Pierre Marie Félix Janet

Born 1859
Died 1947

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French physician, psychiatrist, and philosopher, born May 30, 1859, Paris; died February 24, 1947, Paris.

Biography of Pierre Marie Félix Janet

Pierre Marie Félix Janet was influential in bringing about in France and the United States a connection between academic psychology and the clinical treatment of mental illnesses. He stressed psychological factors in hypnosis and contributed to the modern concept of mental and emotional disorders involving anxiety, phobias, and other abnormal behaviour. He introduced the words dissociation and subconscious into psychological terminology and attributed hysteria and hypnotic susceptibility to inherited dispositions toward imbalances in psychic energy and psychic tension.

Janet first studied philosophy. He became professeur agrégé in 1882 and worked as teacher in the lycées of Châteauroux and Havre 1882-1889. He became Dr. ès lettres in 1889 and then turned to medicine.

Janet's report (1882) of an unusual case of hypnosis and clairvoyance gained him the attention of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893). As a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Paris, Janet studied automatic acts and in his thesis (1889), which went into many editions, he introduced the concept of automatism, a condition in which an activity is carried out without conscious knowledge by the subject. Janet argued that "hysterical symptoms are due to subconscious fixed ideas that have been isolated and usually forgotten. Split off from consciousness – 'dissociated' – they embody painful experiences, but become autonomous by virtue of their segregation from the main stream of consciousness (E.L. Bliss, Multiple Personality, allied disorders, and hypnosis, N.Y. Oxford University Press, 1986). This predated Freud's announcement of their virtually identical discovery by four years, and became the basis for a later dispute with Sigmund Freud over priority.

In 1889, at Charcot's invitation, he became director of the psychological laboratory at the Salpêtrière, the largest Paris mental institution. There he completed his work for his M.D., which he received for the thesis L'état mental des hystériques in 1892, in which he attempted to classify forms of the hysteria neurosis. Charcot, in his introduction to the thesis, concurred with Janet's plea to unite the efforts of psychology and medicine. He now settled as a physician for nervous and mental diseases in Paris. He was not a fan of psychological experiments, believing they were often ‘enough to upset the thing being studied’.

In 1898 Janet was appointed lecturer in psychology at the Sorbonne, and in 1902 he succeeded Théodule Ribot (1839-1916) in the chair of experimental and comparative psychology at the Collège de France, a position he held until 1936. He was a member of the Institut de France from 1913.

In 1904, with his friend Georges Dumas (1866-1946), he founded the Journal de psychologie normal et pathologique, to which he contributed numerous articles.

    «If a patient is poor he is committed to a public hospital as «psychotic»; if he can afford the luxury of a private sanatorium, he is put there with the diagnosis of «neurasthenia»; if he is wealthy enough to be isolated in his own home under constant watch of nurses and physicians he is simply an indisposed «eccentric.»
    La Force et la faiblesse psychologiques.

    "Janet stands at the threshold of all modern dynamic psychiatry. His ideas have become so widely known that their true origin is often unrecognized and attributed to others."
    H. F. Ellenberger in Discovery of the Unconscious,
    The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry.
    New York: Basic Books, 1970.

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