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associationism, theory that all consciousness is the result of the combination, in accordance with the law of association, of certain simple and ultimate elements derived from sense experiences. It was developed by David Hartley and advanced by James Mill.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



associative psychology, a direction in psychology in which the concept of association appears as the main explanatory principle of all psychic life. As-sociationism attempts to affirm a strictly causal approach to human behavior and consciousness. Underlying associationism is the notion that the sequence of ideas which arises in the consciousness reflects the system of external influences on the organism. It is supposed that inasmuch as the interaction of an organism with the physical world proceeds in accordance with the laws of mechanics, the connections of ideas arise in accordance with the same laws. This proposition was first put forth by the English philosopher T. Hobbes and was developed by the Dutch philosopher B. Spinoza, who formulated the law of association: “If the human body is once subjected to simultaneous action by two or several bodies, then the soul, when subsequently it imagines one of them, will immediately recall the others” (“Etika,” in Izbr. proizv., vol. 1, Moscow, 1957, p. 423). The term “association” was first used by the English philosopher J. Locke in 1698. However, he used it to designate “false and unnatural combinations of ideas” (“Opyt o chelovecheskom razume,” in Lzbr. filos. proizv., vol. 1, Moscow, 1960, p. 400) and counterposed ties based on reason to these combinations. In the mid-18th century, the English philosopher D. Hartley, drawing on the mechanics of I. Newton, developed a theory under which all manifestations of psychic life, including reason and will, are subordinated to the law of association—which is universal and inevitable, like the law of gravity. The influence of this theory, which asserted that any link of conceptions and actions can be deduced from sensations and the traces they leave in the brain, was extraordinarily great. It became prevalent not only in psychology, but also in ethics, aesthetics, biology, pedagogy, and logic. The idealistic associationism of the English philosophers G. Berkeley and D. Hume—who asserted that the link between psychic elements is made within the consciousness and is purely subjective—arose as a counterweight to this natural-scientific orientation. The view, characteristic of associationism, which held that complex processes of consciousness were the product of combinations of elements (sensations or ideas) led in the early 19th century to the truly mechanistic conceptions of the English philosopher J. Mill, according to which all structures of psychic life are made up of “bricks,” or feelings, and the “cement,” or associations, which holds them together. Attempting to mitigate the extremity of this concept, the English philosophers J. S. Mill and A. Bain modernized it, acknowledging that qualitatively new psychic units may arise from sensations.

The principles of associationism were fertile for the progress of psychological investigation—in particular, the development of new methods of studying the memory (mechanical—H. Ebbinghaus, Germany; and figurative— F. Galton, England), emotions (C. Darwin, England), and motivation (S. Freud, Austria; K. Jung, Switzerland). A reorientation in associationism took place. Instead of the obsolete mechanistic explanations, biological explanations were advanced (H. Spencer, England; I. M. Sechenov, Russia). The concept of associationism was transformed, on a new physiological basis, into doctrines of conditioned reflexes and behaviorism. Certain psychological schools (the Würzburg school and Gestalt psychology) criticized associationism as being mechanistic, atomistic, and incapable of explaining the integrity and activity of consciousness. From the standpoint of Marxist psychology, this criticism is one-sided, and although it does contain rational aspects, it ignores the historical value of associationism and its contribution to the causal explanation of psychic activity.


Ivanovskii, V. N. Assotsianizm psikhologicheskii i gnoseologicheskii. Kazan, 1909.
Ivanovskii, V. N. “Uchenie ob assotsiatsii idei.” Uch. zap. imp. Kazanskogo un-ta, 1915, book 12; ibid., 1917–18, books 2, 7–9, 10–12.
Shevarev, P. A. Obobshchennye assotsiatsii v uchebnoi rabote shkol’nika. Moscow, 1959.
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriia psikhologii. Moscow, 1966. Chapter 6.
Warren, H. C. History of the Association Psychology. [London,] 1921.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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