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Jraissati, Yasmina and Deroy, Ophelia (2021): Categorizing Smells: A Localist Approach. In: Cognitive Science, Vol. 45, No. 1, e12930

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Humans are poorer at identifying smells and communicating about them, compared to other sensory domains. They also cannot easily organize odor sensations in a general conceptual space, where geometric distance could represent how similar or different all odors are. These two generalities are more or less accepted by psychologists, and they are often seen as connected: If there is no conceptual space for odors, then olfactory identification should indeed be poor. We propose here an important revision to this conclusion: We believe that the claim that there is no odor space is true only if by odor space, one means a conceptual space representing all possible odor sensations, in the paradigmatic sense used for instance for color. However, in a less paradigmatic sense, local conceptual spaces representing a given subset of odors do exist. Thus the absence of a global odor space does not warrant the conclusion that there is no olfactory conceptual map at all. Here we show how a localist account provides a new interpretation of experts and cross-cultural categorization studies: Rather than being exceptions to the poor olfactory identification and communication usually seen elsewhere, experts and cross-cultural categorization are here taken to corroborate the existence of local conceptual spaces.

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