Associationism is the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one mental state with its successor states. It holds that all mental processes are made up of discrete psychological elements and their combinations, which are believed to be made up of sensations or simple feelings. In philosophy, this idea is viewed as the outcome of empiricism and sensationism. The concept encompasses a psychological theory as well as comprehensive philosophical foundation, and scientific methodology.
The idea is first recorded in Plato and Aristotle, especially with regard to the succession of memories. Members of the principally British "Associationist School", including John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, Joseph Priestley, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Alexander Bain, and Ivan Pavlov, asserted that the principle applied to all or most mental processes. Particularly, Locke's view that the mind and body are two aspects of the same unified phenomenon can be traced back to Aristotle's ideas on the subject. Later members of the school developed very specific principles elaborating how associations worked and even a physiological mechanism bearing no resemblance to modern neurophysiology. For a fuller explanation of the intellectual history of associationism and the "Associationist School", see Association of Ideas.
Associationism is often concerned with middle-level to higher-level mental processes such as learning. For instance, the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis are linked in one's mind through repetition so that they become inextricably associated with one another. Among the earliest experiments that tested the applications of associationism involve Hermann Ebbinghaus' work. He was considered the first experimenter to apply the associationist principles systematically and used himself as subject to study and quantify the relationship between rehearsal and recollection of material.
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