“Pierre Janet (French: [ʒanɛ]) was a pioneering French psychologist, philosopher and psychotherapist in the field of dissociation and traumatic memory. He is ranked alongside William James and Wilhelm Wundt as one of the founding fathers of psychology.
Janet’s background was middle-class. His father, Jules Janet, was a Paris lawyer, and his mother, Fanny Hummel, was a devout Catholic from Alsace…his uncle Paul Janet (1823–1899), an influential philosopher of the spiritualist school…From 1870 on, under the Third Republic, Paul Janet exercised great institutional power. He was a professor at the Sorbonne and reformed the French secondary-school philosophy curriculum.
Following in his uncle’s footsteps, Pierre Janet became a student of philosophy, passing the competitive entrance examination to the elite École Normale Supérieure in 1879. Among his fellow students were the future sociologist Émile Durkheim, the future philosopher Henri Bergson, and the future socialist politician Jean Jaurès.
(Theodule) Ribot had played an important institutional role, for in 1876 he had founded the Revue Philosophique, which published not only properly philosophical work but also contributions from physicians and philosophers looking to lay the groundwork for a physiological psychology. It was in this journal that Pierre Janet published his first articles. In 1888, with the support of Paul Janet, Ribot became the first person to occupy the Chair of Experimental and Comparative Psychology at the celebrated Collège de France.
Controversy over whose ideas came first, Janet’s or Sigmund Freud’s, emerged at the 1913 Congress of Medicine in London. Prior to that date, Freud had freely acknowledged his debt to Janet, particularly in his work with Josef Breuer, writing for example of “the theory of hysterical phenomena first put forward by P. Janet and elaborated by Breuer and myself”. He stated further that “we followed his example when we took the splitting of the mind and dissociation of the personality as the centre of our position”, but he was also careful to point out where “the difference lies between our view and Janet’s”.
Writing in 1911 of the neurotic’s withdrawal from reality, Freud stated: “Nor could a fact like this escape the observation of Pierre Janet; he spoke of a loss of ‘the function of reality'”, and as late as 1930, Freud drew on Janet’s expression “psychological poverty” in his work on civilisation.
However, in his report on psychoanalysis in 1913, Janet argued that many of the novel terms of psychoanalysis were only old concepts renamed, even down to the way in which his own “psychological analysis” preceded Freud’s “psychoanalysis”. This provoked angry attacks from Freud’s followers, and thereafter Freud’s own attitude towards Janet cooled. In his lectures of 1915-16, Freud said that “for a long time I was prepared to give Janet very great credit for throwing light on neurotic symptoms, because he regarded them as expressions of idées inconscientes which dominated the patients”. However, after what Freud saw as his backpedalling in 1913, he said, “I think he has unnecessarily forfeited much credit”.
The charge of plagiarism stung Freud especially. In his autobiographical sketch of 1925, he denied firmly that he had plagiarized Janet, and as late as 1937, he refused to meet Janet on the grounds that “when the libel was spread by French writers that I had listened to his lectures and stolen his ideas he could with a word have put an end to such talk” but did not.
A balanced judgement might be that Janet’s ideas, as published, did indeed form part of Freud’s starting point, but that Freud subsequently developed them substantively in his own fashion.
Over the years Janet investigated not only hysteria but also other forms of neuroses, such as phobias and obsessions, which he grouped under the inclusive name of psychasthenia. He saw different patterns as pervasive in normal and abnormal mental life. Normal mental life is a flux of sensations, images, and ideas, cohering in an integrated stream of consciousness; abnormal mental life results from the dissociation of this stream, which in extreme cases splits into two or more streams. In the normal person, integration is achieved; in the neurotic, it is imperfect. Psychic energy and its diminution or depletion was his guiding concept…”