Pierre Marie Félix Janet (May 30, 1859 – February 24, 1947) was a French psychiatrist, a student of Jean-Martin Charcot, whose pioneering study of dissociative disorders laid the foundation for analytical psychology. Janet studied instances in which individuals appeared to be functioning autonomously from their normal consciousness: under hypnosis, spirit possession, and hysteria. He proposed that in these cases a separate consciousness had split off from the main personality, forming a new identity, and that they existed in isolation with no interaction between one another. He initially referred to this state as "split personality," although it later became known as "dissociative disorder." Janet explained these occurrences in strictly materialistic, scientific terms, rejecting alternative explanations involving spirituality. His work thus paralleled that of Sigmund Freud, although Freud was able to develop and popularize his psychoanalytic model more successfully than Janet. Carl Jung, on the other hand, took much of Janet's work, while developing analytical psychology, and added some of the spiritual aspects that Janet had denied. Ultimately, Janet was not successful in explaining the true nature of the psychological phenomena he studied, never resolving his personal struggle between the scientific (focusing on external, observable phenomena) and religious (focusing on internal, spiritual experiences) approaches to understanding life.
Pierre Marie Félix Janet was born in 1859 in Paris, France. As a child he developed a great interest in botany, collecting dried plants—an interest that he continued throughout his life. Thus, he acquired a tendency toward precise observation and classification.
He also became interested in philosophy and psychology while still a child, mostly due to his uncle Paul Janet, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and a devoted follower of Victor Cousin. He evoked an interest for spirituality and metaphysics in young Janet, and also helped him in his academic career.
Janet became professor of philosophy at the Lycée at Havre at the age of 22. He taught there until 1889, and then, with the encouragement of his uncle, went on to study medicine. According to Janet's autobiography (1930), his uncle Paul wanted him to have a broad understanding of all aspects of life, including both medicine and philosophy. Janet was an excellent student, and soon his geniality was noticed. After completing a report on unusual case of hypnosis and clairvoyance, Janet began his association with Jean-Martin Charcot, one of the leading neurologists of his time. Janet published several works in the late 1880s on automatic acts, hypnosis, and animal magnetism, which he summarized in his philosophy dissertation in 1889. There, Janet introduced the concepts of automatism, dissociation, and the subconscious, setting the foundation for analytical psychology.
After an invitation by Charcot, Janet became director of the psychological laboratory at the Salpêtrière, the largest mental institution in Paris. He completed his medical degree there, with a dissertation entitled The Mental State of Hystericals, in 1892. In his dissertation he argued for the need to unite the efforts of clinical and academic psychology.
In 1898, Janet became a lecturer at the Sorbonne, and in 1902 he was appointed full time professor of experimental and comparative psychology at the Collège de France, where he taught until 1936. The topics of his lectures ranged from hysteria, amnesia, and obsession, to personality studies. He founded the Journal de psychologie normal et pathologique in 1904.
Janet retired from work in the late 1930s, and spent the rest of his life in his native Paris. He died in 1947.
Janet remains famous for his study of "split personality" (today known as "dissociative disorder"). In his doctoral dissertation he introduced the concept of automatism—a condition in which activities were performed without conscious knowledge of the subject. He argued that this was possible because certain unconscious, fixed ideas, usually traumatic in nature, were forgotten and isolated. Those ideas, or “dissociations,” then form a separate, autonomous entity, causing a split personality.
He first used the term “dissociation” in May 1887 to describe the phenomenon of "double consciousness" in hypnotism, hysteria, spirit possession, and mediumship. Janet claimed that in those cases, subconscious processes take over the control of primary consciousness, and that the split between the two is total, with the two existing independently and unaware of each other.
Janet published his ideas four years before Sigmund Freud came up with his own, essentially identical discoveries, resulting in a dispute between the two over who was first to make the discovery. Research on such "split personalities" peaked by the end of the nineteenth century.
Pierre’s uncle Paul Janet, however, objected to his nephew’s conclusions and criticized his ideas, due to his own philosophical and religious beliefs. Paul Janet was a spiritualist and a follower of Victor Cousin, a promoter of "eclectic spiritualism"—a philosophical and spiritual movement that promoted the unity of all doctrines based on the commonalities they have. The study of consciousness had a central position in Cousin’s philosophy, due to the scientific approach it utilized. Furthermore, Paul Janet was a strong advocate of morality and a critic of materialism, nihilism, and atheism.
Paul Janet used hypnosis himself in his study of consciousness. He believed that split personality and dissociations were the result of a rift in a single consciousness, and that those split personalities were still aware of each other.
When Pierre published his work on split personalities, claiming that consciousness could be “split,” and that so-called “spiritual possessions” (and ultimately spirituality in general) were possibly the result of split personality, Paul Janet started to criticize Pierre. Pierre Janet, however, remained faithful to a strict empirical method, ignoring the existence of spirituality.
Pierre Janet began his career as a philosopher, wanting to study the hidden structures of the human mind. He used hypnosis as a powerful tool in achieving his goal. However, he later turned to analytical psychology, and that is where his most significant legacy lies. His study of the nature and treatment of dissociative disorders paralleled Freud’s work in the same field.
Freud and Josef Breuer used some insights from Janet’s work in their monumental Studies of Hysteria ( 2000). However, unlike Freud, who often used vivid images and intimate stories of his patients to illustrate or support his ideas, Janet remained loyal to the strict, scientific research methodology of nineteenth-century academia. His explanations were often very mechanical and dry, with seldom discussion of cases from beginning to end. Because of this, Janet did not generate as many followers as other pioneers of psychoanalysis, notably Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Adolf Meyer, and Carl Jung.
Furthermore, Janet remained faithful to hypnosis as a tool in the investigation and therapy of mental illnesses. Even though hypnosis ceased to be used in clinical practice at the beginning of twentieth century, Janet continued advocating for its usage. This inevitably contributed to his name fading into obscurity.
Janet’s influence, however, is not insignificant. He introduced the terms "dissociation" and "subconscious" into psychological terminology. Jung ( 2000) used his work as the main source of his dissociative theories. Janet’s L’Automatisme psychologique can be considered the groundwork for automatic psychology, where he introduced the term “automatism.” In addition, his Les Obsessions et la psychasthénie described the first case of psychasthenia (today part of anxiety disorders).
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