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ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS


to follow the progressive development of the mind’s powers. Holding that mental states could be scientifically understood only as they were analysed, Hartley sought for a principle of synthesis to explain the complexity exhibited not only in trains of representative images, but alike in the most involved combinations of reasonings and (as Berkeley had seen) in the apparently simple phenomena of objective perception, as well as in the varied play of the emotions, or, again, in the manifold conscious adjustments of the motor system. One principle appeared to him sufficient for all, running, as enunciated for the simplest case, thus: “Any sensations A, B, C, &c., by being associated with one another a sufficient number of times, get such a power over the corresponding ideas (called by Hartley also vestiges, types, images) a, b, c, &c., that any one of the sensations A, when impressed alone, shall be able to excite in the mind b, c, &c., the ideas of the rest.” To render the principle applicable in the cases where the associated elements are neither sensations nor simple ideas of sensations, Hartley’s first care was to determine the conditions under which states other than these simplest ones have their rise in the mind, becoming the matter of ever higher and higher combinations. The principle itself supplied the key to the difficulty, when coupled with the notion, already implied in Berkeley’s investigations, of a coalescence of simple ideas of sensation into one complex idea, which may cease to bear any obvious relation to its constituents. So far from being content, like Hobbes, to make a rough generalization to all mind from the phenomena of developed memory, as if these might be straightway assumed, Hartley made a point of referring them, in a subordinate place of their own, to his universal principle of mental synthesis. He expressly put forward the law of association, endued with such scope, as supplying what was wanting to Locke’s doctrine in its more strictly psychological aspect, and thus marks by his work a distinct advance on the line of development of the experiential philosophy.

The new doctrine received warm support from some, as Law and Priestley, who both, like Hume and Hartley himself, took the principle of association as having the like import for the science of mind that gravitation had acquired for the science of matter. The principle began also, if not always with direct reference to Hartley, yet, doubtless, owing to his impressive advocacy of it, to be applied systematically in special directions, as by Abraham Tucker (1768) to morals, and by Archibald Alison (1790) to aesthetics. Thomas Brown (d. 1820) subjected anew to discussion the question of theory. Hardly less unjust to Hartley than Reid or Stewart had been, and forward to proclaim all that was different in his own position, Brown must yet be ranked with the associationists before and after him for the prominence he assigned to the associative principle in sense-perception (what he called external affections of mind), and for his reference of all other mental states (internal affections) to the two generic capacities or susceptibilities of Simple and Relative Suggestion. He preferred the word Suggestion to Association, which seemed to him to imply some prior connecting process, whereof there was no evidence in many of the most important cases of suggestion, nor even, strictly speaking, in the case of contiguity in time where the term seemed least inapplicable. According to him, all that could be assumed was a general constitutional tendency of the mind to exist successively in states that have certain relations to each other, of itself only, and without any external cause or any influence previous to that operating at the moment of the suggestion. Brown’s chief contribution to the general doctrine of mental association, besides what he did for the theory of perception, was, perhaps, his analysis of voluntary reminiscence and constructive imagination—faculties that appear at first sight to lie altogether beyond the explanatory range of the principle. In James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829), the principle, much as Hartley had conceived it, was carried out, with characteristic consequence, over the psychological field. With a much enlarged and more varied conception of association, Alexander Bain re-executed the general psychological task, while Herbert Spencer revised the doctrine from the new point of view of the evolution-hypothesis. John Stuart Mill made only occasional excursions into the region of psychology proper, but sought, in his System of Logic (1843), to determine the conditions of objective truth from the point of view of the associationist theory, and, thus or otherwise being drawn into general philosophical discussion, spread wider than any one before him its repute.

The Associationist School has been composed chiefly of British thinkers, but in France also it has had distinguished representatives. Of these it will suffice to mention Condillac, who professed to explain all knowledge from the single principle of association (liaison) of ideas, operating through a previous association with signs, verbal or other. In Germany, before the time of Kant, mental association was generally treated in the traditional manner, as by Wolff. Kant’s inquiry into the foundations of knowledge, agreeing in its general purport with Locke’s, however it differed in its critical procedure, brought him face to face with the newer doctrine that had been grafted on Locke’s philosophy; and to account for the fact of synthesis in cognition, in express opposition to associationism, as represented by Hume, was, in truth, his prime object, starting, as he did, from the assumption that there was that in knowledge which no mere association of experiences could explain. To the extent, therefore, that his influence prevailed, all inquiries made by the English associationists were discounted in Germany. Notwithstanding, under the very shadow of his authority a corresponding, if not related, movement was initiated by J. F. Herbart. Peculiar, and widely different from anything conceived by the associationists, as Herbart’s metaphysical opinions were, he was at one with them, and at variance with Kant, in assigning fundamental importance to the psychological investigation of the development of consciousness, nor was his conception of the laws determining the interaction and flow of mental presentations and representations, when taken in its bare psychological import, essentially different from theirs. In F. E. Beneke’s psychology also, and in more recent inquiries conducted mainly by physiologists, mental association has been understood in its wider scope, as a general principle of explanation.

The associationists differ not a little among themselves in the statement of their principle, or, when they adduce several principles, in their conception of the relative importance of these. Hartley took account only of Contiguity, or the repetition of impressions synchronous or immediately successive; the like is true of James Mill, though, incidentally, he made an express attempt to resolve the received principle of Similarity, and through this the other principle of Contrast, into his fundamental law—law of Frequency, as he sometimes called it, because upon frequency, in conjunction with vividness of impressions, the strength of association, in his view, depended. In a sense of his own, Brown also, while accepting the common Aristotelian enumeration of principles, inclined to the opinion that “all suggestion may be found to depend on prior coexistence, or at least on such proximity as is itself very probably a modification of coexistence,” provided account be taken of “the influence of emotions and other feelings that are very different from ideas, as when an analogous object suggests an analogous object by the influence of an emotion which each separately may have produced before, and which is, therefore, common to both.” To the contrary effect, Spencer maintained that the fundamental law of all mental association is that presentations aggregate or cohere with their like in past experience, and that, besides this law, there is in strictness no other, all further phenomena of association being incidental. Thus in particular, he would have explained association by Contiguity as due to the circumstance of imperfect assimilation of the present to the past in consciousness. A. Bain regarded Contiguity and Similarity logically, as perfectly distinct principles, though in actual psychological occurrence blending intimately with each other, contiguous trains being started by a first (it may be, implicit) representation through Similarity, while the express assimilation of present to past in consciousness is always, or tends to be, followed by the revival of what was presented in contiguity with that past.

The highest, philosophical interest, as distinguished from that which is more strictly psychological, attaches to the mode of mental association called Inseparable. The coalescence of mental states noted by Hartley, as it had been assumed by Berkeley, was farther formulated by James Mill in these terms:—

“Some ideas are by frequency and strength of association so closely combined that they cannot be separated; if one exists, the other exists along with it in spite of whatever effort we make to disjoin them.”—(Analysis of the Human Mind, 2nd ed. vol. i. p. 93.)

J.S. Mill’s statement is more guarded and particular:—

“When two phenomena have been very often experienced in conjunction, and have not, in any single instance, occurred separately either in experience or in thought, there is produced between them what has been called inseparable, or, less correctly, indissoluble, association; by which is not meant that the association must inevitably last to the end of life—that no subsequent experience or process of thought can possibly avail to dissolve it; but only that as long as no such experience or process of thought has taken place, the association is irresistible; it is impossible for us to think the one thing disjoined from the other.”—(Examination of Hamilton’s Philosophy, 2nd ed. p. 191.)

It is chiefly by J. S. Mill that the philosophical application of the principle has been made. The first and most obvious application is to so-called necessary truths—such, namely, as are not merely analytic judgments but involve a synthesis of distinct notions. Again, the same thinker sought to prove Inseparable Association the ground of belief in an external objective world. The former application, especially, is facilitated, when the experience through which the association is supposed to be constituted is understood as cumulative in the race, and transmissible as original endowment to individuals—endowment that may be expressed either, subjectively, as latent intelligence, or, objectively, as fixed nervous connexions. Spencer, as before suggested, is the author of this extended view of mental association.

Modern Criticism.—Of recent years the associationist theory has been subjected to searching criticism, and it has been maintained by many writers that the laws are both unsatisfactorily expressed and insufficient to explain the facts. Among the most vigorous and comprehensive of these investigations is that of F. H. Bradley in his Principles of Logic (1883). Having admitted the psychological fact of mental association, he attacks the theories of Mill and Bain primarily on the ground that they purport to give an account of mental life as a whole, a metaphysical doctrine of existence. According to this doctrine, mental activity is ultimately reducible to