THE NATURE OF CONCEPTS
The associationistâ schools of Herbart in Germany, and of Hume, the Mills and Bain in Britain, have thus constructed a psychology without a soul by taking discrete ideasâ, faint or vivid, and showing how, by their cohesions, repulsions, and forms of succession, such things as reminiscences, perceptions, emotions, volitions, passions, theories, and all the other furnishings of an individual’s mind may be engendered. (William James, 1890, Principles of Psychology, I, The scope of psychology, p. 15)
The Rules that Organize the Mind. Hume’s psychological theory is a radical associationism inspired by the theories of Berkley and Locke.6 Thoughts are constructed from sensory impressions that are associated and then organized by simple algorithms. Two perceptions that arrive at the same time, or that define a same space, are automatically associated together. Beyond the rules of contiguity (in time and space), Hume observes that in the world of representations, everything that looks alike has the tendency to group together. These rules are applied whatever their relevance. Certain laws are a bit more complex, like those of cause and effect. If I perceive two objects that touch each other and two actions that succeed each other in time, I automatically suppose that the first action is the cause of the other, that the first object moved the second one.7 This correlation is often useful, but sometimes deceptive.
The notions of time and space can be defined operationally. First, one sensation enters into the mind and then another. A subroutine of the mind that perceives two successive sensations creates a sensation of time passing. This does not mean that time exists in reality. A similar reasoning is used to explain the impression that space exists. In this system, there does not exist any Idea of time or of space, but these notions are nonetheless transpersonal to the extent that the algorithms construct them in every human being without any neurological damage because nature so conceived these rules. On the other hand, the interrelated elements form mental entities that are more complex than the content of sensory data.8 The rules of association are, in effect, exterior to the content that is associated. There is then, with Hume, already a distinction between the perceptions and an organization of perceptions. What characterizes human thought is never this or that idea as a term, but only ways of passing from one particular idea to anotherâ (Deleuze, 1972, p. 229, translated by Marcel Duclos).
Do We Have a Need for Meaning? Many psychotherapists have the tendency to propose a pursuit of meaning, for they suppose that life is tolerable only if we can give it a meaning.
For Hume, the search for meaning is a kind of antidepressant that leads to the opiate of the people that is religion. The philosopher is strong enough to be able to live comfortably with the idea that life has no meaning and that all of the meanings that we attribute to it are confabulations that blind the mind. One of the characteristics of a sect is to propose to psychically weak people a search for meaning that strengthen them while making them dependent.