University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
[Clear Hits]
expand section 
expand section 

expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
collapse sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 

7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
[Clear Hits]


Since the middle of the eighteenth century the concept
of the association of ideas has increasingly been seen
as the most basic, the most fecund, and the most per-
vasive explanatory principle in the human and, to a
lesser extent, the biological sciences. The tendency to
identify the association of ideas with the school of
associationist psychology which flourished in the late
nineteenth century has helped to obscure the fact that
the principle in its most general form has played the
central role in attempts to apply the methods and
assumptions of science to the study of man. The prin-
ciple has two aspects: (1) that complex mental
phenomena are formed from simple elements derived
ultimately from sensations and (2) that the mechanism
by which these are formed depends on similarity
and/or repeated juxtaposition of the simple elements
in space and time. The association of ideas provides
a mechanism for ordered change through experience
which complements (and plays an analogous role to)
the concept of attraction (or gravity) in the physico-
chemical sciences. Aside from its obvious position in
empiricist epistemology and in psychological theories
of learning, it has played a fundamental role in the
idea of progress; in utilitarian legislative, economic,
and moral theory; in theories of organic evolution; in
functionalist social theory; in theories of the functions
of the nervous system; and in psychoanalysis. Many
of these theories are themselves closely interrelated and
can be seen as parts of a coherent tradition in the
history of ideas.

In the first systematic elaboration of an associationist
theory of mind and brain, David Hartley points out
the long prehistory of the concept:

The influence of Association over our Ideas, Opinions, and
Affections, is so great and obvious, as scarce to have escaped
the Notice of any Writer who has treated of these, though
the word Association, in the particular Sense here affixed
to it, was first brought into Use by Mr. Locke. But all that
has been delivered by the Ancients and Moderns, concern-
ing the Power of Habit, Custom, Example, Education, Au-
thority, Party-prejudice, the Manner of learning the manual
and liberal arts, &c. goes upon this Doctrine as its Founda-
tion, and may be considered as the Detail of it, in various

(Observations on Man [1749], I, 65).

It is true, as so often in the history of ideas, that aspects
of the association of ideas were mentioned by numerous
writers prior to Locke, e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Vives,
Hobbes. The development of the concept as a central
principle of explanation depended, however, on a series
of related developments in seventeenth-century
ontology, epistemology, and scientific methodology,
most of which were formulated in opposition to aspects
of the Aristotelian tradition. These combined to pro-
vide an intellectual context in which the association
of ideas became the central explanatory conception in
the interpretation of the nonmaterial world.

The twin impacts of Cartesian mind-body dualism
and of the increasing acceptance of the mechanical
philosophy as the most fruitful interpretation of the
material world separated man's mind from his body
and from the world of objects outside the mind, and
made the epistemological problem of how we acquire
veridical knowledge, more, not less, acute. If one
accepted, as Locke did, the mind-body dualism but did
not share Descartes' belief in innate ideas, the explana-
tion of the acquisition of knowledge and the operations
of the mind was left (literally) with no materials with
which to work.

It is possible to interpret Descartes' views on man
and on animal automatism as providing the basis for
a theory of conditioning, and this interpretation was
made in France and again in nineteenth-century
Britain, e.g., by T. H. Huxley, thereby placing his work
as a seminal influence on the early development of
associationism. In more recent times Descartes has
been credited with such a theory, but these last attribu-


tions are clearly examples of “Whig” historiography
—looking for precursors without considering the con-
temporary (as opposed to the current) intellectual
context. The theory is here being considered as it was
understood in the seventeenth century, with particular
reference to the reception of Descartes' ideas in
Britain. His epistemology and his ontology implied a
rigid dualism, and his ideas on acquired, involuntary
movements provided no warrant for a learning theory,
since learning referred to “experience” in the mental
realm. In order to attribute to him a theory of condi-
tioning which could be said to be relevant to human
learning, one would have to commit an anachronism.
In establishing the contemporary impact of his views—
and especially in considering the reactions of Locke,
Gay, and Newton as precursors to Hartley—it is nec-
essary to take care not to interpret Descartes' auto-
matism as applying to human learning. It is important
to appreciate that the British (unlike the French) did
not interpret Descartes as implying a theory of auto-
matic learning, if only because they considered his
mechanistic physiology very crude and were not pre-
pared to indulge in the reductionism which is required
to derive a theory of human learning from his views
on animals and on the passions of men. The modern
fusion of the Cartesian animal physiology with associa-
tionism was a product of the late eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries.

Descartes defined the concept of mind negatively
as all that does not pertain to the body. The concepts
which were proving so fruitful in physics and astron-
omy were unavailable to epistemology and psychology.
The mind was not for Descartes a possible object for
scientific knowledge. It was unextended and indivisible,
and its essence was thought or free will. The philo-
sophical consequence of this situation was that there
was no language for describing mind except by

Locke wished to emphasize the primacy of experi-
ence in the acquisition of ideas. He took the units of
experience from contemporary, non-Cartesian expres-
sions of the mechanical philosophy. Despite their com-
mon medical experience, Locke, like Hartley, drew his
analogies for the analysis of experience from physics.
His general mechanical point of view was Newtonian,
but the physics of his An Essay Concerning Human
(1690) was the corpuscular physics of
Robert Boyle, while the epistemology owes much to
Pierre Gassendi's revived atomistic sensationalism.
Thus Locke laid the foundation of one aspect of associ-
ationism in accounting for the origin of ideas by means
of the juxtaposition in experience of simple ideas to
form complex ones. This was a mechanistic, though
not a materialistic, epistemology. It is often pointed
out that the section called “Of the Association of Ideas”
in Locke's Essay was an afterthought. It was a brief
discussion added to the fourth edition in 1700 (Book
II, Sec. xxxiii), to account for aberrant, irrational, and
customary connections between ideas. While granting
this, one's attention should not be diverted from the
fact that although Locke's preoccupation with
epistemology led him to give a cursory treatment to
the psychological aspects of his views, his discussion
of the association of ideas was consistent with and
consequent upon the whole complex of ideas which
led to the establishment of the empiricist tradition in
science and philosophy.

There were two further conceptual prerequisites for
the systematic exploitation of Locke's paradigm for
interpreting experience. Edmund Law prefaced his
translation of Archbishop King's Essay on the Origin
of Evil
(1731) with a “Preliminary Dissertation con-
cerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Mo-
rality.” The anonymous author, Rev. John Gay, em-
ployed Locke's conception in opposition to the innatist
theory of the origin of moral sentiments and disinter-
ested affections advocated by Francis Hutcheson. Gay
applied the association of ideas to the domains of ethics
and psychology and argued that the moral sense and
all the passions were acquired in experience. Men seek
pleasure and avoid pain, he argued, and the habitual
union of these experiences with the principle of associ-
ation produces our moral and emotional dispositions.

As some men have imagin'd Innate Ideas, because forgetting
how they came by them; so others have set up almost as
many distinct Instincts as there are acquired Principles of

(2nd ed. [1732], p. liii).

Gay's dissertation was the first coherent expression of
the main tenets of utilitarian ethical theory and the
associationist school of psychology.

The second element which contributed to the sys-
tematic associationist view appeared in queries which
Isaac Newton raised at the end of the Principia Mathe-
and appended to his Optics. These provided
a physical basis for the association of ideas (which, it
should be recalled, was itself based on a physical
analogy). He suggested that the vibrations of corpuscles
of light might cause vibrations in the retina of the eye
and the brain and produce the sensation of sight. He
also noticed the persistence of sensations, e.g., of a
glowing coal being whirled in a circle, after the object
had moved. Locke had explicitly eschewed specula-
tions on the somatic basis of associations. Newton's
queries suggested that the vibrations of physical cor-
puscles might account for the phenomena of sensation,
its propagation in the nervous system, and its persist-
ence, i.e., memory.


In his Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty,
and His Expectations
(1749), David Hartley relates that
he had read of Gay's attempts to deduce all our intel-
lectual pleasures and pains from association and that
this had led him to consider the power of association.
From this he went on to investigate both its conse-
quences with respect to morality and religion and its
physical cause. He developed a systematic psycho-
physiology, explicitly drawn from the ideas of Newton,
Locke, and Gay, which was based on the association
of ideas in the mind and on corpuscular vibrations in
the nervous system.

The Doctrine of Vibrations may appear at first Sight to have
no Connection with that of Association; however, if these
Doctrines be found in fact to contain the Laws of the Bodily
and Mental Powers respectively, they must be related to
each other, since the Body and Mind are. One may expect,
that Vibrations should infer Association as their Effect, and
Association point to Vibrations as its cause

(I, 6).

What follows is a tour de force in which Hartley
argues, case by case, that physical vibrations in the
brain, spinal cord, and nerves are the basis of all sensa-
tions, all ideas, and all motions of men and animals
and that all learning is the consequence of repetitive
juxtapositions of corpuscular vibrations and mental
associations in space and time, producing habits ac-
cording to the pleasure-pain principle. This principle,
like that of association, has a long history, but in the
new context of corpuscular physics and empiricist
epistemology it took on a new significance. The per-
sistence of the pleasure-pain principle in biology, psy-
chology, and the social sciences has allowed these
disciplines to employ the physical analogies of the
association of ideas without abandoning qualitative
concepts based on the subjective world of experience.

Although Hartley was orthodox in his belief that
nature and man were the products of Design and saw
the concept of utility in the context of Natural Theol-
ogy, his highly specific exposition of the principle of
association in a general psychophysiological learning
theory played an important role in the secularization
of the concepts of adaptation and utility by providing
a mechanism for them. This was part of a wider move-
ment in philosophy and science whereby final causes
were replaced by material and efficient ones. Although
Hartley's learning theory was confined to individual
experience, and the “expectations” discussed in his
second volume were concerned with the afterlife,
others extended his theory and used it as a general
warrant for explaining changing utilities and adapta-
tions by means of the pleasurable and painful results
or consequences of actions. The extension of the time
scale beyond the life-span of an individual made this
general paradigm available as a potential mechanism
for ideas of progress and evolution. Similarly, although
Hartley denied, in a general scholium, that his theory
had reductionist implications, he did accept its deter-
minist consequences:

The Consequence I mean is that of the Mechanism or
Necessity of human Actions, in Opposition to what is
generally termed Free-will.... By the Mechanism of human
Actions I mean, that each Action results from the previous
Circumstances of Body and Mind, in the same manner, and
with the same Certainty, as other Effects do from their
mechanical Causes;...

(ibid., 500).

Thus, by the mid-eighteenth century two of the main
tenets of Cartesian dualism had been effectively
challenged—the mind's indivisibility and the concept
of free will.

In the same period two other writers had inde-
pendently, but less systematically, developed sensa-
tionalist epistemologies and learning theories under the
influence of Locke and Newton. E. B. de Condillac's
Traité des sensations (1754) was as seminal on the
Continent as Hartley's work was in Britain in the de-
velopment of the sensationalist and physiological
theories of human nature which achieved prominence
in the French Enlightenment and in the speculative
and experimental work of the Idéologues whose work,
in turn, laid the conceptual foundations for the
emergence of physiological psychology in France and
Germany in the nineteenth century. It was also from
this tradition that the Marquis de Condorcet drew the
mechanism for his remarkably sanguine L'esquisse d'un
tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain
and from which J. B. Lamarck drew one aspect of his
theory of evolution, that is, the inheritance of acquired

Similarly, David Hume's A Treatise of Human Na-
(1738) was concerned primarily with another
topic, epistemology, but he based the principle of
causality on the association of ideas (“constant con-
junction”). He also grasped the generality of the prin-
ciple of association:

Here is a kind of attraction, which in the mental world will
be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural,
and to show itself in as many and as various forms. Its effects
are everywhere conspicuous; but, as to its causes, they are
mostly unknown, and must be resolved into original qualities
of human nature, which I pretend not to explain

(Book I, Part I, Sec. IV).

Hume undoubtedly played a crucial part in the devel-
opment of the empiricist tradition and debates on the
issues which he raised were continued in nine-
teenth-century and in later work in the philosophy of
science. However, various extensions of Hartley's doc-


trine provided the most striking applications of the
association of ideas in materialism, utilitarianism, the
idea of progress, and evolutionary theories.

All of the principal utilitarian theorists (Joseph
Priestley, William Paley, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill,
and J. S. Mill) united the search for general (Newton-
ian) laws of human nature with the psychology of
Hartley in the development of their psychological,
educational, economic, social, and legislative theories.
The “consequences” of the hedonist or pleasure-pain
theory of human nature were progressively reinter-
preted as the sanctions of utilitarian reformist theories.
In the course of the nineteenth century it became
apparent to many that particular policies cannot be
deduced from universal principles of human nature,
but in the meantime the associationist-utilitarian point
of view became the basis of the editorial policies of
the journals of the Philosophic Radicals and their par-
tial allies among the Comtists: The Westminster Re-
view, The Leader, The Fortnightly Review.
This ap-
proach also found an extreme form in the “Gradgrind”
approach to education in Britain and resulted in the
system of “payment by results” to schoolteachers,
whose earnings and facilities depended on the number
of their pupils who passed exams.

Although most utilitarian followers of Hartley re-
tained some vestige of mind-body dualism, one of them,
Joseph Priestley, interpreted Hartley in a way which
foreshadowed conclusions which were later drawn on
other grounds. Priestley argued in his edition of Hartley
(1775), in a way which was consistent with Priestley's
Unitarianism, that Hartley's dualism was superfluous.
As Dugald Stewart ruefully observed, Hartley and
Condillac's speculations “stopped short of what is
called Materialism,... but touched its threshold.
Thither, it must be owned, their philosophy pointed,
and thither their followers proceeded” (Encyclopaedia
8th ed. [1860], I, 379). Just as Condorcet
had drawn on Continental associationism for his idea
of inevitable social progress, in England William
Godwin's Political Justice (1793) combined the theories
of Hartley's first volume with a secular transposition
of the hopes expressed in the second volume to argue
for inevitable social progress, transcending the limits
of the passions and the body. Adam Smith (The Wealth
of Nations,
1776) had earlier employed the principles
of association and utility to account for the causes of
economic equilibrium and wealth. His laissez-faire
theory based its claims for a natural identity of interests
among men on a mixture of theological and utilitarian
assumptions. T. R. Malthus reacted strongly against the
optimism of Godwin and Condorcet and drew on
Smith's principles in his account of the causes of pov-
erty. Unlike Smith, he could not believe that the prin
ciple of utility produced harmonious equilibrium, and
unlike Godwin and Condorcet, he could not believe
that it produced inevitable progress. Rather, he trans-
lated the sanctions of pleasure and pain into social
terms, and combined them with the conflict between
nature's niggardliness and man's sexual appetites to
produce checks on prosperity and on population itself.
Society was in equilibrium because of poverty, vice,
misery, famine, war, and death. This equilibrium was
a painful one, and what progress there was occurred
by means of struggle, slightly tempered by “moral
restraint” in the avoidance of premature marriage.

The English parallel to Lamarck's theory of evolu-
tion by means of the inheritance of acquired charac-
teristics is to be found in the Zoonomia (1794-96) of
Erasmus Darwin (a close friend of Priestley, who shared
with him and with Godwin and Condorcet a profound
sympathy for the progressive, egalitarian aims of the
French Revolution). Once again, Hartley's ideas, suita-
bly secularized and generalized, provided the basis for
a general theory of ordered, progressive change
through cumulative experience:

The ingenious Dr. Hartley in his work on man, and some
other philosophers, have been of the opinion, that our
immortal part acquires during this life certain habits of
action or of sentiment, which become for ever indissoluble,
continuing after death in a future state of existence; and
add, that if these habits are of the malevolent kind, they
must render the possessor miserable even in heaven. I would
apply this ingenious idea to the generation or production
of the embryon, or new animal, which partakes so much
of the form and propensities of the parent

(Zoonomia, Sec.

Darwin argued that animals develop through experi-
ence in their lifetimes, and these structural changes are
passed on to the next generation, eventually producing
the evolution of new species. The second volume of
Zoonomia was concerned with medicine and contained
an elaborate attempt to classify all diseases on the basis
of the pleasure-pain principle and the concepts of
sensation, irritation, volition, and association.

Within a century the principles underlying the asso-
ciation of ideas had been extended well beyond their
original domain as the source of objections to fixed,
designed, innate ideas (Locke). They had provided a
basis for all learning and, in biology, for replacement
of the belief in fixed species of organisms by one of
gradual evolution. The origins of ideas, of knowledge,
and of biological species were seen as the result of
ordered change through experience. By the last decades
of the eighteenth century the paradigm of small, cu-
mulative changes occurring over long periods of time
was widely represented in Continental and English
thought. Theoreticians in many apparently disparate


disciplines were beginning to grasp the fact that very
large-scale changes could be accounted for by this
general mechanism.

In order to connect the foregoing account with
related developments in nineteenth-century biology it
is necessary to mention the emergence of uniformi-
tarian geology. The interpretation of the history of the
earth in terms of the uniform operation of natural
causes over vast periods of time was a part of the wider
movement based on belief in the uniformity of nature,
of which associationism was a parallel manifestation.
The time scale and natural mechanisms of uniform-
tarian geology, when combined with aspects of
naturalistic theories of species change, produced
theories of organic evolution.

The evolutionary theorist who drew most directly
on the association of ideas was Herbert Spencer. His
primary interest lay in finding a scientific basis for his
belief in inevitable social progress. He felt that utili-
tarian social theory did not provide this, while psy-
chology and biology might. He was profoundly influ-
enced by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology
(1830-33) but exploited it for his own purposes. That
is, he was convinced by Lyell's general belief in uni-
form natural processes as sufficient to account for the
history of the earth, but he did not accept Lyell's
refutation of Lamarck's evolutionary theory. Instead,
he grasped one aspect of that theory and combined
it with associationist psychology (under the influence
of George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, and J. S. Mill) and argued
in a way that is reminiscent of Erasmus Darwin, that
the evolution of species, and even the origin of the
forms of thought, could be accounted for by an exten-
sion of the association of ideas. In 1855 he expressed
these views in his Principles of Psychology. The theory
was simplicity itself:

The familiar doctrine of association here undergoes a great
extension; for it is held that not only in the individual do
ideas become connected when in experience the things
producing them have repeatedly occurred together, but that
such results of repeated occurrences accumulate in succes-
sions of individuals: the effects of associations are supposed
to be transmitted as modifications of the nervous system

(An Autobiography [1904], I, 470).

Thus, Spencer combined the Lamarckian idea of the
inheritance of acquired characteristics with the law of
association, and he extended sensationalism from the
tabula rasa of the individual to that of the race. Al-
though Spencer's conception of the mechanism of
evolution has since been rejected in favor of natural
selection, his general impact on social theory has been
enormous. His role in propagating the naturalist and
evolutionist point of view was greater than that of the
other evolutionists, and his influence in changing the
context within which mental phenomena are viewed
from epistemology to biology was decisive in psychol-
ogy. By the end of his massive Synthetic Philosophy
(1862-93) Spencer believed that he had provided the
scientific guarantee for progress which classical utili-
tarianism lacked. It lay in a very generalized version
of evolutionary theory which embraced all of nature
and entailed psychological, sociological, and ethical
theories—all based on a cosmic version of the associa-
tion of ideas. It was a very romantic philosophy for
all its scientific verbiage, and it is ironic that one of
its most enduring influences in social theory was in the
extreme laissez-faire views of the (misnamed) “Social
Darwinists.” Beginning with Walter Bagehot's Physics
and Politics
(1869) and taking its most extreme forms
in the writings of W. G. Sumner and the behavior of
the American “Robber Barons,” the idea of progress
by means of the survival of the (economically and
socially) fittest was used as a justification for some of
the grossest excesses of monopolistic capitalism and
imperialism, and it is not without its current advocates.
Spencer's writings had other influences on social
theorists in China, Japan, Britain, France, and America,
while more basic themes in his writings, e.g., his con-
ception of the division of labor and his functionalist
approach have had a pervasive influence in sociology
and social theory.

Charles Darwin had studied Lamarck's theory of
evolution when he was a medical student, but neither
this nor his grandfather's theory had shaken his belief
in the fixity of species by the time he became a profes-
sional naturalist in 1830. The evolutionary theory
developed by Darwin and by A. R. Wallace drew less
explicitly on the associationist tradition, but it should
be mentioned that the theory of natural selection which
they arrived at independently was profoundly influ-
enced by the writings of Malthus, which in turn,
depended in part on the most general versions of the
utilitarian paradigm. In Darwin and Wallace's mecha-
nism for evolutionary change, the sanctions of survival
and extinction in the struggle for existence were ex-
plicit generalizations of the Malthusian theory of pop-
ulation. Similarly, Darwin's peers and supporters found
his theory appealing partly because of its conformity
with their empiricist, phenomenalist view of nature
and human nature.

The union of the theory of evolution with studies
in comparative psychology which Darwin and Spencer
inspired led, by way of the work of G. J. Romanes
(to whom Darwin gave his notes on psychology),
C. L. Morgan (Romanes' pupil and editor), E. L. Thorn-
dike, J. Loeb, William McDougall, and others, to the
dominant traditions in modern experimental psychol-


ogy. However, the establishment of these depended on
the increasing independence of classical associationism
from the epistemological preoccupations of the
empiricist tradition and on the integration of associa-
tionism with the study of the physiology of the nervous
system. Locke, Hume, Priestley, Thomas Brown, and
James Mill had chosen not to investigate the physio-
logical basis of associations, but concomitant develop-
ments in neurophysiology had involved the inter-
pretation of the functions of progressively higher parts
of the central nervous system in terms of reflexes, and
this approach had close conceptual affinities with the
discovery that the anterior and posterior spinal nerves
roots and higher structures were differentiated and
served the functions of motion and sensation.

These theories were developed in the physiological
and medical literature of France, Britain, and Germany.
The parallel between sensory-motor physiology (Bell,
Magendie, Mueller, Carpenter) and reflex theory
(Prochaska, Whytt, Hall, Laycock) on the one hand
and the associationist tradition in psychology on the
other had been noticed by many writers since Hartley
and E. Darwin, but the systematic integration was not
undertaken until the 1850's in the work of Alexander
Bain, which was lavishly praised by J. S. Mill as the
highest point reached by the empiricist tradition. Bain
stressed the role of movement in learning, and his work
led to an increasing interest in behavior which com-
plemented the emphasis on sensation in the British and
French traditions. His work was the culmination of
classical associationism and was very influential in the
development of a new sensory-motor psychophysiology
which concerned itself with associated sensations and
motions in the nervous system paralleled by ideas of
sensation and motion in the mind. This approach was
soon reinterpreted in the context of the evolutionary
theories of Spencer and Darwin and provided a great
stimulus to research in comparative psychology, neu-
rology, neurophysiology, and psychiatry. In particular,
the theories of Bain, Spencer, Laycock, and Lewes,
through their influence on J. H. Jackson and David
Ferrier, led to important advances in clinical neurology
and in the experimental localization of functions in the
brain. Their work provided the basis for the modern
interpretation of the functions of the nervous system
in learning and in other forms of adaptive behavior.

The most important contributors to this experi-
mental work were C. S. Sherrington in England and
I. P. Pavlov in Russia. They were concerned with the
nature of fixed and modifiable (i.e., learned or condi-
tioned) reflexes. By the end of the nineteenth century
the neurone theory had provided what seemed a per-
fect parallelism between brain cells and their connec-
tions on the one hand and ideas and their associations
on the other. The physiology of conditioned reflexes
and the psychology of learning were increasingly seen
as one topic of research.

In the same period, important aspects of the psycho-
analytic theory of Sigmund Freud also developed from
a neurological tradition. The language of Freud's
metapsychology employed analogies such as mental
“energies,” “forces,” and “structures” which were
taken from German physicalist physiology, while he
employed the concept of the reflex in his model for
the mental apparatus. His associationist theories of
mental function and his biological concepts were
derived from English and German associationists and
from the theories of suggestion of French and German
hypnotists which were also associationist in structure.
Finally, his postulate of psychophysical parallelism was
avowedly drawn from the writings of Spencer and
Jackson. Although there were important features of
Freud's theories which were not part of the matrix of
associationist neuropsychology and although he di-
rected his attention to new topics in psychological and
social theory, the basic assumptions of his approach
remained constant throughout his writings and were
elaborated in his early and rather orthodox associa-
tionist works.

Classical associationism was also influential in the
development of the experimental introspective studies
of H. Ebbinghaus and W. Wundt in Germany and of
E. B. Titchener in America, leading to the establish-
ment of a “structural” school in psychology. This ap-
proach gained its identity in the course of a debate
with a “functionalist” school which was developing in
America under the influence of British classical and
evolutionary associationists. The main figures in this
school were William James, John Dewey, George H.
Mead, and James R. Angell and their work gave rise
to much of twentieth-century American social theory.

Aspects of American functional psychology were
combined with the related theory of conditioned
reflexes and research on localization of functions in the
brain to produce recent experimental work in brain
and behavior and in that of learning theory. Most of
these researchers and theorists have retained an im-
plicit or explicit form of mind-body dualism—psy-
chophysical parallelism—but one line of develop-
ment, behaviorism, has attempted a reductionist
analysis. Since Hartley and Priestley, many have seen
that the grounds for traditional dualism have been
progressively eroded by the acceptance of mental
determinism and the use of physical analogies in asso-
ciationist psychology. Comparative psychology and
evolutionism, coupled with the findings of physio-
logical psychology, led J. B. Watson, the American
founder of behaviorism, to argue that both the


methodology and the ontology of psychology should
be concerned with objective phenomena. Thus, he
made the step from “We cannot do science about
minds” to “There are no minds.” Positivist philosophy
and operationism in physics made this move very phil-
osophically appealing, and the step from physical and
chemical analogies to mind-body identity theory has
become fashionable in recent philosophical psychology.

In the period from 1916 to the present the concepts
of sensation, motion, and association have been rein-
terpreted in allegedly objective language as “stimulus,”
“response,” and “conditioning.” Although a great deal
of experimental work has been done and a greater
amount of ink has been spilled in attempts to spell out
the laws of learning in these terms, the point to be
made here is that S-R, statistical, operant, cybernetic
and related learning theories remain, along with brain-
washing and teaching machines, just as much manifes-
tations of the tradition of association of ideas as do
the free associations of the psychoanalytic patient.
Historians and practitioners of recent psychology have
repeatedly observed that in spite of changes in termi-
nology and fashion and the bitter quarrels in experi-
mental psychology, psychiatry, and social theory, asso-
ciationism is the only general theory of human nature
which has been available to the human and related

Having emphasized the pervasive influence of the
association of ideas since the mid-eighteenth century,
it is necessary to stress that the strengths of this ap-
proach were balanced by disadvantages which were
frequently pointed out. The most persistent objection
has been a straightforward rejection of the alleged
all-sufficiency of the determinism of associationism on
the part of those who wish to maintain that man has
free will. Others have objected on some combination
of aesthetic and moral grounds that life and nature are
more than accretions of sensations. For example, S. T.
Coleridge and J. S. Mill rejected aspects of Hartley's
theory because they felt that his psychology failed to
give sufficient scope to the role of imagination in life,
while romantic poets extended this criticism to oppose
the whole mechanistic view of nature. Similarly,
George Eliot's novels can be seen as complementing
the psychological and social theories of her utilitarian
and positivist circle in a way which allowed for the
portrayal of the nuances of human nature.

In its emphasis on the interactions of the simplest
elements and processes, the associationist tradition has
provided no basis for classification of larger elements
analogous to the physicists' table of fundamental parti-
cles or the chemists' periodic table of elements. It has
therefore failed to show how the phenomena of human
experience can be synthesized from simple, psycho
physiological elements. It provides no basis for the
unity of psychological and social life. Even its most
ardent exponents have found it necessary to supple-
ment the theory with classifications of faculties or
functions which are not derived from the theory itself.
Recourse has also been made to vague principles which
hypostatize the problem and call it a solution, e.g.,
“integrative functions,” “functional unity,” “ego,”
“Gestalt.” Theorists of instinct, emotion, and person-
ality in psychology have made repeated appeals to
these and other additional explanatory principles, while
social theorists find that the analytic bias of associa-
tionism provides no basis for evaluating competing
social theories and ideologies. The result, when these
issues are raised, has tended to be an approach to
psychology and psychotherapy, and to social and po-
litical philosophy, which elevates “adjustment” or
“adaptation” to the status of a relatively unquestioned

It should not be surprising that associationism and
its many derivative theories, e.g., utilitarianism, func-
tionalism, and psychoanalysis, are of little help in the
interpretation and evaluation (as opposed to the analy-
sis) of the purposive behavior of men and other orga-
nisms. One must recall that it is based on an analogy
with a physical paradigm which was explicitly
elaborated in the seventeenth century in order to
banish anthropomorphism, teleology, and purposive
explanation from science. For reasons which are in-
trinsic to the nature of human existence, associationism
has not precluded the effort to extrapolate meaning
and purpose from the collisions and accretions of atoms
in the void. However, it provides no determinate
mechanism for performing the operation and thus no
stable criteria of propriety or impropriety in the effort:
the goals of men differ.


R. I. Aaron, John Locke, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1955). E. Albee,
A History of English Utilitarianism (New York, 1901; reprint
1962). J. M. Baldwin, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy and
2nd ed., 3 vols. (New York, 1925); Vol. 3 is a
comprehensive bibliography by B. Rand. G. S. Brett, “Asso-
ciationism and 'Act' Psychology,” in C. Murchison, ed.,
Psychologies of 1930 (Worcester, Mass., 1930), pp. 39-55.
J. W. Burrow, Evolution and Society (Cambridge, 1966).
E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Phys-
ical Science,
2nd ed. (London, 1932). S. T. Coleridge, Biogra-
phia Literaria
(London, 1817; various reprints). W. Dennis, ed.,
Readings in the History of Psychology (New York, 1948).
C. H. Driver, “Walter Bagehot and the Social Psychologists”
and “The Development of a Psychological Approach to
Politics in English Speculation before 1869,” in F. J. C.
Hearnshaw, ed., The Social and Political Ideas of Some
Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age
(London, 1933),


pp. 194-221, 251-71. É. Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic
rev. ed. (London, 1952). R. J. Herrnstein and
E. G. Boring, eds., A Source Book in the History of Psychol-
(Cambridge, Mass., 1965). R. Hofstadter, Social
Darwinism in American Thought,
rev. ed. (Boston, 1955).
G. H. Lewes, The Biographical History of Philosophy, 2nd ed.
(London, 1857). Sir J. Mackintosh, “The Progress of Ethical
Philosophy,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8th ed. (Edinburgh,
1860), I, 291-446. J. S. Mill, “Bain's Psychology,” Edinburgh
110 (1859), 287-321. G. Murphy, Historical Intro-
duction to Modern Psychology,
rev. ed. (New York, 1949).
G. L. Nesbitt, Benthamite Reviewing (New York, 1934).
R. S. Peters, ed., Brett's History of Psychology (London, 1953).
T. Ribot, English Psychology (London, 1873). L. Stephen,
The English Utilitarians, 3 vols. (London, 1900). D. Stewart,
“The Progress of Metaphysical and Ethical Philosophy,”
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8th ed. (Edinburgh, 1860), I,
1-289. H. C. Warren, A History of the Association Psychol-
(New York, 1921). R. M. Young, “Scholarship and the
History of the Behavioural Sciences,” History of Science,
5 (1966), 1-51. R. M. Young, “Malthus and the Evolutionists:
the Common Context of Biological and Social Theory,” Past
and Present,
43 (1969), 109-45. R. M. Young, Mind, Brain
and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century
(Oxford, 1970).


[See also Evolutionism; Psychological Schools, Theories;
Uniformitarianism; Utilitarianism.]