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A Representational Account of Olfactory Experience
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Seattle rain smelled different from New Orleans rain.... New Orleans rain smelled of sulfur and hibiscus, trumpet metal, thunder, and sweat. Seattle rain, the widespread rain of the Great Northwest, smelled of green ice and sumi ink, of geology and silence and minnow breath.

— Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Much of the philosophical literature on perception has focused on vision. This is not surprising, given that vision holds for us a certain prestige. Our visual experience is incredibly rich, offering up a mosaic of apparent three-dimensional objects. For this reason, it is commonplace to suppose that visual experience is world-directed, with the view taking its most popular form in the representational, or content, view. World-directed views contrast with what we might call subjectivist views — views according to which experiences are raw feels or mere sensations.

Although it rarely gets said explicitly, the representational view is taken to apply across sensory modalities — not simply to the case of visual experience. The notion of representational content is central to important metaphysical and epistemological projects in the philosophy of mind. Many philosophers of mind believe that a physico-functionalist account of mental representation is in the offing. If we can motivate the view that perceptual experiences have representational content, then we lay the groundwork for a purely naturalistic account of perceptual experience. Although much has been said about visual content, there has been very little discussion of content for the chemical senses — smell and taste. As it turns out, olfaction presents an important challenge for representational views to overcome. This is because, given its phenomenology, it is difficult to see what a representational view of olfactory experience would be like. A subjectivist view of it might seem inevitable. In this paper, I argue for a representational account of olfactory experience that fits its phenomenology.

I Representation and Unification

We can characterize the representational content of a perceptual experience as a proposition that specifies the way that the world appears to a subject when she has that experience. If the world is that way — if the representational content is true — then the experience is accurate or veridical. Otherwise — if the content is false — it is inaccurate or nonveridical. The content of an experience, then, is assessable for accuracy. For this reason, we can think of the representational content of a perceptual experience as giving that experience's 'accuracy conditions.' Consider the experience you have when you look at a ripe tomato. A plausible candidate for its accuracy conditions is that a red, roundish, bulgy object be before you.

So conceived, the representational view is an intuitive position to uphold. Most of us would agree that, in the visual case at least, experience can misinform us about the way that things are in the world. Consider how your apparently black sock is revealed to be navy once you leave the house and get it out into the daylight. Similarly, we might suppose that, in the tomato case, what you are actually looking at is a cleverly lit albino tomato. Although the albino tomato looks red, roundish and bulgy, it is actually white, roundish and bulgy. What you suffer, in each case, is an illusion with respect to an object's color. Your experience misattributes redness to a white object, blackness to a navy one. In both experiences, you succeed in perceiving an object but misperceive one of its properties. This is not the only way that you can misperceive, however. You might hallucinate a ripe tomato before you. Unlike the illusory case, there is no tomato there and you have no perceptual success.

Visual experience, then, supports a representational view. But content theorists have assumed that it isn't alone in this. Implicit in much of the contemporary perceptual literature is what I will call the Unification Thesis: the thesis that certain philosophical issues about perception should be settled in the same way for each of the sensory modalities. Recently, many philosophers have assumed the Unification Thesis with respect to representational content. I will take the Unification Thesis as a starting point for my discussion.

But obviously I can't do so without noting two important considerations in favor of the content version...

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