Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 October 2019
A REVIEW in The British Critic (1802) situates Elizabeth Hamilton's Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education (1801) squarely in associationist tradition. It surmises that Hamilton is ‘a metaphysician of the school of Hartley’ and that her book, in contrast to More's Strictures, is the product of ‘studying and meditation’. Nonetheless, the reviewer is pleased to find Hamilton's work untainted by ‘that materialism, which Priestley and some other pupils of that school have so unfairly represented, as the necessary consequence of the principles of their master’. Hartley, the reviewer continues, ‘was a pious man’, so while his philosophy is the ‘prominent feature’ of Hamilton's book, it still ‘breathes sentiments of purest piety’. Hamilton would no doubt have agreed with the last of these assessments, but the remark that her work was the product, not of an ‘acquaintance with the living world’, but of the ‘school of Hartley’ would surely have disappointed her. For Hamilton repeatedly stated that her science of mind had its basis in ‘observation and experience’, and though she considered the basic principles of association to be self-evidently true, she also queried the use of associationism ‘to explain all the phaenomena of the human mind’.
While Hamilton's educational treatise draws extensively on Hartley and the Common Sense philosophy of her Edinburgh Enlightenment friend Dugald Stewart, she declares herself, in the first letter of the book, ‘at no pains to adopt, or to avoid, the peculiar phraseology of this or that particular school’, explaining that the ‘principles’ of her work ‘are not implicitly adopted from any author, however celebrated; they are not chosen to suit any system, however plausible’. Hamilton elucidates her position:
Of systems I have none, save the system of Christianity. Of theories I cannot be said to adopt any; since I follow none one step farther, than reflection upon the operations of my own mind, and observation upon those of others, fully justifies. Nor do I mean to stand bound for all the opinions of every author, whose sentiments I may occasionally quote.