Association of Ideas and Medicine of the Mind in Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding


  • Simone D'Agostino Pontifical Gregorian University



Locke, Medicine of the mind, Association of ideas, Attention


The Conduct of the Understanding was written by Locke to therapeutically counterweight some negative epistemic aspects which already emerged in the final chapters of Book IV of the Essay. The order of this treatment reflects both the Aristotelian Organon, concluded by the Sophistici elenchi, and some modern scholastic manuals of logic. The Conduct was conceived to prevent or cure the errors of the intellect (medicina mentis), because the logic used so far was inadequate, as Bacon already saw. From a logical point of view, knowledge is idea-containment, opinion is idea conjunction without containment, and error is idea association, i.e. a connection of ideas wholly owing to chance or custom. Associations of ideas, although naturalized by the habitual action of the mind, remain unnatural in themselves since their connections have no real basis: Locke calls the association of ideas madness. To prevent associations of ideas that have not yet occurred, Locke proposes ‘meditation’ upon a basic epistemic rule, while to cure associations of ideas that have already occurred, he proposes voluntary reflective ‘attention’ upon the habitual movements of the mind.