All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


A theory contending that the entire conscious life of man can be explained on the basis of associative processes. It teaches that the mind consists of mental elements and compounds thereof. When one perceives an object, he has a sensation; but even when the object is no longer actually present, he may retain an idea, meaning by this a faint copy of a sensation or sensory image. Sensations and their copies are the sole elements of mind, and they are compounded or synthesized into larger mental structures, like complex perceptions and thoughts, by the mechanism of association. Conversely, any complex mental content can be reduced into its elemental components by mental analysis.

Hence the assumptions underlying associationistic psychology are those of elementarism and sensism. Since its method is introspective, it is a form of mentalism. It has also been called content psychology, because of its concerning itself solely with contents that the mind passively receives; strictly speaking, its advocates maintained that there is no mind apart from its contents. At times associationism was referred to as the "brick-and-mortar theory," the bricks being the sensory impressions and their copies, and the mortar the associations connecting them.

Historical Development. Associationist theory, being a continuation of British empiricism, has as its forerunners John locke and David hume. Its founder, however, was David Harley (170557), a physician who gave the theory a physiological reference. For him, sensations occur parallel with vibrations in the nerves, and ideas run parallel with minute vibrations in the brain. When the vibratiuncles form clusters, the corresponding simple ideas coalesce into complex ideas by means of simultaneous association.

British Associationists. James mill (17731836) further elucidated the process of coalescence: the mental elements are connected by mechanical synthesis but remain what they are in the associative whole. This is the brick-and-mortar theory in its purest form. His son, John Stuart mill (180673), tempered the explanation by replacing mental mechanics with the concept of mental chemistry: the whole is not merely the sum of its elements, but something new, just as water is more than the sum of hydrogen and oxygen.

Other British associationists were Alexander Bain (18181903), who combined associationism with physiological psychology, and Herbert spencer (18201903), who introduced a new class of mental elements feelingspreviously thought of as mere attributes of sensations. Spencer also taught evolutionary associationism: when associations are often repeated, they create a hereditary predisposition. The last orthodox British associationist was E. B. Titchener (18671927), who brought the theory to the U.S. via Germany.

German Associationists. The outstanding proponent of associationism in Germany was Wilhelm Wundt (18321920), whose doctrine of content psychology was mitigated from the British form in two ways. First, Wundt introduced the concept of appreception: whereas association is passive, appreception is an active process that focuses attention upon certain features of a perception. Second, Wundt's system broke with the mentalist method underlying other types of associationism. According to Wundt, introspection and mental analysis can be applied only to lower mental processes, viz, sensory perceptions and feelings; the method is inadequate for the study of higher processes of mind, such as thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. These can be studied only by examining what Wundt called the natural history of mankind, i.e., by observing what these higher processes have produced: language; customs; moral habits; works of science, art, and culture; social and economic systems; and religion. These cultural goods are objectivations of the human mind and, therefore, reveal its abilities. Wundt called this branch of psychology Völkerpsychologie (ethnic psychology).

Other psychologists, especially George Elias Miller (18501934) and his school, continued the associationist trend, but the movement has faltered in more recent times under the attacks of its critics.

Critique. The crux of associationist psychology has always been the problem of meaning. Many associationists attempted to solve the problem with what Titchener named the context theory: one perception or idea has no meaning, at least in the case of new ideas, but meaning arises from the context of related images that gather about the original presentation. How this came about was never satisfactorily explained. Since, according to the fundamental presupposition of associationism, there is no other mental mechanism, meaning presumably becomes attached to a perception or image by association. But if this is so, is meaning to be considered another mental element or a free-floating entity?

Another objection to associationist psychology was its limitations. Though it claimed to cover the whole of mental life, it confined itself to cognitive aspects alone, and was deficient in its consideration of the dynamic, motivational features of psychology. The Würzburg school, dissatisfied with the associationist contention that all conscious data of a cognitive order could be reduced to sensations and images, introduced a new kind of mental element, namely, imageless thoughta position strongly criticized by Titchener, who maintained that even thought processes are of a sensory and imaginal nature.

The art psychology of F. brentano and his followers was a partial return to Aristotelian-scholastic psychology; it taught that the mind is not simply a kind of receptacle passively receiving impressions, but is itself active in reacting to the presentations of sense.

The Gestalt schoolpreceeded, if not influenced, by the Graz school with its form qualitiesdenied the very notion of mental elements and mental analysis. Perception, in Gestalt psychology, is not a mosaic of elementary sensations and feelings, but the resultant of the total sensory impression: one perceives a unitary whole immediately, and not as a sum of its parts. Phenomenological psychology also rejected introspection, in the sense of mental analysis, and insisted upon the total description of immediate experience.

The most radical opposition to associationist and content psychology came from American functionalists, who were no longer interested in the theoretical problem posed by consciousness and concentrated on the practical question of its use. Finally, behaviorism gave associationism the coup de grâce by repudiating all mentalism as irrelevant or useless, and by concentrating exclusively on the observation of human behavior.

Bibliography: h. c. warren, A History of the Association Psychology (New York 1921). e. g. boring, History of Experimental Psychology (2d ed. New York 1950). w. dennis, ed., Readings in the History of Psychology (New York 1948).

[j. h. van der veldt]

views updated


The view that mental processes can be explained in terms of the association of ideas.

Advanced primarily by a succession of 18th- and 19th-century British philosophers, associationism anticipated developments in the modern field of psychology in a variety of ways. In its original empiricist context, it was a reaction against the Platonic philosophy of innate ideas that determined, rather than derived from, experience. Instead, the associationists proposed that ideas originated in experience, entering the mind through the senses and undergoing certain associative operations.

The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) introduced the term "association of ideas" in the fourth edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700), where he described it as detrimental to rational thought. George Berkeley (1685-1753), an Irish bishop, applied associationist principles to visual depth perception , arguing that the capacity to see things in three dimensions is the result of learning, not of innate ability . The British physician David Hartley (1705-1757) also dealt with the biological implications of associationism, formulating a neurophysiological theory about the transmission of ideas and also describing physical activity in terms of association (a concept that anticipated subsequent principles of conditioning ). Hartley also developed a comprehensive theory of associationism that encompassed memory , imagination , dreams , and morality. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) proposed the principles of similarity and contiguity, asserting that ideas that are similar or experienced simultaneously (or in rapid succession) become associated with each other.

James and John Stuart Mill (father and son philosophers) continued to examine associationism into the 19th century. The elder Mill proposed a mechanistic theory that linked ideas together in "compounds," especially through the principle of contiguity. The younger Mill, whose defining metaphor for the association of ideas was "mental chemistry," differed from his father in claiming that the mind played an active rather than a passive role in forming associations. He also suggested that a whole idea may amount to more than the sum of its parts, a concept similar to that later advocated by psychologists of the Gestalt school. Other 19th-century figures known for associationist ideas were Thomas Browne, who proposed several secondary laws of association, and Alexander Bain (1818-1903), who formulated a comprehensive psychological system based on association.

Aside from similarity and contiguity, other governing principles have been proposed to explain how ideas become associated with each other. These include temporal contiguity (ideas or sensations formed close together in time), repetition (ideas that occur together repeatedly), recency (associations formed recently are the easiest to remember), and vividness (the most vivid experiences form the strongest associative bonds). In the 20th century, the clearest heir to associationism is behaviorism , whose principles of conditioning are based on the association of responses to stimuli (and on one's association of those stimuli with positive or negative reinforcement ). Also, like associationism, behaviorism emphasizes the effects of environment (nurture) over innate characteristics (nature). Association appears in other modern contexts as well: the free association of ideas is a basic technique in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis , and association plays a prominent role in more recent cognitive theories of memory and learning.

Further Reading

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Schultz, D. P. A History of Modern Psychology. 3rd ed. New York: Academic Press, 1981.