One of the more humbling features of human knowledge is the fact that despite our belief in progression, innovation and savvy, voices from 2,337 years ago often feel more relevant now than ever. Especially regarding the mysteries of being human, of consciousness and our sense that gives us the most pause: the olfactory. I dipped into a translation of Aristotle’s writings “On Sense and the Sensible” and was blown away with the fresh thinking around our sense of smell.
Aristotle was the son of the royal doctor of his day, where this privilege afforded him a life of philosophy where he pondered many things including how things worked and practical wisdom. He created the Lyceum, a precursor to universities, where his students were referred to as “wonderers”. Mind you the wandering was not seen as ironic, aimless, or useless but purposeful and productive. In his writings I reviewed, he was broadly trying to sweep how the human’s senses differentiate us from our fellow animals, where consciousness and “large, moist brains” lay the foundation for the importance of the nature of odours*. To Aristotle, a human’s respiration had two purposes only – to “relieve” the thorax and to take in odours.
While Aristotle did not have knowledge of Jacobson’s Organ, he understood that some animals could smell in water or mud and not solely in air. He found that because our brains were bigger and more moist than other animals the perception of odours became more exaggerated where we humans seek odours beyond food to take pleasure in.
These words I’ve chosen for this installation are translated, so not precisely in Aristotle’s tongue, though the words are the English translation of his musings on the air, earth, and water aspects of how we smell. If you read the following excerpt, you might even believe that Aristotle was hip to the importance of scent in wellness:
It is plain, therefore, that odour, qua odour, does not contribute to nutrition; that, however, it is serviceable to health is equally plain, as well by immediate perception as from the arguments above employed; so that odour is in relation to general health what savour is in the province of nutrition and in relation to the bodies nourished. - Aristotle
Remember too that he wrote a book about metaphysics where he clarified the distinction between matter and form. To Aristotle, matter was the physical substance of things, while form was the unique nature of a thing that gave it its identity. Odours are unique in that their unique nature is tied in a soup od matter and form, and likely tickled Aristotle’s brain. The full work is worth the read.
Some words for your nose vocabulary around the elements and their participation in the human odour processing system (all from Aristotle’s “On Sense and the Sensible”, Section 2, part 5):
Aqueous exhalation: (noun) exhaled droplets that contain nonvolatile substances and are particles with a physical designation. In other words, the exhalation is a form of moisture.
Aqueous exhalation is merely a form of moisture, but fumid exhalation is, as already remarked, composed of Air and Earth. The former when condensed turns into water, the latter, in a particular species of earth. Now, it is unlikely that odour is either of these. For vaporous exhalation consists of mere water [which, being tasteless, is inodorous]; and fumid exhalation cannot occur in water at all, though, as has been before stated, aquatic creatures also have the sense of smell. – Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Fumid exhalation: (noun) an exhalation with compounds of earth and air - smoky, vaporous.
Some writers look upon Fumid exhalation, which is a compound of Earth and Air, as the essence of Odour. [Indeed, all are inclined to rush to this theory of Odour.] Heraclitus implied his adherence to it when he declared that if all existing things were turned into Smoke, the nose would be the organ to discern them with. All writers incline to refer odour to this cause [sc. exhalation of some sort], but some regard it as aqueous, others as fumid, exhalation; while others, again, hold it to be either. – Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Sapid: (adjective) having a strong, pleasant taste.
That the property of odorousness is based upon the Sapid may be seen by comparing the things which possess with those which do not possess odour. The elements, viz. Fire, Air, Earth, Water, are inodorous, because both the dry and the moist among them are without sapidity, unless some added ingredient produces it. This explains why seawater possesses odour, for [unlike 'elemental' water] it contains savour and dryness. – Aristotle (384-322 BC)
*Keeping with the odour spelling here to honor the translation of the original Aristotole piece frm eh UK. FYI: In American English, odor is the preferred spelling of the noun referring to a property detected by the sense of smell. In all other main varieties of English, odour is the preferred spelling. This spelling difference extends to odorless and odourless, but it does not extend to odorous and malodorous, which are so spelled in all varieties of English ( courtesy grammarist).