Pierre Jean George Cabanis (1757-1808), French physiologist, was born at Cosnac (Corrèze) on the 5th of June 1757, and was the son of Jean Baptiste Cabanis (1723-1786), a lawyer and agronomist. Sent at the age of ten to the college of Brives, he showed great aptitude for study, but his independence of spirit was so excessive that he was almost constantly in a state of rebellion against his teachers, and was finally dismissed from the school. He was then taken to Paris by his father and left to carry on his studies at his own discretion for two years. From 1773 to 1775 he travelled in Poland and Germany, and on his return to Paris he devoted himself mainly to poetry. About this time he ventured to send in to the Academy a translation of the passage from Homer proposed for their prize, and, though his attempt passed without notice, he received so much encouragement from his friends that he contemplated translating the whole of the Iliad. But at the desire of his father he relinquished these pleasant literary employments, and resolving to engage in some settled profession selected that of medicine.
In 1789 his Observations sur les hôpitaux procured him an appointment as administrator of hospitals in Paris, and in 1795 he became professor of hygiene at the medical school of Paris, a post which he exchanged for the chair of legal medicine and the history of medicine in 1799. From inclination and from weak health he never engaged much in practice as a physician, his interests lying in the deeper problems of medical and physiological science. During the last two years of Mirabeau's life he was intimately connected with that extraordinary man, and wrote the four papers on public education which were found among the papers of Mirabeau at his death, and were edited by the real author soon afterwards in 1791. During the illness which terminated his life Mirabeau confided himself entirely to the professional skill of Cabanis. Of the progress of the malady, and the circumstances attending the death of Mirabeau, Cabanis drew up a detailed narrative, intended as a justification of his treatment of the case. Cabanis espoused with enthusiasm the cause of the Revolution. He was a member of the Council of Five Hundred and then of the Conservative senate, and the dissolution of the Directory was the result of a motion which he made to that effect.
But his political career was not of long continuance. A foe to tyranny in every shape, he was decidedly hostile to the policy of Bonaparte, and constantly rejected every solicitation to accept a place under his government. He died at Meulan on the 5th of May 1808.
A complete edition of Cabanis's works was begun in 1825, and five volumes were published. His principal work, Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme, consists in part of memoirs, read in 1796 and 1797 to the Institute, and is a sketch of physiological psychology. Psychology is with Cabanis directly linked on to biology, for sensibility, the fundamental fact, is the highest grade of life and the lowest of intelligence. All the intellectual processes are evolved from sensibility, and sensibility itself is a property of the nervous system. The soul is not an entity, but a faculty; thought is the function of the brain. Just as the stomach and intestines receive food and digest it, so the brain receives impressions, digests them, and has as its organic secretion, thought. Alongside of this harsh materialism Cabanis held another principle. He belonged in biology to the vitalistic school of G.E. Stahl, and in the posthumous work, Lettre sur les causes premières (1824), the consequences of this opinion became clear. Life is something added to the organism; over and above the universally diffused sensibility there is some living and productive power to which we give the name of Nature. But it is impossible to avoid ascribing to this power both intelligence and will.
In us this living power constitutes the ego, which is truly immaterial and immortal. These results Cabanis did not think out of harmony with his earlier theory.