Psychology Book Summaries

Chapter 6: Pierre Janet and Psychological Analysis (The Discovery of the Unconscious)


Pierre Janet was a psychologist who invented the idea of the “subconscious.” He had a religious background and he questioned the spirit of Darwinism. To him, the cult of progress is dangerous because it leads to hatred for the present, and the destruction of the past. After being interested in theology, Janet shifted his focus to philosophy, and finally to psychology.

A summary of Janet’s findings of “psychological analysis”:

1. The discovery of subconscious fixed ideas (Freud later calls these “complexes”). The cause of these are usually a traumatic event, that becomes subconscious, and is replaced by symptoms. This process is connected to a narrowing of the field of consciousness.

2. There are arrays of subconscious fixed ideas, some of these could be substituted for each other.

3. Subconscious fixed ideas are both the cause and effect of mental weakness and constitute a pathological vicious circle. They go through small changes, sometimes they develop and increase, while at other times become modified within the subconscious.

4. It is hard to identify these subconscious fixed ideas. They must be discovered through dreams or hypnosis. Automatic writing, distraction, and automatic talking were also used.

5. Subconscious fixed ideas are a feature of hysteria, in contrast to obsessive neuroses where they are conscious.

6. The therapy must be aimed at the subconscious fixed idea, but it is not enough to merely make these ideas conscious – the idea may become a conscious, fixed obsession. Fixed ideas must be destroyed by dissociation or transformation. Janet thought that re-education, mental training, electricity, and massage work as disguised forms of psychotherapy.

7. It is very important for rapport to exist in the therapeutic process.  

Janet’s Work: IV-The Exploration of Neuroses

Janet got rid of the word “neurasthenia,” which implied a neurophysiological theory for which there was no evidence, and invented the term “psychasthenia” for a group of neuroses which included: obsessions, phobias, and other neurotic manifestations.

The most difficult part of reality is when we have to

Dealing with reality becomes more difficult when we have to deal with the social environment, not only because the social world is more complex, but because it requires us to take into consideration our own personality, and the requirements of the outer world.

The function of reality implies attention, which is the act of perceiving outside reality as well as our own ideas and thoughts. These two operations, voluntary action and attention, are combined into a synthetic operation, presentification, that is, the formation in the mind of the present moment.

The mind has a natural tendency to roam through the past and future. To keep one’s attention on the present requires effort.

“The real present for us is an
act of a certain complexity which we grasp as one single state of consciousness in spite of this complexity, and in spite of its real duration which can be of greater or lesser extent…Presentification consists of making present a state of mind and a group of phenomena.”

– Janet  

The mind operates at a lower level with disinterested activity (habits, indifferent, automatic actions). At a lower level is the function of imagination (representative memory, fantasy, abstract reasoning, daydreaming). There are two levels that are inferior to this and these include emotional reactions and useless muscular movements.

This new conception makes it possible to ascribe to each operation of the mind a “coefficient of reality,” which provides the key to the understanding of the symptoms of psychasthenia. “If one considers the order of frequency and rapidity in which psychological functions disappear in the patient, one sees that the higher the coefficient of reality, the more rapidly they recede, but the lower the coefficient, the longer they persist.”

The MMPI subscale 7 describes psychasthenia as akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and as characterised by excessive doubts, compulsions, obsessions, and unreasonable fears. – Wikipedia

Janet’s Work: V -The Dynamic Theory

Janet distinguished between two main neuroses, hysteria and psychasthenia. Later, Jung would make these the prototypes of the introverted and extroverted personalities.

Many authors assumed, during Janet’s time, that nervous and mental energy that was insufficicient would cause neurasthenic disturbances. But were puzzled by some facts, such as when individuals who seem completely exhausted suddenly find strength to accomplish difficult actions.

Janet overcame these contradictions by creating a system where psychological energy was defined by force and tension. Psychological force is the quantity of psychic energy – the capacity to accomplish many, prolonged psychological acts. It has two forms: latent and manifest. To mobilize energy means to have it go from latent to manifest form.

Psychological tension is the individual’s capacity to use this energy at a high level. The more operations are synthesized, the more novel the synthesis, and the higher the psychological tension.

This can be compared to physical phenomena: heat in terms of calories, and in terms of temperature.

The asthenic syndrome, defined as insufficiency of psychological force, is manifested above all by a lassitude, which increases after effort and diminishes after rest. There is a great variety of asthenic conditions. Janet distinguished three main groups. In mild asthenias the patients are dissatisfied with themselves, unable fully to enjoy happiness or pleasure, and become easily anxious or depressed. Knowing that they tire easily, they avoid efforts, initiative, and social relationships, and are considered selfish or dull. They restrict their interests, feelings, and actions as much as possible to the point of leading an ascetic life (neurotic asceticism).

These people mistrust others, are unstable, and slow in adjusting to new situations. They try to be secretive, but cannot keep a secret easily. They are often great liars. Because of their asthenia, they give a lot of attention to things other would consider unnecessary.

There are also social asthenias, who suffer from feeling empty. They do not like people or feel liked by others. They feel isolated. Often, they seek out a person they can submit to, so that they can avoid effort. Many alcoholics fit into this category. The third group has patients who have such severe asthenia that they cannot maintain a job.

Often, the occupation itself exacerbates the situation. Dr. Leonhard Schwartz stipulated that many neurotics can be helped by simply changing their occupation, or the timing and duration of their work. Their relationship with others is also important.

Janet’s theory of mental energy also applies to normal individuals. He sometimes mentions the psychological millionaires, who are endowed with a great amount of psychological force combined with a high level of psychological tension. These people can perform many highly synthesized acts. A good example is Napoleon, when he had to combine significant data about the strength and movements of the enemy, and having to make rapid decisions based on his guesswork over a long time.

The type of individual whose psychological tension is permanently below the desirable level though he has sufficient psychological force is also frequently referred to by Janet. Not only does this make-up account for a great number of psychasthenics in the classical forms of obsession, phobias and the like. but it also enables an understanding of a variety of psychopathological disturbances. The need for stimulation may bring such individuals to resort to artificial ways of raising their psychological tension.

This is often how alcoholism, sexual perversion, drug addiction and certain forms of criminality. This reminds me of the saying, “idle hands are the devil’s plaything.”

The individual who has a very small amount of psychological energy,
at a low level, would be the reverse of the psychological millionaire. Such
men are sometimes able to attain a certain adjustment in life, adopting a
humble and restricted way of life. Their occupation may be poorly paid but quiet and secure. They have few acquaintances, no wife, no mistress. Janet wrote, “People consider them selfish and cowardly; perhaps they are merely wise individuals. ”

Schizophrenics are on an even lower level. Janet acknowledges the role of genetics, but also ascribes importance to the autonomous dynamism of psychic energy. An act that is completed heighten psychological tension in an individual, and an incomplete act lowers it. Janet compares this with financial investment. Several sound investments bring benefits, and a series of bad investments brings ruin. This is what spontaneously happens with many individuals.

There are two extreme cases. One, the person who has an uninterrupted succession of well-completed acts, becomes able to increase his psychological tension. Think of the shy people who make efforts to learn social actions that help them overcome their shyness and enjoy social triumphs.

The opposite case is that of the individual who leaves his actions incomplete, and unachieved. This person lowers his psychological tension, leaving him less capable of adjusting. He falls into a vicious circle, where the4 end is an asthenic-hypotonic syndrome.

Work therapy is a solution. Nervous individuals would be advised to keep busy and take up as many occupations and hobbies as possible – as advocated by Hermann Simon.

A second solution would consist of training, giving the patient an intellectual or manual task that requires him to work at a relatively high level of his ability, teaching him to do it slowly and perfectly, before gradually rising up the level. This was the principle of classical education and professional schools.


Religion is challenged by philosophy and most of all by science, so that the problem arises as to what will happen to mankind should religion be destroyed. Because of the enormous role religion has played and still plays in the life of mankind, the problem is to find a substitute for religion.

Philosophy and then spiritism have tried to take over the role of religion but unsuccessfully according to Janet. The “moment of satisfaction” religion was taken over by Romanticism – a term used here in an extended sense, so as to represent the religion of sentiment. Its fundamental proposition is that wherever you find joy, strength, and satisfaction – you will have immediate evidence of the Divine. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience would be a classic example, yet there is no evidence that joy and enthusiasm always accompany truth.

Janet thought of two satisfactory substitutes for religion: (1) Scientific psychotherapy and (2) The worship of progress (not necessarily material or mechanical progress, but more intellectual and social progress)

His central maxim is that of Guyau, a philosopher he much admired, “To be confident in ourselves and in the world.

The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic PsychiatryChapter 6: Pierre Janet and Psychological  Analysis (The Discovery of the Unconscious) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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