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Janet, Pierre - Observing Madeleine



Type of spiritual experience

A description of the experience

Almost all of the first volume of Janet’s work De l’angoisse à l’extase (From anxiety to ecstasy), published in 1926, was devoted to a mystically inclined woman whom he called Madeleine and whom he had observed at the Salpêtrière over a few years early in the century.

Madeleine presented contractures, stigmata evocative of the wounds of Christ, and ecstatic states. Janet had been able to observe her at leisure in his laboratory, and in her case too he had assumed the role of a lay spiritual guide.

It was on the basis of this case, in the second volume of De l’angoisse à l’extase (1928), that he constructed a schema, conceived from an evolutionist perspective, of the development of feelings and the corresponding ways of regulating action. It was in this volume that Janet presented a first outline of a vast psychological system that he elaborated upon subsequently in his many publications and in his courses at the Collège de France. Yet he never produced a grand synthesis: the closest he came was a short encyclopedia article (1938) in which he stated the basic principles and sketched the main features of his projected theory.

The “psychology of conduct” that Janet defined in this article was founded on the unifying hypothesis according to which all psychological phenomena were actions, thus obviating the need for a distinction to be drawn in manuals of psychology between action and thought.

Consciousness itself became action thanks to language. Janet’s psychology of conduct implied that the study of consciousness was lacking in the behaviorism then triumphant in the United States, which Janet considered inadequate to the study of man. He based his thinking on the idea of tendency, defined as “a disposition of the living organism to perform a specific action.”

Tendencies in Janet’s system were classified and ordered in a hierarchical manner, from the primordial and automatic to the most recently evolved, which were also the most fragile, and hence the first to be lost in mental illness.

The source of the experience

Janet, Pierre

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image


Observation contributed by: John Bryant