The view that higher mental processes result from combinations of sensory and/or mental elements.
Associationism is a psychological theory that regards the laws of association to be the fundamental principle of mental life. Higher mental processes are explained in terms of combinations of sensory and/or mental elements. John Locke (1632-1704) rejected associationism but conceded that learning by association does occur. His consideration of associationism was an afterthought, employed mainly to understand errors in reasoning, accidents of time and circumstance. For Locke, true knowledge stems from ideas that follow each other for natural or rational reasons, e.g., the odor of baking bread precedes the sight of bread. In contrast, faulty beliefs stem from fortuitous associations, e.g., avoiding eating bread because one was sick after eating it even though the taste of bread and sickness occurred by chance. For the British empiricists (e.g., Berkeley, Hume, Hartley, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Bain) and the French sensationalists (e.g., Gassendi, La Mettrie, de Condillac, Helvétius) that succeeded Locke, associationism played a much larger role as they attempted to understand the mind in terms of Newtonian science, i.e., some sort of gravity that holds ideas together. The philosophy of David Hume (1711-1776) exemplifies associationism.
Further Reading:

Brennan, J. F. (1982). History and systems of psychology. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kemerling, G. (2001). Association of ideas [On-line] Available:

Locke, J. (1690). An essay concerning human understanding [On-line] Available:

Oxford Companion to Philosophy. (1995). Associationism [On-line] Available:

Related Terms:
Bain, Alexander (1818 - 1903)

Berkeley, George (1685 - 1753)

Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de (1715 - 1780)

Gassendi, Pierre (1592 - 1655)

Hartley, David (1705 - 1757)

Helvétius, Claude (1715 - 1771)

Hume, David (1711 - 1776)

La Mettrie, Julien de (1709 - 1751)

Locke, John (1632 - 1704)

Mill, James (1773 - 1836)

Mill, John Stuart (1806 - 1873)

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