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[Xmca-l] Re: Imagination

Hi David and Henry,

I did a search on associationism and it is interesting how it came into being. It's a little digression perhaps from our quest on imagination, but it seems a little digression that may be germane!  if not somewhat interesting. 

In a web display of the book, A History Of The Association Psychology (1921) by Warren at archive.org I found the genesis of the concept of associationism, which evidently came from Locke's "association of ideas," a phrase he used in an added chapter to a later edition of "Essay concerning Human Understanding." 

Below I'm pasting in the first (and short) section of Chapter One, just to keep the conversation rolling here! 

The reason I'm interested in this is because Locke in his search for understanding Human Understanding was looking at this from an epistemological standpoint, not psychological. I thought this relevant to our recent considerations of perception and its link to imagination (in light of the Strawson paper).

In other words, the lift (or burial, depending on how one views it) that the Associationists gave the term, in context of English psychology, perhaps has a different meaning than what we are exploring here, if we are exploring this from an epistemological angle, that is. In other words, from Locke's POV.

Seeing as genesis is important to us, I thought I'd throw this into the soup!

Kind regards,



>From Chapter One: 
Origins of the Term "Association of Ideas" (p 3-6)


The phrase _association of ideas_ was first used by John Locke. In the fourth edition (1700) of his 'Essay concerning Human Understanding' he inserted a new chapter, entitled "Of the Association of Ideas," in which he discusses the connections between experiences.

"Some of our ideas," he says, "have a natural correspondence and connection with one another: it is the office and excellency of our reason to trace these and hold them together in that union and correspondence which is founded in their peculiar beings. Besides this, there is another connection of ideas that in themselves are not at all of kin come to be so united in some men's minds that it is very hard to separate them; they always keep in company, and the one no sooner at any time comes into the understanding, but its associate appears with it; and if they are more than two which are thus united, the whole gang, always inseparable, show themselves together. This strong combination of ideas not allied by nature the mind makes in itself either voluntarily or by chance, and hence it comes in different men to be very different, according to their different inclinations, education, interests, etc."

We are indebted to Locke for a term which later gained currency as applied to a doctrine of peculiar prominence in English psychology; of such prominence, indeed, that the system of psychology which these writers worked out came to be known as _Associationism_. Furthermore, the exposition of mental association in various parts of Locke's 'Essay' furnished important data to the theory subsequently developed. But it should be noted at the outset that the epoch-making character of Locke's work in this field consists only in in his introduction of the term 'association of ideas.' He neither founded the doctrine of association nor did he fix the historical significance of the name which he coined.

First, the laws of the association of remembered images according to similarity, contrast, and contiguity were originally formulated by Aristotle, who furnished hints of an association of _sensations_ as well. These suggestions long escaped notice owing to the lack of interest in such problems. In modern times also, the notion of an associated sequence of thought was worked out in some detail, prior to Locke, by Thomas Hobbes, and his treatment furnished the model for later discussions of the subject. Locke emphasizes the _fact_, but does not work out the _manner_ of association. This latter problem, one of the most notable features of the association psychology, rests historically on Aristotle's classification, which has been taken up and modified in various ways by writers of the association school; Hobbe's view of association as the mode of succession of ideational experiences is generally adopted as a starting-point in the analysis.

Again, the term _idea_ was used by Locke in a broader sense than that fixed by later usage. Thus, When Locke speaks of the association of ideas he has reference to possible connections between _all sorts of mental content_; whereas from the time of David Hume onward the phrase refers to connections between _representative_ data only. Locke's term has been retained, but its application is narrowed to a portion of the field to which he assigned it. This permanent fixing of the expression _association of ideas_ with an altered meaning given to the term _idea_, has exerted some influence on the development of the doctrine itself. The connection between sensations, as for example in perception, has been ignored by some writers, while others have treated it as another sort of union, distinct from association. Where the union of sensations has been classed under the same general principles as associations between representative elements, the exposition has been weakened by the inappropriateness of the accepted phrase.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that the problem of association as Locke conceived it was an ethical and pedagogical one, not a problem of psychological analysis. He nowhere seeks to determine the different modes of connection between experiences as Hobbes has done. His real aim is to trace the rise of _wrong_ associations and suggest practical remedies for the errors of judgment and action to which they lead. In the passage quoted Locke grants that a natural connection between ideas exists as well as chance association; but it is the associations of chance or custom, their origin, and the means of preventing and overcoming them, that constitute the material of his inquiry. The chapter on association was an afterthought, not an essential part of the 'Essay'; and although in harmony with the doctrine formulated in the rest of his book, it appears more in the light of a practical application of his theory that (typo? --> than?) an investigation of the laws of association.

In short, while the 'Essay concerning Human Understanding' furnished the name under which the principle has since become known, and has also afforded considerable material to assist later writers in developing the psychology of association, the two contributions stand apart; Locke's association doctrine is not worked out from the psychological standpoint, and it is not definitely attached to the phrase which he devised. The aim of his 'Essay.' it must be remembered, is essentially epistemological, and the psychological analysis which it undertakes is carried out only so far as necessary to demonstrate the empirical derivation of all knowledge.


The book may be found here:

One can download the PDF of the book here: