Toujours la chose gitale: Charcot, Freud, and the etiology of hysteria in the late 19th century

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Lucy Barker


Charcot, Freud, Hysteria


In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud studied under Jean-Martin Charcot, a famed neurologist with a special interest in hysteria. After Charcots death, Freud published his seduction theory, which claimed that hysteria developed from memories of childhood sexual abuse. Although Charcot is known for his hereditary theory of hysteria, Freud later attributed Charcot with postulating a genital (sexual) etiology in the phrase toujours la chose gitale; this discrepancy is not well explained in the literature. This paper surveys concepts of hysteria before Charcot and explains Charcots model of hysteria. It then examines Freuds interpretation of Charcots work, and what role Charcot potentially played in the development of seduction theory. Based on the primary documents studied and on existing scholarship, there is no evidence that Charcot believed that hysteria was sexual in origin. The paper concludes by theorizing that Freud imagined, or at the very least misinterpreted, the famous gitale phrase.