Jean Starobinski studied classical literature, and then medicine at the University of Geneva, and graduated from that school with a doctorate in letters (docteur ès lettres) and in medicine. He taught French literature at the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Basel and at the University of Geneva, where he also taught courses in the history of ideas and the history of medicine.
His existential and phenomenological literary criticism is sometimes grouped with the so-called "Geneva School." He has written landmark works on French literature of the 18th century – including works on the writers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, etc. – and also on authors of other periods (such as Michel de Montaigne). He has also written on contemporary poetry, art, and the problems of interpretation. His books have been translated in dozens of languages.
His knowledge of medicine and psychiatry brought him to study the history of melancholia (notably in the Trois Fureurs, 1974). He was the first scholar to publish work (in 1964) on Ferdinand de Saussure's study of anagrams.
Jean Starobinski is a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, the Institut de France, and other French, European and American learned academies. He has honorary degrees (honoris causa) from numerous universities in Europe and America.