Siris and the scope of Berkeley's instrumentalism

I. Introduction Siris, Berkeley's last major work, is undeniably a rather odd book. It could hardly be otherwise, given Berkeley's aims in writing it, which are three-fold: 'to communicate to the public the salutary virtues of tar-water,'1 to provide scientific background supporting the efficacy of tar-water as a medicine, and to lead the mind of the reader, via gradual steps, toward contemplation of God.2 The latter two aims shape Berkeley's extensive use of contemporary natural science in Siris. In particular, Berkeley's focus on what he calls fire (or aether or light) as a quasiuniversal 'cause' of natural change3 serves these purposes, for the 'activity' of the aether, in his view, can both explain the miraculous virtues of a certain medicine, i.e. tar-water, and reveal God's action and his divine order.4 Berkeley's corpuscular speculations, including his use of fire-theory, are not especially idiosyncratic as natural philosophy. In his theorizing, as Jessop and other have noted, he is heavily indebted to the work of Hermann Boerhaave, the Dutch chemist, botanist, and physician whose teachings were highly influential in mid-eighteenth century Britain.5 Boerhaave, along with other Dutch natural philosophers cited by Berkeley, assigned a central role in accounting for physio-chemical activity to fire, a subtle, insensible particulate substance, sometimes identified with light.
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