Personality, Dissociation and Organic-Psychic Latency in Pierre Janet’s Account of Hysterical Symptoms

  • Edmundo Balsemão PiresEmail author
Part of the Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress book series (NAHP, volume 11)


A definition of virtual or virtuality is not an easy task. Both words are of recent application in Philosophy, even if the concept of virtual comes from a respectable Latin tradition. Today’s meaning brings together the notions of potentiality, latency, imaginary representations, VR, and the forms of communication in digital media. This contagious, and spontaneous synonymy fails to identify a common vein and erases memory as a central notion. In the present essay, I’ll try to explain essential features of the concept of virtual, taking the investigation of memory troubles in Pierre Janet’s work as an exemplification. Pierre Janet’s work represents a rare combination of medical observation and description of symptoms of mental illnesses, therapeutic guidance in hypnosis and philosophical writing about the main psychological themes of an epoch in transition from a Metaphysics of the Soul to the modern Experimental Psychology. Pierre Janet’s intellectual evolution since the 1880s until the end of his life (1947) is dominated by the philosophical project of a theory of the psychic system supported by three basic pillars: a concept of personality, a theory of memory and a sketch of a general theory of conduct. Such complex endeavour cannot be abstracted from the initial connections with Jean-Martin Charcot’s school at La Salpêtrière which meant a turning point in the tradition of the “animal magnetism” concerning the treatment of epileptic-hysterical symptoms along with the contributions of Hyppolite Bernheim’s “Nancy School” of hypnotism. J.-M. Charcot’s or H. Bernheim’s theorising about the organic and psychological aspects of the hypnotic treatment of the hysterical symptoms was already aware of the difficulty in dealing with the extent of the dissimulation of the patients regarding the symptoms of the illness, under hypnotic suggestion, even if Charcot insisted in the identification and cataloguing of the organic expressions, such as contractures or the posture of the body in arc during the attacks. The precise location of the “great hysteria” in the organic-psychic corridor was itself a riddle. If a symptom is a special type of sign, in the case of the “great hysteria” nobody knew for sure what it stood for. The clinical symptom of the attack stood for an organic trouble with cerebral causes, a psychological interruption of the normal sensorial and muscular movements or a disguise of the female desire? Pierre Janet described many hysterical patients, somnambulism and multiple personality since his articles in La Revue Philosophique de la France et l’ Étranger, a Journal founded by the philosopher, experimental psychologist and his intellectual predecessor Théodule-Armand Ribot. The description of the case of the “great hysterical” Lucie, treated by him, is an example of a theoretical hypothesising on multiple personality and discontinuity of memories fragments. There are more cases revealing the same relation between hysteria, somnambulism, personality dissociation and “alternating memory”. Decisively inspired by and corroborating P. Janet’s ideas, S. Freud conceived also the essential of the hysterical sicknesses as disorders of memory. The theme of memory came even more to the foreground in the dissertation L’Automatisme Psychologique (1889). Here, the strange world of somnambulism was scrutinised along with hysterical contractures and convulsions, anaesthesia, the compulsion to repetition, obsessions, “automatic writing” in hysterical patients, multiple personality and “alternating memories”. In the depicted cases memory could not be taken as a homogenous series of remembrances or as a stock of disposable information but as a variable of the depth of the personalities’ inner formation. The so-called “seconde existence” of some somnambulists referred not only unconscious representations and unconscious thoughts but complete or inceptive latent personalities provided with multiple virtual existences and multiple memories. Hypnosis was the privileged technique to access to such multiple memories ignored by the official personality. Later and after the writing of his M.D. Dissertation, Contribution à l’ Étude des Accidents Mentaux chez les Hystériques (1893), P. Janet addressed again the themes of memory and alternating memories in a series of lectures at the Collège de France (1927–28) but now according to the larger framework of a general theory of conduct which included a description of the social actions participating in the narrative construction of personal memories, and the role of social memory.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculdade de LetrasUniversidade de CoimbraCoimbraPortugal

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