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  • Writer's pictureEmma

John Stuart Mill: Associationism

As a Research Intern for the PPR Department at Lancaster University, I was tasked with the following three responsibilities: 1) research John Stuart Mill and associationism, 2) transcribe the three Rector’s Prize Essays written on associationism, and 3) share my findings in the form of a written piece on the historical episode. My Project Supervisor for this undertaking was Dr Chris Macleod, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University and an expert on John Stuart Mill’s philosophy. I have thoroughly enjoyed completing the work during my internship and I have discovered a passion for historical transcription.

The Rector’s Prize Essays

The term ‘rector’ comes from the Latin word for ‘ruler’. A rector is a high-ranking official within an educational establishment. While not all universities have one, the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 requires all four of the ancient universities of Scotland — Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews — to have an elected rector.[1] John Stuart Mill was the 3rd elected Rector of St Andrews and served his three-year term from 1865–1868.[2] Not a great deal of information is recorded on the essay competition(s), yet three essays written for the ‘Rector’s Prize’ are archived within St Andrews online collections of individual manuscripts.[3] These three philosophical essays were written between the years 1866 and 1869, during the time that John Stuart Mill served as Rector of the University of St Andrews. Although it has been said that John Stuart Mill did not achieve much as Rector, it can be assumed that John Stuart Mill awarded these three students the Rector’s Prize for their academic work.[4] All three essays are written on the subject of associationism, of which John Stuart Mill was an adherent. The details of the essays are as follows:

  1. Robertson, Edmund; Essay on the sources of fallacious thinking; Rector’s Prize 1866–1867.[5]

  2. Essay on inseparable association; Rector’s Prize 1868–1869.[6]

  3. Home, William; Essay on inseparable association; Rector’s Prize 1868–1869.[7]

As defined in Collins English Dictionary, associationism is the theory “that all mental activity is based on connections between basic mental events, such as sensations and feelings.”

John Stuart Mill

Born 20th May 1806, John Stuart Mill was an exceptionally influential philosopher, politician and economist. He died 7th May 1873 after a life writing on social, political, economical and philosophical theory. He has been described as “the most influential English language philosopher of the nineteenth century”.[8] John Stuart Mill was a naturalist, utilitarian, liberal and empiricist, and while he is most famous for his work within ethics and politics, his associationism is highly significant to his thought, and yet not widely researched or commented upon. Educated by his father—philosopher and economist James Mill, also an adherent of associationism—John Stuart Mill was likely to adopt similar philosophical views. However, while there is a strong correlation between John and James’ psychology, there are points on which the two philosophers differ. In particular, John often conducted a more vigorous examination of the phenomena that they each sought to explain and found problems where James did not. One of the biggest points of disparity between the philosophy of John Stuart Mill and his father, James Mill, can be observed within their general understanding of the associative process—for John, it is a chemical, rather than a physical (as it is for James), union.[9]

Essay 1 extract (ms30002)


As defined in Collins English Dictionary, associationism is the theory “that all mental activity is based on connections between basic mental events, such as sensations and feelings.”[10] The concept of associationism formed the foundation from which modern learning theory and behaviourist approaches within psychology developed.[11]

As previously stated, John Stuart Mill was a naturalist, and he believed that human beings are a part of nature as much as animals and trees are a part of nature. As a part of nature, minds have no innate superiority over anything else and function in the same way as everything else. That is, minds are determined by associationistic laws of nature—this, Mill asserts, can be observed empirically. Likewise, as previously stated, John Stuart Mill was an empiricist rather than a rationalist, and he believed that the mind is a ‘blank slate’ at birth. It is when the mind begins to receive data through the senses that its character forms. In this way, there is no intrinsic human nature. According to Dale Miller, all of the classical British empiricists accepted “some version” of associationism[12]. John Stuart Mill propounds three laws of association: 1) similarity, “that similar ideas tend to excite one another”, 2) frequency, “that when two impressions have been frequently experienced (or even thought of) either simultaneously or in immediate succession, then whenever one of these impressions, or the idea of it, recurs, it tends to excite the idea of the other”, and 3) intensity, “that greater intensity in either or both of the impressions, is equivalent [...] to a greater frequency of conjunction”.[13] Associationists use these laws to reject intuitionist ideas, as well as rationalist ideas. For Mill, intuitionists unjustly hasten to claim that psychology has nothing to offer in the conversation regarding the dispositions we have to form particular beliefs, that Mill believe can be explained through associationism.[14]

The typewriter was not a household item in the 1860s: everything was written by hand, including academic papers. For this reason, reading the essay manuscripts was no easy task, let alone transcribing them to a high degree of accuracy.

Transcription process

On account of the time in which the three essays were written (in the 1860s), all display a certain style of writing that reflects the penmanship of the Victorian Era. The typewriter was not a household item in the 1860s: everything was written by hand, including academic papers. For this reason, reading the essay manuscripts was no easy task, let alone transcribing them to a high degree of accuracy. In addition to the Victorian cursive, dated and obsolete words are used within the essays—words that are seldom heard today were peppered throughout all three manuscripts. This escalated the complexity of the task. At first, it was extremely difficult to efficiently and accurately transcribe the essays. With time, however, I became more acquainted with the handwriting of each author and the old-fashioned language they employed. The amount of words that I was unable to transcribe from an initial impression reduced significantly from the first to the last page of each paper. It took me approximately 10 weeks of transcription to fully reproduce the manuscripts into digital form. Excluding footnotes, essay 3 totalled approximately 12,000 words, essay 2 totalled approximately 13,500 words, and essay 1 totalled an extraordinary 33,500 words. Across all three essays, the total word count was approximately 59,000. The footnotes I am referring to are that of my own. During the transcription process, I would add in footnotes in places where the reader might find it helpful to have more context or information. For example, I included footnotes with definitions for dated or obsolete words, translations of any Latin phrases, simple biographical details on people mentioned by name, and more. I thoroughly enjoyed expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of the philosophical intricacies of the past.

Essay 2 extract (ms30003)

Essay contents

Essay 1 was a paper written on “The Sources of Fallacious Thinking and of Opinion insufficiently founded on fact, which lie in the original constitution of the human mind” and covers errors including those of the senses, the emotions, and language. Essay 2 has no title beyond “Essay on Inseparable Association”. Essay 3 was a paper written on “Explain and illustrate the principle of Inseparable Association and its application to the theory of the more complex mental operations.” As essays 2 and 3 were written in the same year, and as they were both written on the concept of “Inseparable Association”, we might assume that essay 2 was responding to the same prompt as essay 3. Both essays cover differing topics, however. Essay 2 begins by considering the laws of association, then goes on to discuss sensation, feeling and idea, concluding that sensation, feeling and consciousness are three terms referring to the same thing. Following this, the author goes on to examine all five senses and their interactions with each other: sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell. Finally, the author briefly discusses memory and volition. Essay 3 embarks upon the “Explanation of Phenomena”, including classification, cause and effect, memory, belief in an external world, belief in necessary truths and propositions, space and its components, time, and motives.

Essay 3 extract (ms30004)


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Essay 1 transcription
Download PDF • 602KB

Essay 2 transcription
Download PDF • 252KB

Essay 3 transcription
Download PDF • 226KB

Manuscripts - Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums

Essay 1 manuscript
Download PDF • 57.97MB

Essay 2 manuscript
Download PDF • 14.76MB

Essay 3 manuscript
Download PDF • 32.22MB

Footnotes [1] See and [2] See [3] See [4] See [5] See [6] See [7] See [8] See [9] See A History of the Association Psychology by Howard C. Warren, originally published in 1921. [10] See [11] See [12] See page 18 of John Stuart Mill: Moral, Social, and Political Thought by Dale E. Miller, originally published in 2010. [13] See John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, I, 193–9. [14] See page 19 of John Stuart Mill: Moral, Social, and Political Thought by Dale E. Miller.


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