Associationism (Aristotle – 350 B.C.E)

Associationism (Aristotle – 350 B.C.E). Aristotle asserted three Laws of Association and a Law of Frequency that are considered by many to be at the heart of most behavioral learning theories. These laws, summarized by Olson and Hergenhahn (1982, p. 35), are as follows:

  1. Law of Similarity – the experience or recall of one object will elicit the recall of things similar to that object.
  2. Law of Contrast – the experience or recall of one object will elicit the recall of opposite things.
  3. Law of Contiguity – the experience or recall of one object will elicit the recall of things that were originally experienced along with that object.
  4. Law of Frequency – the more frequently two things are experienced together, the more likely it will be that the experience or recall of one will stimulate the recall of the second.

These laws are cited by Olson and Hergenhahn and many other writers without specific reference, and it took some searching to trace them back to their exact origin. They are found in Aristotle’s De Memoria Et Reminiscentia[1](Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 111). Though these laws are “obviously merely principles governing the reinstatement of ideas previously experienced” (memory) and “their scope is much narrower than that assigned to them by modern psychology” (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 39), because memory plays a central role in the acquisition of both knowledge and skill, they are clearly applicable to learning in general. Even though Aristotle’s writings “in which he systematically developed his ideas on education have survived only in fragmentary form” (Hummel, 1993, p. 2) from these fragments it is possible to identify several ideas on learning. Based on my own reading of Ross’s translation of De Memoria—and of Ethics and Politics translated by Burnet (Aristotle & Burnet, 1913)—I find that in addition to the well-known laws of association and the law of frequency, Aristotle’s thinking also included ideas about

1. The nature of practice (that it should be hands-on, of good quality, and guided by instruction):

The things which we are to do when we have learnt them, we learn by doing them; we become, for instance, good builders by building and good lyre-players by playing the lyre….the material form from which and the means by which any form of goodness is produced and those by which it is destroyed are the same…. for it is by playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced, and it is the same with builders and the rest. It is by building well that they will become good builders and by building badly that they will become bad builders. If it were otherwise, we should have no need of anyone to teach us; all would become good or bad as the case might be. (Aristotle & Burnet, 1913, p. 45)

2. The gradation of attainment over time:

It is better to practice from the very beginning every habit that can be produced by training—though the habituation should be a gradual process (p. 102)

3. The representation of concepts in memory through images:

Memory, even the memory of concepts, cannot exist apart from imagery (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 103)

4. Readiness for learning and significance of new material:

When a stimulus occurs it imprints as it were a mould of the sense-affection exactly as a seal-ring acts in stamping (p.105)

Memory does not occur in those who are in a rapid state of transition, whether owing to some perturbing experience or their period of life; it is as if this stimulus, like the seal, were stamped on running water. Again in others their worn-out condition—like that of old buildings—and the hardness of the receptive structure, prevent the sense-affection from leaving an impression. Hence we explain why the very young and the aged have no memory; in the former growth, in the latter decay, cause rapid transition. (p. 105)

5. The need for repetition in varying degrees:

The same man may learn or discover the same thing twice. (p.109)

It so happens that some people receive a greater benefit from a single experience than others in whom the sequence has frequently taken place, and hence, in some instances, after seeing things once, we remember them better than others who have seen them frequently. (p. 111)

It is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency (p. 113)

6. The value of orderly arrangement:

Those things are easily recalled which have an orderly arrangement…but things wanting in exactitude are with difficulty remembered. (p. 111)

7. The role of pleasure and pain in motivation:

For goodness of character has to do with pleasures and pains. It is pleasure that makes us do what is bad, and pain that makes us abstain from what is right. (Aristotle & Burnet, 1913, p. 49)

8. The increase of capacity and potential through education and habituation:

In all arts and crafts we require a preliminary education and habituation to enable us to exercise them (Aristotle & Burnet, 1913, p. 106)

9. The linking of mental concepts:

The occurrence of an act of recollection is due to the natural tendency of one particular change to follow another. (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 109)

Suppose for instance one has a series of thoughts ABCDEFGH…in general the middle member also of a whole series of terms seems to be the starting point. (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 113)[2]

For centuries, Aristotle’s ideas have been debated and elaborated on by commentators and philosophers. Weimer (1973) noted that “the centrality of associationism as the mechanism of the mind is so well known as to require only the observation that not one single learning theory propounded in this century has failed to base its account on associative principles” (p. 18).

[1] Note that although Aristotle is commonly credited as the originator of these ideas, they are also evident in Plato’s Phaedo (Cope, 1875) . For example: “…lovers, whenever they catch sight of a lyre… or anything else which their favorites are in the habit of using…at the same time receive in their minds the image of the youth to whom the lyre belonged” (p. 31, Contiguity); “…is it possible for any one [sic] to recall to mind a man by seeing a picture of a horse or a picture of a lyre? or [sic] by seeing a portrait of Simmias to remember Cebes? Certainly it is.” (p. 31, Contrast); “Or again, by seeing a portrait of Simmias to call Simmias himself to mind” (p. 32, Similarity); “Does it not then happen in all these cases that recollection is derived at one time from similar and at another from dissimilar things?” (p. 32, Similarity and Contrast)

[2] Ross interprets this to mean:

E, then, will symbolize the central idea or nucleus of this group from which it is possible to pass, in more than one direction, to the idea lying in the outskirts of the group…Though Aristotle symbolizes his terms by the letters of the alphabet he is thinking not of a series following the direction of the time process but of a set of notions formed by those notions being frequently thought of together and grouped round one striking topic (p. 304)


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