The life and work of Pierre Janet


Lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Pierre-Janet Hospital in Hull,  september 12, 1969. The substance of  this lecture is taken from the chapter  on Pierre Janet in the book of Dr. Henri F. Ellenberger “The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York,  Basic Books Inc., 1969.
Mister President,
Mr. Director of Psychiatric Services,
Ladies, ladies, gentlemen, dear colleagues,

It is a great honor and a rare privilege that fell to me when Dr. Harnois asked me to  say here some words in memory of the one whose name this hospital received, the great psychologist and French psychiatrist Pierre Janet. There  are probably few scholars whose fame has suffered such a strange eclipse as that of Pierre Janet.

In 1889, that is to say at the age of thirty, his thesis on psychological automatism classed him from the outset among the stars of the new psychology, and when followed his first works on the psychological analysis of
neurosis, one had the impression that he was starting an exceptionally brilliant scientific career.

But when he went from psychological analysis to synthesis and undertook the construction of a system of a magnitude extraordinary, he kept the hearing of only an elite of connoisseurs, while his work remained misunderstanding of the mass of the intellectual public. Should we attribute this ignorance of Janet’s work to her horror of all claims, certain enmities, a divergence between his ideas and this mysterious thing that call the spirit of the times? The fact is that a large part of his work is buried in darkness, and that many of his discoveries are now attributed to others. It would be a invaluable contribution to the secret history of science if we could identify the factors that lead to
to spread the light on the work of some scientists and to leave in the shade that of some others.

Actually to say, our goal is not to elucidate such a problem, but simply to contribute to the fulfillment of an act of “historical justice” to one of the most eminent psychologists of all time.

It is not easy to talk about the life of Pierre Janet, because no serious biographical study has been published on he, and himself, did nothing to facilitate the task of his future biographers. Let’s first try to delineate the geographical, historical and social context of Peter’s life Janet. From the geographical point of view, the thing is simple: Janet was born in Paris, rue Madame, in the 6th borough, and died rue de Varenne, in the 7th arrondissement. His whole life was spent in Paris, if the exception is the six or seven years of professorship in the provinces, an annual vacation at Fontainebleau, Short breaks for conferences in European cities, and some trips to North America and south.

Pierre Janet is therefore fundamentally Parisian by his education, his habits, his language, his turn of mind. The historical setting of his life is essentially that of the Third Republic. Born in 1859, his childhood dies during the years that mark the decline and the fall of the Second Empire. At the age of
11 years, he shares with his family the suffering of the siege of Paris, then, in Strasbourg, in the family of his mother, he endures the sufferings, worse still, experienced by a family of ardent Alsatian patriots who see annexed by Germany. The years of his adolescence, his youth, his maturity are those
the great economic and scientific boom of the Third Republic. He is 55 when the first world War.

The war years and the troubled period of the first post-war period are unfavorable to accept the great psychological synthesis that he began to build and which he pursues construction, volume after volume. Janet, octogenarian, is about to finish this work when the Second World War. He gives the impression of being a survivor of another era when he dies, in 1947,
at the age of 87. As for the social framework of his life, it is that of the intellectual middle class, that of a family that has produced doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers. Among these, we must mention his
uncle, the philosopher Paul Janet.

These few indications explain to us that Pierre Janet’s academic career was
Simple enough, you could almost say in a pre-arranged setting. Indeed, we note a remarkable analogy between Uncle Paul Janet’s career and that of his nephew Pierre. Both, at the beginning, are shy boys who are going through a teenage crisis, after which they become great workers.

All  both, thirty years apart, study at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, enter the École Normale Supérieure, become Associate of Philosophy, Professors in a High School, then at the University, and are elected members of the Institute. Both publish philosophy textbooks and many books. But there stop analogies. Paul Janet’s career takes place mainly at the Sorbonne, that of Pierre Janet at the Collège de La France.

More importantly, Pierre Janet doubles his academic career with a medical career. Of very early he realized that the exploration of the human psyche could not be complete if it did not uses the clinical methods used by psychiatrists. His master Ribot writes books on diseases of memory, will, personality, based on the observations published by the psychiatrists; Janet, he will document by direct observation of the patient. That’s why, hardly has it happened his doctorate of letters in 1889 that he imposes the heavy task of doing his medical studies; he will pursue them parallel to his obligations as a high school teacher, and he will get his doctorate in medicine in the minimum time.

From then on and for the rest of his life, Pierre Janet has two professions
complementary. On the one hand, he teaches psychology at the Collège de France, on the other hand he studies and deals with psychiatric patients in hospitals and in private clients. The many clinical observations he gather will serve as a basis for the theories he will teach in his courses, and these later
will be the subject of his publications. This is how we will see the birth and growth of this vast system psychological that will develop with remarkable continuity since the very first conference published by Janet in 1882, at the age of 22, until her last article in 1947, a few months before her death.

To be able to build a work of this magnitude, it was necessary to be endowed with an activity and a unusual perseverance. Janet had inherited from her ancestors the virtues of work and economy that even in his psychiatric terminology, such as when he speaks of “psychological economies”,
“Psychological Acquisitions” or “Mental Force Budget”. On the other hand, his detached attitude, his benevolent irony, are reflected in his rational psychotherapy. Two different aspects of personality from Janet appear on the pictures we have of him; some show it in an attitude of energy concentrated, of thoughtful observation, in others one is struck by the vivacity of the gestures and the physiognomy.

This is how Janet could sometimes be the man who listened attentively and left nothing to escape the words of the interlocutor, sometimes the vivacious talker whose paradoxes baffled sometimes those who listened to him. As for his classes, everyone who heard them agrees that Janet was an admirable teacher. An American pastor, Reverend Horton, who followed them in 1922, writes the following : “His listeners were crowding the gloomy lecture hall, and all winter long endured heartily the discomfort of the benches without backs and of an unventilated room, without their interest ever bending.

The popularity of his course was, no doubt, to some extent, scintillations of his mind Voltairian that no reproduction can preserve without tarnishing it – but above all, I think, the importance intrinsic subject of the course and the originality of the views presented. I’m sure I was not the only one
a foreign listener who thought that his lectures alone were worth the trip to France. ” Another subject on which general agreement is made is that of Janet’s talents as a psychotherapist. Right here again, it is an American visitor whom we quote, Dr. Ernest Harms, who went to Paris to study the
Janet’s psychotherapeutic principles:

“When I came to Paris to study Janet’s techniques, I went to familiarize myself with the patients in their hospital district. I found there, housed together, patients suffering from delusions of persecution, who were telling each other fantastic stories. When I asked Janet what was her therapeutic approach, I received this strange response: “I believe these people until I am proven
that what they say is not true. “I had just seen a man who avoided walking on the shadows, because Napoleon, who was prowling there, wanted to force him into the army. Near him. a 70 year old woman past, believed himself persecuted by the mayor of Paris who wanted to violate it. It seemed difficult to find something true in such fixed ideas.

Noticing my perplexity, Janet said to me, “You see, these people are persecuted by something, and you have to do a careful exploration to go to the What he wanted me to see is that one should not reject ideas of persecution as ridiculous things, or even consider them from a purely symptomatic point of view: seriously and analyze them until the elements that caused them are revealed. I never forgot Janet’s thoughtful words about persecution ideas, or the many others who were  an essential element in his relations with his students. These words represented a Socratic art
that I have never found in any other eminent psychiatry professor. As for Janet,
words were an inseparable part of his conception of psychiatry.

” Janet believed that the first duty of the psychiatrist was, according to his expression, “to know his patient well – in his life, his schooling, his character, his ideas – and to be convinced that one never knows him enough. “His attitude toward the patient was characterized by two other traits that one does not always meet on the one hand, a deep respect for the patient (and in particular professional secrecy), on the other hand a almost infallible ability to immediately grasp the part of theatralism of inauthenticity or, if one prefers a
more modern expression, the part of the “role” played by the patient.

Janet stated that nineteenth-century psychologists had abused monographs. They had written one so many people lacked overviews of the human psyche. The time had come to try to vast syntheses, which one would undoubtedly demolish one day, but which, in the meantime, and by the questions they
would have asked, would have advanced science.

It is to a company of this kind that he devoted his life. His work includes twenty volumes, and 200 to 300 articles or contributions to collective volumes. This is a monumental construction that encompasses just about every area of ​​normal psychology and pathological. To simply give an overview of this gigantic work, a big book of 500 pages would barely suffice. It is obviously not a question of giving a summary here, but we can try to sketch the successive stages that marked the creation. We will divide it for this purpose into several  periods.

Lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Pierre-Janet Hospital in Hull, September 12, 1969. The substance of this lecture is taken from the chapter on Pierre Janet in the book of Dr. Henri F. Ellenberger “The Discovery
of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York, Basic Books Inc., 1969.

There was first a philosophical period. Before devoting herself entirely to psychology, Janet had been philosopher. He had entered the École Normale Supérieure in the philosophy section where he had had classmate Henri Bergson, with whom he remained bound all his life.

He had taught philosophy in high schools for a dozen years and wrote a philosophy manual several times reissued. At first, Janet had dreamed, as in the past Leibniz, of a synthesis of science and religion; later he directed his reflections on the philosophy of   science.

At that time, in teaching, psychology was still considered a branch of philosophy, and the best minds were concerned about the foundation
of a purely scientific psychology. To this end, said Janet, it was necessary to reject the spirit of authority and of blind obedience to tradition, addressing psychological facts with a spirit of curiosity and of intellectual independence, and especially to make use of the scientific method.

Following Descartes, Janet defined the scientific method as a combination of analysis and synthesis. The scientist breaks down a object into its simple elements and, from them, it recomposes the initial object (this is what is done, for example the chemist).

The difficulty is to define the real simple elements on which to operate. The anatomist, for example, will not just cut the human body into four, ten or 100 pieces, it will separate muscles, nerves, vessels, and so on; he will study such systems and then the relations of these systems between them and finally, the arrangement of the whole.

Similarly, the psychologist will have to determine which are the simple elements of psychic life, before trying to make a synthetic reconstitution.

Since the end of the 18th century
century, most authors had distinguished three great psychic faculties:
intelligence, affectivity and will. Intelligence was subdivided into a number of functions elementary: sensation, perception, memory, imagination, etc. Condillac had gone further, and had affirmed that sensation was the primordial element of psychic life: it was she who, in differentiating herself, would have
successively gave rise to perception, memory, imagination, etc., and finally to psychic life whole. The great originality of Janet, is to have broken resolutely with his ideas almost atonic psychic “faculties” and to have based his method of psychological analysis on a principle dynamic.

This brings us to the second period of Pierre Janet’s work, the period of Pierre Janet’s work, the period of psychological automatism. During her six and a half years of teaching in Le Havre, Janet studied in great detail a number of patients in the hospital of this city and he records the result of his  observations in his doctoral thesis ès-lettres, “Psychological Automatism”.

From the theoretical point of view, Janet is here the distant disciple of Maine de Biran, who founded his system psychological on the notion of psychic effort. It is the voluntary effort, said Maine de Biran, which raises the spirit of
the sensation to perception and from it to the higher operations of the mind and that provides the concepts of strength, causality, unity, identity and freedom. But below the level of conscious effort, extends a zone of animal life, which is the domain of habits, elementary affects, instincts, in short, a life
unconscious that is still manifesting to us in sleep and sleepwalking. These Maine ideas of Biran, developed by Janet, will provide the model of the human psyche, which will guide its first research.

Janet, at this time, distinguishes two levels of psychic life, a higher level, which is that of life conscious and psychological synthesis, and a lower level which is that of psychological automatism. Janet classifies the manifestations of psychological automutism into two groups: First, there is automatism
total “, which appears clinically in catalepsy, somnambulism, alternating personalities, then “partial automatism”, which implies that a fragment of personality has been detached from the rest and pursues a autonomous development course and “subconscious”.

Janet creates the word “subconscious” to mark well that he this is a clinical conception that has nothing to do with the metaphysical doctrines of the subconscious of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, so fashionable at that time. These are the subconscious fixed ideas that are based on a whole set of paradoxical psychic facts: obsessive impulses, phobias, hallucinations and many others. This is how the patient Lucie, whose observation Janet published in 1886, suffers of incomprehensible terror access: she exclaims: “I am afraid, and I do not know why.” By the method of automatic writing, Janet discovers that Lucie had once suffered a psychic trauma, ignored in her life conscious, but whose memory persisted in the subconscious state.

If Lucie shouts, explains Janet, is she dreaming subconsciously to the forgotten episode. Janet describes how, in Lucie and in another patient, Marie, the Neuropathic symptoms are related to forgotten traumas. These once detected by hypnotism or automatic writing, then dissociated and assimilated, the symptoms disappear. And Janet concludes: “It would be necessary to go through the whole field of mental illnesses and some of the physical diseases
to show the mental and bodily disorders that result from the banishment of a thought of consciousness personal. The idea banned, like a psychic parasite, causes all the accidents of physical diseases and This is one of the conclusions that Janet made in her 1889 thesis.

So begins the third period of the work of Pierre Janet, the one where he develops his method of analysis psychological. Janet, a high school teacher in Paris, a medical student, gets to do her clinical rotations mandatory at the Salpêtrière.

This is what gives us an amazing series of clinical cases that will be published in from 1891, mainly in the Revue de philosophie. At “Marcelle”, a 20-year-old girl suffering from a strange paralysis of the legs, with disorders of he memory and thought, Janet detects a series of subconscious fixed ideas, located at different levels, from the most recent to the oldest. As Janet Eliminates Fixed Idea Symptoms subconscious, other symptoms appear, related to another subconscious fixed idea older, and and so on until we come up against the “morbid terrain”, dependent on heredity and serious diseases of the past. But Janet insists on the need to follow psychological analysis with a synthetic treatment psychological.

Towards the end of 1890, Janet began treatment of a 40-year-old patient, “Justine”, who was suffering from a phobia  cholera, with anxiety attacks. By means of hypnotism, Janet discovers that “Justine” is obsessed  subconsciously by the image of the corpses of two people who died of cholera during a recent epidemic; in the conscious state she had no memory of it.

Janet applies to disassociate in her patient this image pathogenous, and then sees, one after the other, several other fixed ideas resulting from trauma
older psychic and located, so to speak, at different levels of the subconscious. Here too, Janet insists the need to complete the work of psychological analysis by a method of treatment intended to strengthen the synthesis  function.

Still at the end of the nineteenth century, it sometimes happened that an individual suffering from symptoms entered the Salpetriere traditional demonic possession. Thus in 1890 a man of 33 years, “Achilles”, is admitted
in the service of Charcot, in a state of furious agitation, uttering blasphemies, and not letting himself approach. “Achilles” comes from a backward place where still many superstitions reign; his father would have himself

one day sees the devil at the foot of a tree. The demoniac is confided to Janet. By means of writing automatic, Janet manages to establish a dialogue with the devil, and gets him to let him hypnotize the patient. This is how Janet can detect the subconscious fixed idea. Six months ago, during a trip, the patient had had an extramarital affair, after which he had thought himself damned, then felt possessed for real. Janet manages to progressively dissociate the pathogenic nucleus and the patient is cured. Eight years older  Later, citing this case, Janet declares that the healing was maintained. To our knowledge, the case of Achilles is the only case of demon possession treated and cured by dynamic psychotherapy.

Recall again the story of another famous patient, “Madame D.”, who entered in 1891 in the service of Charcot with severe amnesia that occurred as a result of psychic trauma. Janet notes first that amnesia existed only in the waking state, memories subsisted subconsciously, manifesting themselves, especially in dreams, or in hypnosis. Janet gets to dissociate subconscious fixed ideas and to make recover the memory of the patient by means of hypnosis, automatic writing, and a third a new method, automatic speech, which consists in making the patient talk without stopping by saying randomly everything that went through his head. Janet presents this case at the International Congress of Psychology in London in 1892.

It is unfortunate for Janet’s memory that these cases were published in the austere Revue de Philosophie or in limited circulation journals. If Janet had the idea of ​​collecting in a small volume, in 1893, the the case of Lucie, Marie, Marcelle, Justine, Achille, Madame D. and some others he had treated
at that time, no one would have ever challenged him the priority of the discovery of cathartic psychotherapy.

At the same time, Janet could have summarized the essential features of her method of psychological analysis. This consisted essentially of the exploration of a series of levels of the human psyche, ranging from higher level of psychic synthesis at lower levels of psychic automatism more and more subconscious. At the root of hysterical and neuropathic symptoms, Janet discerned fixed ideas subconscious, often multiple and shelves at different levels of  the subconscious.

The fixed ideas subconscious, said Janet, are both the cause and the result of the state of “psychological weakness”, even of “psychological misery”, which suffer these patients and resulting in them the difficulty of synthesis
mental. These subconscious fixed ideas are far from always easy to identify, but in Hysterics in their crises, we recognize their revival in a theatrical form, sometimes more or less symbolic. As for therapeutics, from the beginning, Janet insists that it is not enough to bring consciousness back to  consciousness. subconscious fixed ideas, we must dissociate them, and in addition we must complete the analysis treatment psychological by a synthesis treatment.

As early as the sighting of “Lucie” in 1886, and in the following publications in more detail, Janet describes the “relationship” that is established between the therapist and the patient. In the observation of “Marcelle”, in 1891, Janet gives
the rules to keep the relationship within limits and use it for therapy. In 1896, at the Congress of Psychology of Munich, Janet gives a more in-depth study.

In hysterics, he says, the “relationship” is manifested by an “influence” that can become as compelling as the toxic need of a morphinomaniac: it is a mixture of the patient’s irrational feelings towards the doctor: passionate love, fear, jealousy, veneration. This relationship persists in the intervals of the therapeutic sessions and is reflected in the images subconscious and dreams. In the case of psychasthenics, the report takes the form of a “need for
direction. “Janet describes how to use this relationship for therapy, and says that there would be a good starting point for the study of interpersonal and social phenomena.