(July 8, 1857- October 18, 1911)
- Received his law degree in 1878
- Subsequently studied natural sciences at the Sorbonne
- Self-taught in psychology
- Researcher, neurological clinic, Salpêtrière Hospital,
- Researcher and Associate Director, Laboratory of Experimental Psychology,
Sorbonne University (1891-1894)
- Director, Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, Sorbonne University
- Member, Commission on the Education of Retarded Children, appointed
by the French Ministry of Public Instruction (1904)
Definition of Intelligence
"It seems to us that in intelligence there is a fundamental faculty,
the alteration or the lack of which, is of the utmost importance for practical
life. This faculty is judgment, otherwise called good sense, practical
sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting one's self to circumstances.
A person may be a moron or an imbecile if he is lacking in judgment; but
with good judgment he can never be either. Indeed the rest of the intellectual
faculties seem of little importance in comparison with judgment"
(Binet & Simon, 1916, 1973, pp.42-43).
Ideas and Interests
After receiving his law degree in 1878, Alfred Binet began to study science
at the Sorbonne. However, he was not overly interested in his formal schooling,
and started educating himself by reading psychology texts at the National
Library in Paris. He soon became fascinated with the ideas of John
Stuart Mill, who believed that that the operations of intelligence
could be explained by the the laws of associationism. Binet eventually
realized the limitations of this theory, but Mill's ideas continued to
influence his work.
In 1883, Binet began to work in Jean-Martin Charcot's
neurological laboratory at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.
At the time of Binet's tenure, Charcot was experimenting with hypnotism.
Binet was strongly influenced by this great man, and published four articles
about his work in this area. Unfortunately, Charcot's conclusions did
not hold up under professional scrutiny, and Binet was forced to make
an embarrassing public admission that he had been wrong in supporting
When his intrigue with hypnosis waned as a result of failure to establish
professional acceptance, he turned to the study of development spurred
on by the birth of his two daughters, Madeleine and Alice (born in 1885
and 1887, respectively). In the 21 year period following his shift in
career interests, Binet "published more than 200 books, articles, and
reviews in what now would be called experimental, developmental, educational,
social, and differential psychology" (Siegler, 1992). Bergin and Cizek
(2001) suggest that this work may have influenced Jean
Piaget, who later studied with Binet's collaborator Theodore
Simon in 1920. Binet's research with his daughters helped him to further
refine his developing conception of intelligence, especially the importance
of attention span and suggestibility in intellectual development.
Despite Binet's extensive research interests and wide breadth of publications,
today he is most widely known for his contributions to intelligence. Wolf
(1973) postulates that this is the result of his not being affiliation
with a major university. Because Binet did not have any formalized graduate
study in psychology, he did not hold a professorship with a prestigious
institution where students and funds would be sure to perpetuate his work
(Siegler, 1992). Additionally, his more progressive theories did not provide
the practical utility that his intelligence scale would evoke.
In 1891, Binet began working at the Sorbonne's Laboratory of Experimental
Psychology and was appointed its Director in 1894. In that same year,
he co-founded L'Annee Psychologique, a major psychology journal.
While directing the Laboratory, Theodore Simon applied to do doctoral
research under Binet's supervision. This was the beginning of their long,
In 1904 a French professional group for child psychology, La Société
Libre pour l'Etude Psychologique de l'Enfant, was called upon by
the French government to appoint a commission on the education of retarded
children. The commission was asked to create a mechanism for identifying
students in need of alternative education. Binet, being an active member
of this group, found the impetus for the development of his mental scale.
Binet and Simon, in creating what historically is known as the Binet-Simon
Scale, comprised a variety of tasks they thought were representative
of typical children's abilities at various ages. This task-selection process
was based on their many years of observing children in natural settings.
They then tested their measurement on a sample of fifty children, ten
children per five age groups. The children selected for their study were
identified by their school teachers as being average for their age. The
purpose of this scale of normal functioning, which would later be revised
twice using more stringent standards, was to compare children's mental
abilities relative to those of their normal peers (Siegler, 1992).
The scale consisted of thirty tasks of increasing complexity. The easiest
of these could be accomplished by all children, even those who were severely
retarded. Some of the simplest test items assessed whether or not a child
could follow a lighted match with his eyes or shake hands with the examiner.
Slightly harder tasks required children to point to various named body
parts, repeat back a series of 3 digits, repeat simple sentences, and
to define words like house, fork or mama. More difficult test items required
children to state the difference between pairs of things, reproduce drawings
from memory or to construct sentences from three given words such as "Paris,
river and fortune." The hardest test items included asking children to
repeat back 7 random digits, find three rhymes for the French word obéisance
and to answer questions such as "My neighbor has been receiving strange
visitors. He has received in turn a doctor, a lawyer, and then a priest.
What is taking place?" (Fancher, 1985).
For the practical use of determining educational placement, the score
on the Binet-Simon scale would reveal the child's mental age. For example,
a 6 year-old child who passed all the tasks usually passed by 6 year-olds--but
nothing beyond--would have a mental age that exactly matched his chronological
age, 6.0. (Fancher, 1985).
Binet was upfront about the limitations of his scale. He stressed the
remarkable diversity of intelligence and the subsequent need to study
it using qualitative as opposed to quantitative measures. Binet also stressed
that intellectual development progressed at variable rates, could be impacted
by the environment and was therefore not based solely on genetics, was
malleable rather than fixed, and could only be used on children with comparable
backgrounds (Siegler, 1992). Given Binet's stance that intelligence testing
was subject to variability and was not generalizable, it is important
to look at the metamorphosis that mental testing took on as it made its
way to the U.S.
While Binet was developing his mental scale, the business, civic, and
educational leaders in the U.S. were facing issues of how to accommodate
the needs of a diversifying population, while continuing to meet the demands
of society. There arose the call to form a society based on meritocracy
(Siegler,1992) while continuing to underline the ideals of the white upper
class. In 1908, H.H. Goddard, a champion of
the eugenics movement, found utility in mental testing as a way to evidence
the superiority of the white race. After studying abroad, Goddard brought
the Binet-Simon Scale to the United States and translated it into English.
Following Goddard in the U.S. mental testing movement was Lewis
Terman who took the Simon-Binet Scale and standardized it using a
large American sample. The new Standford-Binet scale, was no longer used
solely for advocating education for all children, as was Binet's objective.
A new objective of intelligence testing was illustrated in the Stanford-Binet
manual with testing ultimately resulting in "curtailing the reproduction
of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime,
pauperism, and industrial inefficiency (p.7)" (White, 2000).
It follows that we should question why Binet did not speak out concerning
the newfound uses of his measure. Siegler (1992) pointed out that Binet
was somewhat of an isolationist in that he never traveled outside of France
and he barely participated in professional organizations. Additionally,
his mental scale was not adopted in his own country during his lifetime
and therefore was not subjected to the same fate. Finally, when Binet
did become aware of the "foreign ideas being grafted on his instrument"
he condemned those who with 'brutal pessimism' and 'deplorable verdicts'
were promoting the concept of intelligence as a single, unitary construct
Binet, A. (1916). New
methods for the diagnosis of the intellectual level of subnormals.
In E. S. Kite (Trans.), The development of intelligence in children.
Vineland, NJ: Publications of the Training School at Vineland. (Originally
published 1905 in L'Année Psychologique, 12, 191-244.) See
by Henry L. Minton.
Binet. A., & Simon, T. (1916). The development of intelligence
in children. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins. (Reprinted 1973, New
York: Arno Press; 1983, Salem, NH: Ayer Company). The 1973 volume includes
reprints of many of Binet's articles on testing.
Bergin, D. A., & Cizek, G. J. (2001). Alfred Binet. In J. A. Palmer
(Ed.), Fifty major thinkers on education: From Confucius to Dewey
(pp. 160-164). London: Routledge.
Fancher, R. E. (1985). The intelligence men: Makers of the IQ controversy.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Siegler, R. S. (1992). The other Alfred Binet. Developmental Psychology,
White, S. (2000). Conceptual foundations of IQ testing. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law,
Wolf, T.H. (1973). Alfred Binet. Chicago: University of Chicago
Image Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
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