Binet, Alfred (1857-1911)

Alfred Binet is perhaps best remembered for his role in elaborating the first numerical scale of intelligence, but his contributions to individual psychology, experimental science, and applied pedagogy transcended the confines of intelligence testing. Binet was a pioneering scholar whose diverse and eclectic research interests fundamentally transformed the scientific study of the child in France as well as abroad.

Binet was born in Nice but moved to Paris at age twelve to study at the prestigious Lycée Louis le Grand; he spent the rest of his life in the capital region. Descended from at least two generations of medical doctors, Binet hesitated in choosing a career, passing his licence in law in 1878 but abandoning legal studies in favor of the emerging field of psychology; he earned a doctorate in natural sciences in 1894. Fascinated by the work of English associationists, particularly John Stuart Mill, Binet began an exceptionally prolific publishing career with an 1880 Revue philosophique article on the psychology of sensations; under the direction of the embryologist E. G. Balbiani (whose daughter, Laure, he would marry in 1884), he soon launched an equally prolific experimental career. In 1883 Binet joined the laboratory of the preeminent Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital. During his seven-year tenure at the laboratory, Binet became embroiled in the controversies surrounding Charcot's studies of hypnosis, loyally defending Charcot against charges that his demonstrations had been tainted by experimenters' unintentional suggestions to the patients.

In 1891, chagrined by his experiences in Charcot's laboratory, Binet joined the Sorbonne's new Laboratory of Experimental Psychology; in 1894, he was named director of the laboratory and became cofounder of the Année psychologique, a journal he would edit until his death. In the mid-1890s Binet became increasingly fascinated with the higher mental faculties, breaking with the preoccupation of the first generation of scientific psychologists; he also devoted substantial attention to questions of experimental method. Perhaps most significant, his interest in children's mental faculties, first evident in a trio of 1890 articles about his two daughters, combined with his search for suitable experimental subjects to produce a research agenda that would dominate the rest of his career. The pupils of public primary schools in several working-class districts of Paris became important research subjects, and Binet quickly became the preeminent member of the Société libre pour l'etude psychologique de l'enfant, established in 1899. Elected president in 1902, Binet became a tireless advocate for rigorous experimentation in numerous educational and developmental domains.

At a time when the French governing elites were preoccupied with problems of juvenile DELINQUENCY and educational inefficacy, Binet's work soon attracted legislative attention. When, in 1904, the French government established a commission to explore ways of diagnosing and educating children who were described as "abnormal" and "backward," Binet was invited to become a member; it was in this context that he and Théodore Simon developed the first version of their metric intelligence scale. Meanwhile Binet received permission in 1905 to open a laboratory of experimental pedagogy at the public primary school in Paris's rue de la Grange-aux-Belles. He soon transferred the bulk of his activities to this laboratory. Until his sudden death in 1911 he pursued an ambitious research agenda, equally eager to improve the condition of "abnormal" children and to trace the contours of "normal" child development. Although contemporaries were skeptical about his insistence that education be adapted to the individual needs of all children, such ideas attracted additional interest after World War I, and in the late twentieth century French scholars began to grant Binet overdue recognition as one of the founders not only of scientific pedagogy but also of French experimental psychology.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Intelligence Testing.


Avanzini, Guy. 1969. La Contribution de Binet à l'élaboration d'une pédagogie scientifique. Paris: Vrin.

Avanzini, Guy. 1999. Alfred Binet. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Binet, Alfred. 1890. "Perceptions d'enfants." Revue philosophique 30: 582-611.

Binet, Alfred. 1900. La Suggestibilité. Paris: Schleicher.

Binet, Alfred. 1909. Les Idées modernes sur les enfants. Paris: Flammarion.

Binet, Alfred, J. Philippe, and V. Henri. 1894. Introduction à la psychologie expérimentale. Paris: Alcan.

Binet, Alfred, and Théodore Simon. 1907. Les Enfants anormaux. Guide pour l'admission des enfants anormaux dans les classes de perfectionnement. Paris: Colin.

Binet, Alfred, and N. Vaschide. 1898. "La Psychologie à l'école primaire." Année psychologique 4: 1-14.

Vial, Monique. 1990. Les Enfants anormaux à l'école. Aux origines de l'éducation spécialisée, 1882-1909. Paris: Armand Colin.

Wolff, Theta H. 1976. Alfred Binet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zazzo, René. 1993. "Alfred Binet (1857-1911)." Perspectives: Revue trimestrielle d'éducation comparée 23, nos. 1-2: 101-112.