Summary “Of the Association of Ideas” by John Locke

by Linn Oatis, June 2014

300 words

1 page


The 33rd Chapter of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding deals with the human mechanism to generate ideas, to connect them and develop knowledge. The mechanism of ideas association is argued to have unreasonable and can be even labelled as madness. However, Locke builds his argument in a mastery way, proving that complex connection of experiences, ideas, and thus knowledge is not unreasonable or arrogant, lacking education or result of being insane.

Complexity of establishing experience-idea-knowledge association is difficult for tracking back and further understanding by the third party, i.e. by other people. According to Locke, it is puzzling since “connexion is made by custom. […I]t comes in different men to be very different, according to their different inclinations, education, interests, etc.” (Locke, as cited in Digital Classics Series, 1995). The difference of ideas, however, shows a similar pattern of association mechanism that is proved by Locke’s examples:

Fear of darkness that has roots in childhood frightening experiences with maid’s ghost stories;

A man’s injury from the other man or being harshly operated by a doctor causes negative associations (memories and instincts) when being reminded of the injury though healed or of the person;

“Accidental ideas annexed to” certain activities (like reading if it was a negative experience at school), certain places or objects know only to experiencer and hard to grasp for others.

The chapter also touches upon the topic of time healing or smooth over peculiar idea associations. The conclusion by John Locke opens a vast area for further study of connection built between language, knowledge of language, and ideas reflected in it, being based on the life experiences.


Locke, Jh. (1995).“Of the Association of Ideas. An Essay Concerning Human

Understanding: Book 2: Chapter 33.” Digital Classics Series by Columbia University.

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