British Empiricism lasted for at least three hundred years. After it had been firmly established by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, the later philosophers, Hartley and the Mills, elaborated on the "associationistic" part of the theory -- how you get the basic impressions or ideas associated together. The French carried the materialistic and empiricistic doctrine to the extreme. 1


1. What is the difference between successive and simultaneous associations?
2. In Hartley's associationism, what gets associated together -- sensations or ideas?
3. How is associationism represented in current theories of psychology today?
4. What is the difference between the associationism of James Mill and that of John Stuart Mill?
5. How were the French materialists influenced by the British Empiricists?


David Hartley (1705-1757).

The empiricist notions of John Locke, that sensation produces ideas and that some kind of mental adhesive molds the whole mix together, were elaborated upon by the English metaphysician David Hartley. Hartley, a physician, anchored both sensations and ideas solidly in materialism, relating the vibrations of sensations to the vibrations of the nervous system.

Secondly, Hartley developed a comprehensive association theory in which sensations associate with ideas, ideas associate with other ideas, and sensations or ideas associate with movements. The problem of association had not been so fully treated since the time of Aristotle.1

Hartley identified two major associations -- successive and simultaneous. Successive associations were those in which two or more elements, sensations, ideas, or a combination of both, followed each other in time, where one element was succeeded by another. Simultaneous associations emerged when two or more elements occurred at the same time and or the same place. There could be two kinds of simultaneous associations. When simple ideas were simultaneously associated together the result was a complex idea. For example, several simple ideas such as apples, oranges, and bananas, could be presented together at one time to produce the complex idea of fruit. Several complex ideas simultaneously associated resulted into decomplex ideas.

Hartley went beyond the notion that association involves only ideas. Sensations could also be associated with ideas. In fact, each sensation (A, B, C) gives rise to corresponding ideas (a, b, c) or to related ideas. For example, the sensation of A could give rise to the idea of a, but also of b, or c. The smell of a perfume could elicit the idea of a rose. Or, conversely, an idea or the name of a rose could give rise to its characteristic smell or visual image. Or, for example, the idea of ice and snow might produce a shiver.

How strong might an association be? The strength of an association is inversely related to the number of impressions. As the number of elements in an association increases, the strength of the association decreases. Or, as the number of simple ideas in a complex idea increases, the strength of that complex idea weakens. Consider, for example, the complex idea of World War I. Recall of this event includes numerous elements, among which are: Germans, Americans, Kaisers, doughboys, Wilson, and the League of Nations. World War I as a complex idea, however, contains vast social, economic, and military events, before, during and concluding the war, but yields vague concepts for the average student.

The same distinction between primary and secondary qualities which Galileo and Newton had originated and advanced became the basis for Hartley's theory. In fact, his ideas were so similar to those of Newton that they appeared to be borrowed from the latter. Newton had proposed that the different vibrations of each color struck responsive cords within the individual and created different visual sensations. Newton's color and music theory assumed that neural vibrations correlated with the physical vibrations. There is an inside and an outside force.

Two important theorists followed Hartley to firmly establish associationistic doctrines. The first associationistic theory to propose that ideas become associated with emotions was Freud. In the unconscious mind, ideas may trigger emotional mechanisms developed early in childhood. The second major theory following Hartley was developed during the same decade. In Russia, Pavlov investigated the digestive juices of dogs and discovered that neutral stimuli, substituting for natural stimuli, could trigger a conditioned reflex. Pavlov's work attracted attention and thus amplified, in a way hitherto un imagined, Hartley's associationistic doctrine as the basis for an elaboration and extension by Watson and other American psychologists.

Associationistic theory was deeply rooted in Russia, England, and the United States. The reason for this is that all three countries have points of view which are primarily materialistic, mechanistic, and elementaristic. And although elementarism does not necessarily precede associationism, it usually does. Whenever complexes are broken into elements, there is a need to connect them together again. Both elementarism and connectionism frequently go hand in hand. Although connectionism and associationism are approximately the same thing, associationism is more specific, implying mentalistic or cognitive binding. In any event,nutritive soil was thus provided in Russia, England and the United States for a further flowering of associationism.

Others who contributed to associationistic doctrine were Thomas Brown, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. Brown went beyond those primary principles, formulated secondary principles of association which accounted for the connection of sensations and ideas, and developed what became known as secondary principles of association which accounted for the strength of a connection once formed. These principles included such concepts as repetition (the more frequent the pairing the stronger the bond) and those individual differences where ease of learning and length of retention favor some persons more than others. It was not until the next century, however, almost one hundred years later, that the Mills finally put the capstone on associationism. After that, mentalistic associationism was discarded for a long time.

We turn now to the last of the British empiricists, James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill. After them came Alexander Bain, a friend and pupil of J. S. Mill and the first person to carry the title of psychologist as such. But Bain's contributions do not materially affect the development of our story. With the Mills, philosophical associationism along with British empiricism thus comes to an end. Later, we will note how associationism continues at the same time but in a different country, Germany, and as a scientific rather than as a philosophical movement.

James Mill (1773-1836).

James and his son, John Stuart Mill were two prominent English philosophers of the nineteenth century and earned considerable eminence for supporting Bentham's famous doctrine of the "greatest good for the greatest number." They were, thus, Utilitarians and therefore emphasized the practical. James Mill also became famous as the father and mentor of his son, John Stuart Mill, whose autobiography described the austere and disciplined approach to education of the father. The direct line from David Hartley and his associationism through the older and younger Mill is evident from the fact that the younger Mill was the godfather to Bertrand Russell, the famous and well known advocate of today's "materialistic" philosophy.

There is one major difference between the older and the younger Mill; otherwise, the rest is mostly elaboration. James, the father, proposed a theory of "mental compounding;" John Stuart, the son, developed a theory of "mental chemistry." James Mill believed that ideas get added together; one idea or sensation combining with another to form a complex idea. The resulting collection, not organization, of a number of simple ideas merely extends the theories of Hartley and other British associationists. No one implied that complex ideas retain the discriminable qualities of these component parts. They do not become qualitatively different. The problem was to determine when and how the elements combined. A complex idea was a combination rather than a mixture. An apple was a collection, not a blend. It possessed a variety of sensations -- color, smell, texture, and all of the other discriminable qualities. James Mill extended this compounding idea to its extreme conclusion. Collections of earth particles made bricks, a collection of bricks and mortar made walls, and a collection of walls constituted a house. It was possible to reverse the process and through analysis separate a complex idea into all of its component elements. The extreme extension, however, was when James Mill absurdly suggested that the largest idea was the idea of "everything." But nobody could conceive of that!

Mill proposed that there was but one single principle of association, namely contiguity. His son adopted the same principle. Even Hume had suggested that everything, including cause and effect, might be reduced to the one principle of contiguity. The theory of mind could be thus made relatively simple. Contiguity became the one law of association to account for fusion of ideas.

Contiguity is the principle of closeness in time and/or space. The law of contiguity states that two phenomena (objects, behaviors, events) must occur at the same or similar time in order for learning to occur. (Eda Hayirlioglu has reminded me that James Mill, in his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind elaborated upon Hartley and Hume by describing two kinds of sensations and thus ideas -- "synchronous" and "successive"). If events occur at the same time they lead to "syncronous" ideas; if they occur close together in time, they produce "successive" ideas.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

J. S. Mill was a precocious child and was probably the brightest person that has ever lived, according to the study by Cox on geniuses. James Mill, his father, as a good British environmentalist, had claimed that it was obvious his son should be bright; after all, he received unusual training by his father. The father cautioned John Stuart to be tolerant of others less capable than he. Environment, he maintained, rather than fate, determines one's personal advantage. Effort and hard work, however, were not minimized. Success is dependent upon more than the mere conditions of birth. Frequently, parents have exerted effort to construct a culture providing such advantages.

The one major difference between father and son was that James Mill believed, as Boring suggests, "The whole is less, as well as more, than the sum of its parts. John Stuart Mill had corrected his father on this point. Ideas, he had noted, combine in a kind of mental chemistry, for the parts are lost in the compound which also has properties that were not contained in the parts (1942, p.9)."


The French materialists, during the Enlightenment, carried to an extreme the mechanical and "natural" analysis of men. Vartanian (1953) states that, "For materialists such as La Mettrie, Diederot, and D'Hollach, nature, whatever else it might have been besides, was essentially the ensemble of particles -- heir shapes, sizes, and arrangements -- that composed the physical universe (p.20)." How similar to the writings of Epicurus, searching for the underlying elements of nature. An understanding of their"shapes, sizes, and arrangements" gives a clue to their movements, interaction, and possibilities for combinations into new complexes.

During the eighteenth century, knowledge exploded. The reading public had at its disposal, popularizations of science. Common sense and deductive reasoning, produced testable scientific hypotheses. Compendiums, digests, sketches, and encyclopedias flooded the marketplace. Every man could become informed about scientific matters.

The whole continent seemed eager to study the new learning spreading rapidly to every corner of the new world. In Prussia, Frederick the Great supported an impressive cultural and intellectual reform. In France, the Encyclopediasts, Voltaire, Diderot and others wrote trenchant and varied treatises. Even on the American frontiers, eager young new scholars were being trained in the new universities in new information.

The new scientific advances did not seem to disturb the French, who moved easily and unconsciously from material to spiritual explanations and back again. Transformation and transmigration processes were common to Catholic theology. Even today, the leading French philosopher, Chardin, links the natural to the supernatural or the physical to the spiritual by ". . . constantly using the word 'transformation' or 'transfiguration' (Lubac, 1967, p. 128)."

The predominant theme of eighteenth century French thought was materialistic, sensationistic, and empiricistic. These are not mutually inclusive schools of thought, but they are all interrelated. Materialistic philosophy if it implies a mind at all, emphasizes sensation and learning, as opposed to intuition or innate ideas. Or, conversely, any theory of learning that is based on experience usually assumes a material, corpuscular, or atomistic world. Within this frame of reference there were three major French philosophers -- La Mattrie, Condillac, and Cabanis.

La Mettrie (1709-1751)

La Mettrie was a physician, wrote The Human Machine, and encouraging acceptance of Hume, drew an analogy between man and a machine. This mechanical view of man heralded the Industrial Revolution and the invention after 1750 of steam powered machines, and it supported the then popular materialistic and anti-spiritualistic philosophies. The French elaborated on the body side of Descartes' mind body dualism and the sensationalism and empiricism of Locke were being preferred. To nobody's surprise, then, Hume was wildly accepted on French soil.

Condillac (1715-1780)

Condillac, a follower of Locke, started from the assumption of sensation rather than from the structure of the sense organs. A marble statue, his famous example, having only the faculty of smell, could eventually produce the abstract concept of a rose. A whole mind could emerge from just one sense, such as that of smell.

Cabanis (1757-1808)

Cabanis believed that human action is possible without the brain. Living at the time of the French Revolution, Cabanis witnessed the decapitation common during the Reign of Terror. He was impressed with the fact that movement and feeling could occur in the absence of one's head. Perhaps life was not simply a matter of spirits sending signals to the body, but of a machine capable of action independent of mind or free will.

The British empiricists and French materialists thus laid the foundation for the two major American theoretical systems, behaviorism and psychoanalysis. The behaviorists created explanations without reference to a mind, Cabanis' head. Psychoanalysts placed great stress on unconscious and involuntary activities. In both, the individual is moved mechanically by either external (stimuli) or internal (drive) forces beyond his control, a point which becomes the subject of attack by contemporary humanistic psychologists.


Check those answers which are correct (one or more) or fill in the blank spaces.

1. Hartley was best known as the person who elaborated the theory of:
a. Empiricism
b. Associationism
c. Materialism
d. Mentalism

2. The mere name of an object may call up that object's smells, tastes, tangible qualities etc. Hartley accounts for this by referring to which principle?
a. Frequency
b. Similarity
c. Simultaneous association
d. Successive association

3. Hartley believed the nervous system worked by which method?
a. Animal spirits
b. Electrical impulse
c. Vibratory impulse
d. Vital spirits

4. Mental chemistry refers to the fact that complex ideas originate by way of ______________________________.

4B. The principle that phenomena must occur together at the same time in order to be associated or learned is called the law of _____________________.

5. The famous son of the English philosopher by the name of Mill, was another philosopher named:
a. James Mill
b. John Stuart Mill
c. Alexander Mill
d. David Mill

6. The French materialists took a position which was similar to that of the:

a. Greek epicureans
b. British empiricists
c. German idealists
d. American functionalists

7. The emphasis on the peripheral nervous system (i.e., sensation and movement) as opposed to the central nervous system was characteristic of ________________ psychology.

8. Associationistic theory is most prominent in which country today?

a. France
b. England
c. Russia
d. United States

9. Associationistic theory tends to be:

a. materialistic
b. mechanistic
c. elementaristic
d. dynamic

8 or MORE CORRECT Go to unit test.
Less than 8 - Complete Exercise on next page.


1. Simultaneous associations are those in which _____________________.

2. Successive associations are ones where _____________________.

3. The sensation of A could give rise to:
a. Sensation B
b. Idea A
c. Idea B
d. Sensation C

4. James Mill believed that it was possible to account for all complex ideas by reference to the principle of ______________________________.

5. John Stuart Mill proposed a kind of mental chemistry which explained complex ideas as being a new form or compound of elements rather than the mere addition of elements. This point of view anticipated which later school of modern psychology? ____________________________________.

6. The emphasis by the French philosophers on the mechanistic conception of man was consistent with the cultural event of the times known as the ________________________ revolution.

7. Most materialistic philosophies are also:
a. Idealistic
b. Associationistic
c. Empiricistic
d. Spiritualistic

8. Pavlovian conditioning and Freudian psychoanalytic theories have similarities in that both:
a. emphasize the unconscious mind
b. are based on associationistic doctrine
c. emphasize contiguity
d. are mentalistic


4. Contiguity
8. B, C
7. B, C
5. Gestalt
1. Two events occur together at the same time
2. Two events occur one after the other in time
6. Industrial
3. A, B, C, D



1. Hartley believed that associations could occur between:
a. One idea and another idea
b. One sensation and another sensation
c. One sensation and an idea

2. Two major kinds of associations have been proposed:
a. Simple and complex
b. Mental and physical
c. Personal and social
d. Simultaneous and successive

3. A popular associationistic doctrine, proposed in more modern times, was that by:
a. Freud
b. Pavlov
c. Locke
d. Herbart

4. Which of the following statements is not characteristic of the system of Hartley:
a. Sensations are aroused on their first occurrence by vibrations from the nerves
b. Advanced the doctrine of associationism
c. He applied Newton's conceptions to the nervous system
d. Established the "new principle" of visual space perception

5. The associationism of James and John Stuart Mill was mentalistic, i.e. concerned with phenomenon of the mind not readily observable. A more modern form of associationism, dealing with the connections made between observable phenomenon, is found in such theories as:
a. Gestalt psychology
b. Field theory
c. Behaviorism
d. Humanistic psychology

6. The person who carried associationistic doctrine to an extreme point of view was that of: ____________________________________.

7. A leading French materialist was:
a. Leibnitz
b. Descartes
c. La Mettrie
d. Condillac

8. Associationistic theory is found most prominently today in the theories of:
a. Piaget
b. Freud
c. Skinner
d. Pavlov

7 or more correct TAKE THE UNIT TEST.

Less than 7 - instructor conference.

6. (p. 48). Since the time of Aristotle, there had been numerous explanations for how simple ideas get connected together to form more complex ideas. These explanations were so-called "laws." Historically, there were four such laws -- similarity, contrast, succession in time, and coexistence in space. Eventually, all of these laws were incorporated into one general law, that of contiguity.

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