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De Anima II:9

Book II

Chapter 9

Smell and its object are much less easy to determine than what we have hitherto discussed; the distinguishing characteristic of the object of smell is less obvious than those of sound or colour. The ground of this is that our power of smell is less discriminating and in general inferior to that of many species of animals; men have a poor sense of smell and our apprehension of its proper objects is inseparably bound up with and so confused by pleasure and pain, which shows that in us the organ is inaccurate. It is probable that there is a parallel failure in the perception of colour by animals that have hard eyes: probably they discriminate differences of colour only by the presence or absence of what excites fear, and that it is thus that human beings distinguish smells. It seems that there is an analogy between smell and taste, and that the species of tastes run parallel to those of smells-the only difference being that our sense of taste is more discriminating than our sense of smell, because the former is a modification of touch, which reaches in man the maximum of discriminative accuracy. While in respect of all the other senses we fall below many species of animals, in respect of touch we far excel all other species in exactness of discrimination. That is why man is the most intelligent of all animals. This is confirmed by the fact that it is to differences in the organ of touch and to nothing else that the differences between man and man in respect of natural endowment are due; men whose flesh is hard are ill-endowed by nature, men whose flesh is soft, well-endowed.

As flavours may be divided into (a) sweet, (b) bitter, so with smells. In some things the flavour and the smell have the same quality, i.e. both are sweet or both bitter, in others they diverge. Similarly a smell, like a flavour, may be pungent, astringent, acid, or succulent. But, as we said, because smells are much less easy to discriminate than flavours, the names of these varieties are applied to smells only metaphorically; for example 'sweet' is extended from the taste to the smell of saffron or honey, 'pungent' to that of thyme, and so on.{39}

In the same sense in which hearing has for its object both the audible and the inaudible, sight both the visible and the invisible, smell has for its object both the odorous and the inodorous. 'Inodorous' may be either (a) what has no smell at all, or (b) what has a small or feeble smell. The same ambiguity lurks in the word 'tasteless'.

Smelling, like the operation of the senses previously examined, takes place through a medium, i.e. through air or water -- I add water, because water-animals too (both sanguineous and non-sanguineous) seem to smell just as much as land-animals; at any rate some of them make directly for their food from a distance if it has any scent. That is why the following facts constitute a problem for us. All animals smell in the same way, but man smells only when he inhales; if he exhales or holds his breath, he ceases to smell, no difference being made whether the odorous object is distant or near, or even placed inside the nose and actually on the wall of the nostril; it is a disability common to all the senses not to perceive what is in immediate contact with the organ of sense, but our failure to apprehend what is odorous without the help of inhalation is peculiar (the fact is obvious on making the experiment). Now since bloodless animals do not breathe, they must, it might be argued, have some novel sense not reckoned among the usual five. Our reply must be that this is impossible, since it is scent that is perceived; a sense that apprehends what is odorous and what has a good or bad odour cannot be anything but smell. Further, they are observed to be deleteriously effected by the same strong odours as man is, e.g. bitumen, sulphur, and the like. These animals must be able to smell without being able to breathe. The probable explanation is that in man the organ of smell has a certain superiority over that in all other animals just as his eyes have over those of hard-eyed animals. Man's eyes have in the eyelids a kind of shelter or envelope, which must be shifted or drawn back in order that we may see, while hardeyed animals have nothing of the kind, but at once see whatever presents itself in the transparent medium. Similarly in certain species of animals the organ of smell is like the eye of hard-eyed animals, uncurtained, while in others which take in air it probably has a curtain over it, which is drawn back in inhalation, owing to the dilating of the veins or pores. That explains also why such animals cannot smell under water; to smell they must first inhale, and that they cannot do under water.

Smells come from what is dry as flavours from what is moist. Consequently the organ of smell is potentially dry.


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