Pierre Janet’s current concepts in Cognitive Behavioural Therapies


Gerhard HEIM



Reprinted from : HEIM, G. Pierre Janet’s current concepts in Cognitive Behavioural Therapies

 (2006). Janetian Studies, Actes des conf. du 27 mai 2006, No Spécial 01, pp. 9-14.



1. Cognition, behaviour, psychotherapy 


If  a cognitive behavioural therapist should want to learn about the psychotherapy of Pierre Janet , one would recommend  the following  studies :

1st regarding the  psychology of neuroses : “Les Obsessions et  la psychasthénie” (1903)

2nd relative to therapy: “La médecine psychologique” (1923) or the chapter on treatment by excitation ( les traitements par l’excitation)  in the third volume of  “les médications psychologiques” (1919).

3rd concerning theory: his lessons on “La force et la faiblesse psychologique”(1932) and his contribution  in the Encyclopédie Francaise entitled “ La psychologie de la conduite” (1938).


These studies cover 35 years, but it should be added that from his beginnings  Janet has  given philosophical and methodological  arguments  for what is called today  the cognitive behavioural approach  in pathological psychology and psychological therapy.


Brooks (1998)  has  discussed the role of the  “eclectic legacy” in  French psychology (Ribot, Janet) and sociology (Espinas, Durkheim).  He   states that Janet, like Ribot , was   a monist, who  saw mind and motion as two aspects of the same  reality, to be studied by the methods of natural science. But, in contrast to Ribot  Janet  refused  to invoke physiology to explain  psychological phenomena” (p.180) ,  because this would be” premature” and “metaphysical”. Janet would have also argued “on methodological grounds that any act that normally requires conscious thought must be assumed to contain conscious elements, even if the subject is not aware of them.”(p.181). Thus he extended consciousness beyond   habit and instinct to include even the regulation of the body’s physiological functioning.


These views could qualify Janet as an early representant of the modern cognitive paradigm, introduced during the Sixties of the last century in psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy.   Bolton (2004)  has recently argued that  this paradigm   sucessfully replaced the   solution for the   problem  of the subjective as well as objective  nature  of psychological phenonomena offered by  Karl Jaspers, who proposed in his “Allgemeine Psychopathologie” from 1913 complementary  methodologies  for  Understanding  the subjective and Explanation of the objective. Now,  in the cognitive paradigm  meaning could have  a causal function and may be combined with, but  not reduced to biological research. This perspective is found today in “translational research” in psychiatry (e.g. Bohus & Schmahl 2006) or within the framework of “biocultural co – constructivism” in lifespan psychology (Baltes et al. 2006) .


Of importance, too,  is Janet’s view of hypothesis as “ un  procédé par lequel l’esprit humain dépasse  l’observation sensible et ajoute aux faits connus par les sens  quelque notion  qui n’est pas actuellement sensible et qui peut-être ne le sera jamais.” (1907, p.227). 

[ “a procedure by means of which  the human mind goes  beyond sensory observation  and adds to the facts known by the senses some notion  that cannot actually  be sensed  and  which perhaps never will be.”]. Moreover, as experimentalist, Janet followed Claude Bernard’s opinion, that without hypothesis one would only accumulate sterile observations.


The link  of Janet’s   psychological conception  with  behaviourism  probably was  recognized  early   because of his own  remarks   about  the  objective psychology of action, but obviously  it  was  not  taken very  seriously. The French historians Carroy and Plas  (2000)  doubted  whether Janet succeded in detaching his objective  psychology  from its speculative  and idealistic origins. They consider that even his  attempt to  place behaviour at the center  of psychology  was based on the  a priori  - postulate that he would include higher, conscious processes in his study of human behaviour.  Accordingly, Carroy and Plas argued that Janet cannot qualify as a behaviourist even today. However, one can only agree with this conclusion if one adopts a narrow definition of behaviourism.  A  classical behaviourist , such as  learning theorist Edwin  R. Guthrie (1938) evidently saw this differently : after he has visited    Janet’s lessons at the Collège de France in  winter 1923 , he not only  translated  one of  his books into English, but combined in   his  clinical psychology textbook (1938) “Janet’s descriptive psychology and current physiological notions of the sources of action” and  “added an objective  theory of learning.”  (p.ix).


In a recent study on the history of behaviourism between 1890 and 1990 Leary (2004) uses the role  of consciousness and social-cognitive  processes in  empirical psychology  to point  to the variety   of approaches since the days of  James , Baldwin,  Angell,  Dewey and Mead until the  works of Watson, Tolman, Hull and Skinner. In particular    Tolman’s careful and metaphorical conceptualizations and his undogmatic methodology of purposive behaviourism which places mental processes at the center of research, possibly reveal the closest relationship to Janet’s approach.  For instance, compare Tolman’s (1927) attempt to define  consciousness in behavioristic terms: “Wherever an organism at a given moment  of stimulation shifts then and there from being ready to respond  in some  relatively  less differentiated way to being  ready  to respond  in some  relatively  more differentiated way , there is consciousness.” ( p.64) with  Janet’s (1929): „La conscience, c’est précisément  ce que nous ajoutons de nous-mêmes pour ordonner nos actions, pour réorganiser  tout l’organisme qui a été  dérangé par une action  provoquée  par le monde extérieur. » (p.88) [“Consciousness is precisely what we add of ourselves in order to command our actions, to reorganize the whole organism who has been disturbed by an action elicited by the external world.”]


Janet’s significance for modern Cognitive

Behaviour Therapies (CBT)   is    indicated     by his definition of psychotherapy: “Psychotherapy is an application of psychological science to the treatment of disease.” (1925, p. 1208). Already  in 1907,  in his resumé  of  his lessons  at the Collège de France  entitledPsychological Analysis and the critics of psychotherapeutic methods   Janet  made the  following  remarkable  statement: « Enfin  les éducations de l’attention , les traitements  de l’émotivité, les diverses excitations qui se  proposent de relever le niveau mental , constituent  des méthodes  qui sont   encore  employées un peu au hasard, mais  qui joueront un rôle  de plus en plus grande  dans l’éducation et dans le traitement de l’esprit. » (p.71) [“Finally the education of attention, the treatment of emotionality , the various  excitations  which intend to raise  the mental niveau,  form methods which  are already applied a bit  by chance, but which will play a more and more  important role  in education and treatment of the mind.”]


2. Janet’s self-regulatory resource allocation model 


Janet’s blueprint of the working of the mind contains several key concepts which seem relevant for CBT : 

Force can be understood as referring to available processing resources which have to be mobilized and distributed among processing components according to the given situational demands, executed by a hypothesized supervisory and regulatory function.  This allocation policy corresponds to tension. Tendencies (tendances), hereditary or acquired, can be viewed as molar behavioural units, which in their stage of latency belong to procedural (implicit) longterm - memory systems (as opposed to declarative or explicit memory storage).  To become activated tendencies pass through   different stages (erection, desire, performance), by   this   making   it possible to describe symptoms as errors, failures or insufficient actions. Of  particular  interest   is Janet’s view of  feelings (sentiments) as   regulations of action and  because of   that  they  can be   related  to motivation and learning:   effort ( referring to  controlled processes) ,  fatigue (  habituation, or  reactive inhibition ) , angoisse ( avoidance),   triomphe ( intrinsic reinforcement / self-reinforcement). 


The features  of Janets model are : action oriented ; dynamic  (that is referring to continuous change of action in time); general as well as  differential ; consistent wit neurobiological models  of behavioural-emotional regulation , in particular regarding the prefrontal – limbic systems .


Janet’s model seems to belong to a group of behavioural models which have in common the idea of dynamic self-regulation.  In  cognitive psychology , for example  Schneider and Shiffrin (1984) ,  Kahneman  and Treisman (1984), Norman & Shallice (1986) , Simon (1994), or  in personality psychology   Kuhl (1998)  have summarized many relevant contributions  during the last decades.    



3. Janet’s concepts in modern cognitive behavioural therapies


Janet’s model relies on the idea of self-regulation or attentional and volitional processes. Its emphasis  on the role of cognitive -verbal  processes in understanding  and treating psychological disorders anticipates  recent developments in cognitive and behavioural therapies (cf. Heim & Bühler,  2003; Heim & Bühler, in press). 


In the Seventies for example Albert Bandura’s (1977) self efficacy model or Frederick Kanfer’s (1991) self- management approach have introduced the cognitive paradigm in behaviour therapy.

In this respect it is worth noting the current shift from the rationalistic and somewhat static information processing models of that time to constructivist, dynamic conceptions (e.g. Meichenbaum & Fitzpatrick 1993). Although these newer  approaches,  except  the one I discuss  below usually  do not refer to  Janet directly , or mention  him only  in passing,  the  compatibility  with  his approach  is astonishing.  I will give a few examples:    


1. The General Psychotherapy approach by the late Klaus Grawe (1995)    founds on a classification of therapeutic interventions according to the type of problem and the state of the individual to be treated. This  differential  and  integrative  model  was clearly antedated by Janet (1919; 1923)  who  has discussed  and grouped  the various methods of psychotherapy  with respect to the intended goal.


2. Janet’s resource allocation model fits well into the framework of CBT for depression. More specifically,in Mindfulness - Based Cognitive Therapy,  Segal, Williams and Teasdale (2002) propose that for the prevention of  recurrent major depression , train patients  to disengage from their habitual ruminative processing mode and shift to  an intentional  processing mode  in which automatic negative  thoughts and feelings  are viewed as mental  events rather than identified  with the self.  Explained in Janet’s terms, this treatment aims to replace automatic affirmative beliefs with reflective beliefs by raising mental tension.


3. With respect to posttraumatic stress disorder    the model of Ehlers and Clark (2000) resembles   Janet’s views  in several ways:

First during the traumatic experience, data-driven processing is more dominant than conceptual processing. This, in turn favors pathogenic associative learning processes and prevents a synthetic processing of the trauma. This idea corresponds to Janet’s “lowering of the mental  niveau” .

Second, reexperiencing of the trauma caused by involuntary (automatic) mechanisms while intentional or voluntary recall is blocked, is understood as a consequence of deficient inhibitory processes in autobiographic memory. In Janet’s terms, the traumatic memories return because they are disintegrated or dissociated fixed ideas that are evoked by stimulation.

 Third the therapeutic approach is an attempt to improve synthetic processing just as Janet proposed when he wrote: “Les meilleurs procédés sont ceux qui déterminent l’assimilation de l’événement émotionnant, qui amènent le sujet à comprendre  par a réflexion, à y réagir correctement, à s’y résigner. » (1923, p.101)  [“The best methods are those that cause the assimilation of the arousing   event that bring the subject to comprehend it by reflection, to react against it correctly and to resign himself to it.”].  Recently, Fiedler (2006) has discussed Janet’s ideas on dissociation and trauma in a broader cognitive behavioural   context as well as in contrast to psychoanalytic conceptions.


4. Explicit links between Janet’s studies and cognitive behavioural therapies are underscored by the work of Nicolas Hoffmann in Germany (1998).  He has drawn on Janet’s pathogenic construct of the “feeling of incompleteness” (“sentiment d’incompletude”) when introducing new behavioural interventions for the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorders and depersonalization. This refers to the observation that during the performance of compulsive rituals patients often complain of not having the feeling to be fully in the present time.  The experience of the reality of the actual situation is reduced; afterwards there is a lack of certainty in the patient if he has actually performed the ritual by himself. He attempts to cope with this feeling of incompleteness   by repeating the ritual again and again.  Proposing a Janet - based treatment by excitation, Hoffmann calls his exposition training according to the model of the “constitution of the subject” (i.e. “unité de la personnalité”; cf.   Hoffmann & Hofmann 2004). Before the subject  enters the critical, symptom-provoking  situation (e.g. leaving his appartement with many objects to be  controlled),  he is intructed “to mobilize”himself  by multimodal  and verbalized  perception of the actual situation , to verbalize his action – plan,  and then to decide to start.  During the performance he exerts control with respect to his prepared action plan (that implies a slowing down of the whole process) and attends to motor- kinaesthetic feedback. In case of “sticking”, the performance is interrupted and the subject shall mobilize himself renewed. Finally, an explicit decision to end is made.




 It is true, that Janet’s contributions were rarely acknowledged, especially not in the field of CBT, who have many more or less unknown masters. But it is not my intention to complain about that shortcoming or to demand a priority for Janet’s therapeutic approach, or even to establish a Janetian therapy. This in fact would make no real sense and would contradict even Janet’s opinion about the scientific process.


Instead, the German Pierre Janet Gesellschaft attempts to promote a new or even first reception of Janet’s inimitable science-practionner discourse. This refers primarily to his clinical case descriptions as  well as pathopsychological  conceptions and  could help  the therapist to  understand the holistic  perspective for cognitive behavioural psychotherapy as a continuously changing field with preliminary  concepts without walking right into the traps of neurobiological reductionism, adherence to technocratic or scholastic attitudes, or pseudophilosophical and esoterical loans. Moreover,  Janet’s resource allocation  model, used as  metamodel , that is  as a  heuristic and organizing  principle in  individual therapy  is    a valuable tool  for  clinical processing and decision making.





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