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Ribot, Théodule (1839-1916)

RIBOT, THÉODULE (1839-1916)

Théodule Armand Ribot (1839-1916) was born in Guingamp, Brittany. After attending lycée in Saint-Brieuc, he entered the Ecole Normale Supéricure at Paris in 1862. He received his degree in philosophy in 1865, and until 1872 he taught philosophy in the secondary schools of Vesoul and Laval. In 1870 Ribot published his first work, La psychologie anglaise contemporaine. Seven years later he gave up teaching so that he could concentrate on writing. He also attended clinical courses in psychiatry given by Valentin Magnan, Benjamin Ball, Jules Luys, Félix Voisin, and Jean-Martin Charcot, then defended his thesis, "L'hérédité psychologique." In 1876 Ribot and Hippolyte Taine founded the journal Revue Philosophique, which is still published.

In 1885, Ribot started a course in experimental psychology at the Sorbonne; in 1888, through the influence of Ernest Renan, a chair of experimental and comparative psychology was created at the Collège de France that Ribot occupied until he retired in 1901. He was elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques (Section of Philosophy) in 1899.

Ribot was responsible for creating in France "scientific" psychology, rejecting a psychology that depended on spiritualism and introspection in favor of one that depends on facts and must agree with known physiological and biological data. Ribot was interested in pathological psychology because it enabled one to understand normal psychological mechanisms by discovering the laws that govern facts. Influenced by Herbert Spencer's evolutionism, Ribot described, as did Hughlings Jackson, the law of regression (or of dissolution) that controls pathological mental phenomena, such as the amnesias. Importantly, Ribot's contributions were purely intellectual, the result of personal reflection upon events reported by others, which he categorized and regrouped. He never tried to construct models. His work was empirical and rational rather than experimental.

Ribot is probably best known today for his law of regression in the amnesias, Ribot's Law. The law outlines in a logical fashion the progressive dysfunction of memory in disease. First to be affected are recent memories. Second, personal memories disappear, "going downward to the past." Third, things acquired intellectually are lost bit by bit; last to disappear are habits and emotional memories. Thus, Ribot's Law refers to progressive amnesia as a temporal gradient going from the most recent to the oldest memories. For Ribot this law implied that memory depends upon permanent modifications and organization of neurons, and it is their disorganization that leads to amnesia. Ribot's Law considers only one type of memory, defined by a double capacity of conservation and of reproduction of certain states (for example, a skill); the recognition and localization in the past that are carried by consciousness are exclusively psychological and do not constitute memory. Ribot applied his law to aphasias, which he regarded as partial amnesias.

Ribot's influence was significant because it represented the beginnings of pathological psychology, which included neuropsychology. Two of his students influenced psychology: Pierre Janet, who succeeded him at the Collège de France, and Alfred Binet. Ribot's biological concepts led the philosopher Henri Bergson to write Matière et mémoire (1896).


Centenaire de Th. Ribot. Jubilé de la psychologie scientifique française 1839-1889-1939 (1939). Agen: Imprimerie Moderne.

Dugas, L. (1924). Le philosophe Théodule Ribot. Paris: Payot.

Gasser, J. (1988). La notion de mémoire organique dans l'oeuvre de T. Ribot. History and Philosophy in Life Sciences 10, 293-313.

Ribot, T. (1881). Les maladies de la mémoire. Paris: Baillière.

—— (1883). Les maladies de la volonté. Paris: Baillière.

—— (1885). Les maladies de la personnalité. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1889). La psychologie de l'attention. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1896). La psychologie des sentiments. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1897). L'évolution des idées générales. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1900). L'imagination créatrice. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1905). La logique des sentiments. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1907). Essai sur les passions. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1910). Problèmes de psychologie affective. Paris: Alcan.

—— (1914). La vie inconsciente et les mouvements. Paris: Alcan.


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