all:

    Thanks for your comments.

    In the paper I say a little bit more about why we should think that a Generalized Transparency must hold. At this point of the paper, I have argued that olfactory experience does not present particular objects. So, Tye-Transparency (in particular its positive-o claim) is too strong. Still, as you note, if we think that Generalized Transparency holds of olfactory experience then we have to tell a story about why we should think that the olfactory properties do not appear to be properties of the experience itself. As a way of tackling this, I suggest that we look at the kinds of judgments that we are disposed to make on the basis of that experience. So, while olfactory experience doesn’t pin smells on individual objects, we are certainly inclined to judge that we are coming into contact with something external to us (in the same way as we are with vision). That’s what I mean when I stress (in the presentation) that integral to smelling is breathing; without literally taking in some of your environment, you cannot
    hope to smell anything. So, the idea is: we cannot conflate the world-directedness of experience with a richness of predicative structure.

    What to say about the discriminatory task that Richard brings up, then? First, I don’t want to restrict my claims to “normal” olfactory experience. Secondly, it would seem that the case where we are asked to consider a smell and compare it to other smells doesn’t by itself count against Generalized Transparency. Consider the case in which we are asked whether we perceive a color chip as unique green (a green that is neither bluish nor yellowish). That isn’t a case where we end up reflecting on a property of our experience. We end up reflecting upon the chip and a property of *it*. Given what I say in the paragraph before, why isn’t the olfactory case the same?

  4. Hi Clare, thanks for the response.

    It seems to me that this puts you in something of a delicate position. In the visual case, as you say, subjects are attending to a particular color chip and when they make comparative discriminations they can be plausibly thought to be seemingly attending to a property of the chip. But given that you think that this focus on predication is a mistake, and in particular it is mistaken when we are dealing with the olfactory salient properties, this cannot be what happens in the kind of discriminatory task Amy and I bring up. There is no *it* for the subjects to be reflecting on (on your view) so it seems natural to think they are reflecting on thier experience of the smell and comparing it to features that other olfactory experiences have.

    Now on the other hand you might say that they are attending to properties of the room or maybe properties of the Q-tip (i.e. the thing which they are asked to sniff) but if so then it seems that olfaction is indeed predicative in something like the way vision is and so Generalized Transparency is needless.

    So either generalized transparency is false or needles.

  5. Thanks for the further comments Richard!

    On my view, I make no claims about just what external thing the perceiver is attending to (in olfactory experience)–the room, the Q-tip, etc. That would be to grant more to olfactory experience than it actually gives you. And, as you say, this would be contrary to what I argue for earlier in the paper–namely, that there is no particular *it* that is presented in olfactory experience. Still, this is not to say that these properties cannot appear to be external to the perceiver–as predicating a property of an external ‘something or other’, a ‘something we know not what’. That was my point about perceptual judgments that I made in my previous posting. You say: “There is no *it* for the subjects to be reflecting on (on your view) so it seems natural to think they are reflecting on their experience of the smell and comparing it to features that other olfactory experiences have.” My argument is against this move from ‘no *it*’ to ‘must be property of experience’. While there is indeed no *it*, this does not mean that the properties do not appear to be external to the perceiver. In fact, I claim they do appear to be external to the perceiver. So, Generalized Transparency is not false.

    If this means that Generalized Transparency is needless, then so much the better for my kind of view. But I don’t think its falsity implies that it is needless. This is simply because there is a debate about the existence of qualia. Those in the anti-qualia position can rely on something like Tye-Transparency–my Generalized Transparency–to show that there is no reason to think that there are qualia. So it still demonstrates the ‘big claim’ that traditional formulations of Transparency are taken to demonstrate–qualia simply aren’t there to be found.

  6. Hi Clare, thanks for clearing this up.

    So, I take it, you think that the subject is thinking something like: that smell out there is different from that other smell and similar to this smell, etc. Is that right? If so then there seems to be a problem here. In the visual case the subject has the chips and is able to see other chips and so can be plausibly interpreted as reasoning about the chips and their properties. But in the case of olfaction the stimuli are presented serially and the subject can’t be comparing two things ‘out there’. Given this it is not as plausible that the subject is reasoning about things ‘out there’. Isn’t it more plausible that they are comparing the smell currently ‘out there’ to the remembered experience of the previous smells (which were out there? And, once you do this aren’t you pretty much back at Tye’s claim kind of transparency?

    Your second point about transparency still being able to deliver the “big claim” against qualia was the primary target of my comments. What reason is there to think that transparency does this, as opposed to thinking that what transparency does is simply capture a pre-theoretic common sense claim about conscious experience to the effect that in the first instance we experience qualitative properties as properties of things ‘out there’? As you admit in your paper a qualia realists (i.e. someone who believes in candid qualia) can admit this and then claim that we can come to leanr how to spot the qualia. Unless this is ruled out transparency doesn’t establish anything, and transparency can’t by itself, establish this. So either way we need more than the truth of transparency to show that there are no (candid) qualia

  7. It could be the case that qualia are intrinsic properties, but that we are engineered by evolution with a strong disposition to make subconscious inferences that have the effect of ‘seeing through’ the qualia to that which they ‘represent.’ It could be a reflex. An organism that was disposed to focus on the qualia themselves (say, the color of a tiger’s stripes) rather than what they represent (a dangerous animal) would likely leave fewer offspring.

    If qualia are intrinsic, then when no representational inferences are made (perhaps because of an absence of representational clues), the effect should be that the qualia are part of the sensing organism, rather than intentional properties. There is some evidence that this is the case. Merleau Ponty remarks that, when he lies on his back and faces a cloudless blue sky, after a while he ‘becomes the blue’. I have certainly had the feeling, on entering a space filled with an aroma, that the aroma (good or bad) permeated and changed my very being. A constant low frequency tone, the source of which can’t be localized, has also had this effect on me.

    Upon having an experience, we sometimes ask a question like ‘what was that smell?’ This would seem to indicate that there is something that precedes, and provides the basis for, the inferences we make regarding that which is represented by the experience.

  8. hi clare,

    great paper. i wanted to follow up on your exchange with amy. couldn’t you grant something like amy’s suggestion that when we are trying to figure out whether the smell is more lavender-like or more thyme-like, we attend to features of our experience? these two claims seem compatible:

    (a) when we don’t make a special attentive effort, our olfactory experience presents us with properties of external things (without attributing them to particulars).

    (b) it is possible to attend to properties of olfactory experience itself.

    the GT talks about all of the modality salient properties of which we’re aware, and there’s a natural way of hearing it that rules out (b). but of all the points you make in support of the GT, which of them rule out (b)? (b) seems compatible with the points about being disposed to report that we’re in contact with things outside ourselves when we smell things.


  9. Hi again Clare,

    I just want to second what Susanna said (hi Susanna!). I’m not sure that your argument establishes GT. I think you do a nice job of showing that the fact that olfactory experience does not present us with properties of external objects does not mean that it is not externally-directed. (So you help us to better understand what form a modally-neutral transparency claim should take. ) But your case against Tye-transparency is not enough to show that *all* of the modally salient properties of which you are aware in olfactory experience must appear to be properties of something other than the experience itself. It can be the case but that olfactory experience sometimes (often, usually) presents us with properties that appear to be externally directed, and yet we can also attend to properties that appear to be of the experience itself.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think about Susanna’s (a) and (b).


  10. Hi all,

    It seems that I can steal a few moments here. Let me spend this thread saying something about the color chip case (a point that Richard considered in his last reply.) I have a few things to say and possibly a clarificatory question for Richard.

    I wasn’t envisioning the color chip case as one in which a subject is presented with an array of chips–just one in which a subject is presented with a chip and asked whether or not the chip is either bluish or yellowish. (Although, of course, these kinds of array cases are put to use in the literature on color/color perception.) So, what I was suggesting was that, just as the subject in that case is attending to the external property when considering the question (bluish or yellowish?), the subject in the olfactory case (as given by Amy and Richard) is attending to the external property when considering an analogous question (lavender-like, thyme like?) think I perhaps misspoke in the earlier thread by talking in terms of discrimination tasks. Still, I was wondering, Richard, if you could clarify something that you said earlier. You worry that if a subject is comparing a present smell to a remembered smell, then I am at risk of ending up back at Tye’s claim of transparency. I didn’t really understand that point (all my fault, no doubt). Could you say a little bit more about that point. I am intrigued….

    More later. Must dash off to meeting! Thanks again everyone!

  11. Hi Clare,

    That was a few days ago so I can’t gaurantee that I’ll get this right, but here is what I think I thought 🙂

    Tye’s claim, as I understood it, was that we attribute olfactory properties to odors which are external to us. You dispute this and think that we don’t have to attribute the olfactory qualities to any kind of external object (an odor) in order for the experience to be transparent. Part of your argument for this, I take it, is that it is unintuitive that we are actually able to discriminate between odor clouds (for example page 9 of your paper). You argue that since we can’t discriminate this cloud from that cloud there is evidence against Tye’s kind of transparency. But if we now think about the case of olfactory discrimination studies of the kind that Austen brings up we have a case where a subject is smelling an odor and comparing it to a previously smelled odor. In this case we do seem to be discriminating as betwen this odor and that odor. And so we seem to back at Tye’s notion of transparency…

  12. Hi Richard,

    i would characterize the discriminatory case not as cases in which we are discriminating between this odor and that odor (where we are using ‘odor’ in particular, as opposed to property, talk). Rather this is a case where we are discriminating between properties–or, better still, property instantiations. One of the ways that I characterize olfactory experience in the paper is that we don’t experience where a smell is instantiated and where it is not. Rather we smell *that the property is instantiated*. So it’s true that on my view olfactory experience gives us the ability to have demonstrative thoughts about *this* property, or *that* property–just never about the objects that possess the properties themselves. But, even so, to claim that we are able to refer to this property, or that property, is not to claim that we are back at the Tye picture. On the Tye picture, as I characterize it, we are able to refer to the particular objects that instantiate these properties. I don’t think that I have said anything about the olfactory case that ends up committing me to this Tye-type view that I want to resist.(for olfactory experience, at least).

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