Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tar very much

History has a steady stream of examples of famous and generally rational people advocating "woo". Aldous Huxley's espousal of the Bates Method springs to mind, as does Linus Pauling's dubious research into vitamin C megadosage. A commenter, Fuchsoid, pointed me to another one in correctly pre-dating William Cowper's "the cups / That cheer but not inebriate" - see The cup that cheers ... - to the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (aka Bishop Berkeley) and his championing of the curative properties of tar-water:

... whereas the luminous spirit lodged and detained- in the native balsam of pines and firs, is of a nature so mild and benign and proportioned to the human constitution, as to warm without heating, to cheer but not inebriate ...
- George Berkeley, Siris, 1744

Berkeley is popularly best known for his arguments that existence depends on perception. These are behind various quotations, such as the classic Dr Johnson anecdote ...

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus'.
- Boswell's Life of Johnson

... as well as all the "If a tree falls in a forest" conundrums, as well as the limerick probably by RF Ashley-Montagu:

A philosopher, one Bishop Berkeley
Remarked, metaphysic'lly, darkly,
'Quite half that we see
Cannot possibly be
And the rest's altogether unlarkly.'

On the subject of tar-water, however, his views drifted from the merely unlarkly to the outright weird. I first heard of the stuff in Dickens' Great Expectations, in which Pip is dosed with it for bolting his food:

My sister made a dive at me, and fished me up by the hair, saying nothing more than the awful words, “You come along and be dosed.”

Some medical beast had revived Tar-water in those days as a fine medicine, and Mrs. Joe always kept a supply of it in the cupboard; having a belief in its virtues correspondent to its nastiness. At the best of times, so much of this elixir was administered to me as a choice restorative, that I was conscious of going about, smelling like a new fence. On this particular evening the urgency of my case demanded a pint of this mixture, which was poured down my throat, for my greater comfort, while Mrs. Joe held my head under her arm, as a boot would be held in a bootjack. Joe got off with half a pint; but was made to swallow that (much to his disturbance, as he sat slowly munching and meditating before the fire), “because he had had a turn.” Judging from myself, I should say he certainly had a turn afterwards, if he had had none before.

Tar-water was a decoction of wood-tar in water, which gave a dilute solution of unpleasant chemicals including phenol and cresols. Externally it would have been a pretty good antiseptic and was used as such, but it was also taken internally. As Dickens writes, the use in Victorian times was a revival; it went back to mediaeval times, if not earlier, but Berkeley led a particular craze for it in the 1700s. His 1744 exposition on it is online in full: Siris: a chain of philosophical reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar water: and divers other subjects connected together and arising one from another. It's strange stuff: it starts on simple concrete description of plants and tar, but then diverges more and more into weirdness as Berkeley explains that tar-water achieves its results through the "luminous spirit" contained therein. He mixed the works of Newton and Boyle, classical observations from Plato and Hippocrates, Christian mysticism, and a great deal of outright alchemy. The 1843 The works of George Berkeley, D.D., Bishop of Cloyne describes it as

... indeed a Chain, which, like that of the Poet, reaches from Earth to Heaven, conducting the reader by an almost imperceptible gradation from the phenomena of Tar-water, through the depths of the Ancient Philosophy, to the sublimest Mystery of the Christian Religion.

Personally I find it deeply erudite garbage, not entirely explicable by lack of scientific knowledge at the time (after all, Lucretius - see A fan letter to the Epicureans - made a damn site more sense about the world with far less to go on). It is supposed to support the Newtonian view, but it's hard to see that Newton would benefit from such a flaky support. To quote The Perishers, I suspect Berkeley's valves were sticking. Newspapers of the time were cynical too, and Horace Walpole's letters record a satirical poem from one:

Who dare deride what pious Cloyne has done?
The Church shall rise and vindicate her son;
She tells us, all her Bishops shepherds are—
And shepherds heal their rotten sheep with tar

- Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, Sep 1st 1744, p323, The letters of Horace Walpole, earl of Orford, Volume 1, 1866

However, many modern commentators find Siris to be worth analysing for its insights into how Berkeley viewed the world working.

Siris has been largely neglected by the commentators of Berkeley's philosophy. In a sense this is easy to understand. The book is apparently both difficult and almost ridiculous. Its metaphysics are arcane and the panacea he recommends, tar, strange. But Siris should be read, simply because we cannot understand Berkeley without it. And, in its own way, it is a readable book which allows us to see what Berkeley's final thoughts about the universe were like.

- Timo Airaksinen, University of Helsinki, "The Meaning and Interpretation of Berkeley's Siris" (conference presentation) - cited here
- Ray


  1. t least "tar water" has something real in it and has been discarded as a potential remedy. On the other hand, the homeopathetics are still with us. One of their recent coups was getting an article into the mainline journal "Chest." This pice of absurdity claimed to show that administering a dilution of potassium dichromate orally to intensive care patients resulted in their getting off a ventilator quicker. The only problem was that the "dilution" was their C30. That is, dilute it by ten, take that and dilute by ten, for thirty times. (Oh, don't forget to shake or "succuss"). The problem is that diluting a solution this much results in a concentration where there would have to be a vessel with a radius of the orbit of Mars to contain one molecule.
    Why it works (in retrospect it didn't) was, according to the authors, because:
    "The effect may be best explained by cybernetics, which means that the information of the homeopathic drug acts consensually on the regulator. Thereby, the body regains its original property to regulate physical parameters."

    This is well reviewed in "Science Based Medicine" here, and in multiple other scientifically oriented blogs.

    Samuel Hahnemann first described Homeopathy in 1796. Bishop Berkeley was way before this (1685-1753). But, they are peas in a pod.

  2. The "tar" that Berkeley referred to is what we would call resin today. It seems that Berkeley's use of "tar" was misunderstood already at the time of Dickens...