The source of Locke's theory of 'associative learning': new evidence

G.A. RUSSELL
Department of Humanities in Medicine, Texas A&M College of Medicine, College Station, Texas


Simple ďAssociative learning' as exemplified in Pavlovian conditioning has its origins in the British School of Empiricism and specifically in John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding (1686). How Locke came to formulate his theory of association has always been unclear

I have previously shown that an important source for Locke which had not been considered at all is the Philosophus autodidactus, the Latin translation of a unique Arabic work written in the a twelfth century by a physician-philosopher, Ibn Tufayl (d.1185)* It was not only directly relevant to the concerns of the Essay, but also accessible to Locke.

First of all, the author, provides a graphic exposition of associative learning in describing the emergence of the mind of a child on a desert island solely by sensory experience, association, and reason, without innate ideas.

Secondly the Philosophus autodidactus, was published at Oxford in 1671, followed by a review and summary in the Transactions of the Royal Society of which Locke was a fellow. It was widely disseminated in England and Europe. Although the Essay bears the date of 1686, Locke had started on the first 'drafts' in 1671, shortly after the appearance of the Philosophus autodidactus.

Thirdly, a remarkable chain of evidence shows that Locke was intimately acquainted with the two translators, father and son, at Christ's Church, Oxford, Locke's College, during and after the period of the translation of the Arabic text.. The 'father' was Locke's most admired teacher and friend, and the 'son' was Locke's student.

Although the trail of evidence of: Locke's knowledge of the work multiplies beyond the publication of the Essay, no direct reference by Locke to the work was discovered.

A letter, however, found in the Locke correspondence with his Quaker connections from his stay in Holland leaves no doubt of Locke's familiarity with the Philosophus autodidactus.

With this crucial piece of new evidence in place, it can now be argued that the Philosophus autodidactus provides the answer to the question of Locke's shift of interest to and accounts for the emergence of Locke's concept of sensory association in the Essay which in turn gave rise to associative learning.

G.A. Russell, "The Impact of the Philosophus autodidactus: John Locke, the Pocockes, and the Society of Friends" in The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, G..A. Russell, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), pp. 224-266.


Session II -- Poster Session
Sunday, 2 June 2002, 10:00 - 11:00 am

Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Los Angeles, California, USA