In this article, Ong divides his thoughts on associationist theory into seven sections.  In the first section, he argues that eighteenth and nineteenth-century associationist theory presented itself as particularly empirical.  In fact, it was less empirical than other schools in existence at the time, and it relied heavily on the non-empirical discipline of mathematics to explain its concepts.  More specifically, Ong asserts, the relationship between associationist theory and the empirical physical sciences can be understood by examining the associationists' use of geometry.

In the second section of the article, Ong surveys the various associationist thinkers, noting that although Englishmen David Hartley and Joseph Addison were associationist in their thinking, the movement really came into English thought through Scottish writers such as Henry Home, Lord Kames, Adam Smith, Alexander Gerard, William Duff, and others.  Ong shows how these writers likened the intellectual process to linking up ideas through "geometrical plotting," a method that emphasized motion as a primary factor in the process.

Ong then explains, in the third section of the article, that this approach to the intellectual process came out of the Cartesian desire to find a universal method for understanding all knowledge; in the case of the associationists, they believed they had found this universal method in mathematics.  The most extreme example of applying mathematics to all kinds of knowledge can be seen in the work of John Craig, who believed that geometry could be used to understand God; Ong refers to Craig's book, Theologiae Christianae principia mathematica as the "ne plus ultra of monomethodology."

Ong also asserts in this section of the article that as the most abstract of the sciences, mathematics could easily dominate other disciplines; for example, the physical sciences can be expressed in terms of mathematics, but not vice versa, so mathematics tends to overwhelm or intrude on the physical sciences.  Newtonian physics is a good example of mathematics' move into a less abstract science, and Ong points out that this move was revealed when quantum theory showed through empirical data what Newtonian physics had already said in abstract terms.

As a result of this reliance on mathematical principles, associationist theory tended to process all knowledge through math, and when certain kinds of knowledge could not be processed mathematically, the associationists would either attach them to concepts that could or dismiss them through a spatial, geometrical image.  Some of the concepts dismissed by associationists, Ong notes in the fourth and fifth sections of the article, include color, sound patterns such as alliteration, and tropes such as metaphor.  They also put outside the realm of associationist thought certain kinds of people, especially poetic geniuses.  When they did dismiss certain concepts or people, however, they would do it by means of a spatial image.  The poetic genius, for example, was unlike other humans because his/her method of linking ideas ran backward rather than forward (the outcast nature of the poet is discussed at length in "J.S. Mill's Pariah Poet").

The use of "spatial maneuvers," as Ong refers to them, also shows up in the associationists' discussions of sympathy, reason, and judgment, terms which the associationists end up treating quite subjectively, Ong claims in the sixth section of the article.  This characterization of the associationists as too subjective recalls Ong's assessment of those who rely too heavily on myth in "Myth and the Cabalas"; Ong seems to say that both movements turn inward to an extreme degree.

Finally, in the last section of the article, Ong concludes that while associationist thought is useful in some ways, particularly for the study of poetry, associationists ultimately relied too much on analogies without clarifying that they were using analogies.  Because the associationists were not straightforward about their method, the poles of reason and Romanticism were never appropriately established in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, so a middle ground between these poles could never be achieved.
 

Return to Listings