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Mad Errors: Associated Ideas, Enthusiasm, and Personal Identity in Locke

Tabb, Kathryn (2015) Mad Errors: Associated Ideas, Enthusiasm, and Personal Identity in Locke. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Associationism — in its most basic formulation, the view that all cognition begins with the compounding of simple sensations into chains of ideas — is frequently held to have been introduced by John Locke in 1700, expanded on by David Hartley and David Hume, and come into its own in the 19th century with psychologists like James Mill and Alexander Bain. The aim of this dissertation is to argue that Locke is not an associationist, and that he has been cast on the wrong side of a fundamental divide over the role of the understanding in the connection of ideas. I show that Locke coins the term “association of ideas” not to launch a new architectonic for psychology based on acquired habit, but to diagnose what he sees as the biggest obstacle to right understanding: madness. Hume’s positive embrace of association has often been read back onto Locke, resulting in the easy conflation of the two thinkers under the banner of empiricism. In championing the powers of the active perception over the automaticity of association, however, Locke’s psychology stands apart from later empiricist philosophies of mind.

Along with challenging Locke’s traditional characterization as an associationist, this project explores the ramifications of Locke’s concept of association for his broader commitments. Locke believes that natural philosophy is possible due to our ability to perceive the truth or falsity of propositions, or, failing this, to make probabilistic judgments about their truth-value. The capacities that allow for these mental acts, reason and judgment (respectively), are gifts from God that allow us to flourish in our environment, despite our mediocre mental endowments. I argue that associated ideas show that these capacities sometimes fail us, compromising Locke’s intellectualist picture. Something like false knowledge is possible in Locke’s system, insofar as associated ideas generate propositions that are perceived to be true but which are in fact false. I call such propositions “mad errors,” and describe their profound ramifications for Locke’s ethics of belief and his theory of personal identity.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee CoChairMachamer, Peter K.pkmach@pitt.eduPKMACH
Committee CoChairWilson, Markmawilson@pitt.eduMAWILSON
Committee MemberSchaffner, Kenneth F.kfs@pitt.eduKFS
Committee MemberAtherton,
Committee MemberWinkler,
Date: 27 September 2015
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 10 April 2015
Approval Date: 27 September 2015
Submission Date: 25 May 2015
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Number of Pages: 156
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: John Locke; Associationism; History of Philosophy; History of Psychology; History of Psychiatry; History of Ideas
Date Deposited: 28 Sep 2015 02:16
Last Modified: 27 Sep 2020 05:15


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