Idée fixe (psychology)

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In psychology, an idée fixe is a preoccupation of mind believed to be firmly resistant to any attempt to modify it, a fixation. The name originates from the French idée [], "idea" and fixe [fiks], "fixed."


The initial introduction of the term idée fixe, according to intellectual historian Jan E. Goldstein, was as a medical term around 1812 in connection with monomania.[1] As originally employed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,[2][3] idée fixe was "a single pathology of the intellect", distinct from monomania, a broader term that included idée fixe, but also a wider range of pathologies that did not stem from "a single compelling idea or from an emotional excess".[4] A second difference is that the victim of idée fixe was understood to be unaware of the unreality of their frame of mind,[5] while the victim of monomania might be aware. At that time, idée fixe was discussed as a form of neurosis or monomania.[6]

The meaning of monomania in the technical medical sense in which it was first used, was very close to the popular meaning it would soon acquire. It denoted an idée fixe, a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind.[7]

— Jan E. Goldstein, Console and Classify, p. 155

The idea of monomania was developed by Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol as a diagnostic category in his work Des Malades Mentales (1839) and related to the idée fixe by Wilhelm Griesinger (1845) who viewed "every single idée fixe [as] the expression of a deeply deranged psychic individuality and probably an indicator of an incipient form of mania".[3]

The "pathologicalization" of political convictions was used to discredit political anarchists.[2] The further historical evolution of idée fixe was much entangled with the introduction of psychologists into legal matters such as the insanity defense, and is found in a number of texts.[8][7][9]

Development of the concept[edit]

The concept of idées fixes has been expanded and refined by Emil Kraepelin (1904), Carl Wernicke (1906), and Karl Jaspers (1963), evolving into a concept of overvalued ideas.[10] An overvalued idea is a false or exaggerated and sustained belief that is maintained with much less than delusional intensity (i.e., the individual is able to acknowledge the possibility that the ideas may not be true).[11]

Modern usage[edit]

In most contexts, idée fixe refers to an obsession or a passion one fixates on. However, the term also has a pathological dimension, denoting serious psychological issues. The pathology is what is denoted in psychology and law.

Idée fixe began as a parent category of obsession,[12] and as a preoccupation of mind the idée fixe resembles today's obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although the afflicted person can think, reason and act like other people, they are unable to stop a particular train of thought or action.[8] However, in obsessive-compulsive disorder, the person recognizes the absurdity of their obsession or compulsion, which may not be the case with an idée fixe(normally being a delusion).[13] Today, the term idée fixe does not denote a specific disorder in psychology, and does not appear as a technical designation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).[14] It is still used as a descriptive term,[15] appearing in dictionaries of psychology.[16]

In literature[edit]

An example of an idée fixe is in Cervantes's Don Quixote:[17]

Don Quixote reveals his kinship to the most commonly encountered of Cervantes's character types: the head-in-clouds fantasist, obsessed by his idée fixe.[18]

— Anthony J Close, Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Although Melville's Captain Ahab may come to mind as another famous example of idée fixe, and it is sometimes referred to this way,[19] more often Ahab's obsession is referred to as monomania (the more inclusive term), and Melville himself does that. It would seem from the description of Ahab's possession that idée fixe applies quite accurately, as the following description suggests:

"Not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished." ... "Yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose", Ahab has let his mind's guiding and directing power be usurped by the "sheer inveteracy" of a will driven by "one unachieved revengeful desire"[20]

— Quotes from Moby-Dick, pp. 990, 1007, Thomas Cooley, The ivory leg in the ebony cabinet: madness, race, and gender in Victorian America

However, what makes monomania the better term is that "Captain Ahab ... has an inkling of his true state of mind: 'my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.'"[20]

The words idée fixe also occur explicitly: for example, in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes:

There is the condition which the modern French psychologists have called the 'idée fixe', which may be trifling in character, and accompanied by complete sanity in every other way. A man might form such an idée fixe... and under its influence be capable of any fantastic outrage.[21]

— Arthur Conan Doyle, The return of Sherlock Holmes

and in Abraham B. Yehoshua's novel about the Mani family through six generations:

...I had begun to despair of his accursed idée fixe which devoured every other idée that it encountered...[22]

— Abraham B. Yehoshua, Mr. Mani

and in the account of the war on terror by George Bush's counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke:

Iraq was portrayed as the most dangerous thing in national security. It was an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made and one that no fact or event could derail.[23]

— Richard A Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror

Legal implications[edit]

Possibly the best example of the role of idée fixe in an insanity defense today is its use in identifying paranoid personality disorder.

A frequent manifestation of ... paranoid personality is the presence of an overvalued idea ... a fixed idea (idée fixe) ... which might seem reasonable both to the patient and to other people. However, it comes to dominate completely the person's thinking and life. ... It is quite distinct phenomenologically from both delusion and obsessional idea.[15]

— Femi Oyebode, The expression of disordered personality

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Quoting from Jan Ellen Goldstein (2002). Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century. University of Chicago Press. p. 155. ISBN 0-226-30161-3."Idée fixe was also originally a medical term, probably coined by the phrenologists Gall and Spurzheim in connection with Esquirol's delineation of monomania; see their Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux en général et du cerveau en particulier, Vol. 2 (Paris: F. Schoell, 1812), p. 192. It also was transferred to nonmedical culture, most notably by the composer Hector Berlioz..." The term leitmotif refers to the same musical device as idée fixe.
  2. ^ a b Michael Clark, Catherine Crawford (1994). Legal medicine in history. Cambridge University Press. pp. 214 ff. ISBN 0-521-39514-3.
  3. ^ a b Alan Felthous, Henning Sass (2008). International Handbook on Psychopathic Disorders and the Law. John Wiley & Sons. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-470-06638-6.
  4. ^ Ann-Louise Shapiro (1996). Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Stanford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 0-8047-2693-0.
  5. ^ Daniel Hack Tuke (1892). A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine: Giving the Definition, Etymology and Synonyms of the Terms Used in Medical Psychology with the Symptoms, Treatment, and Pathology of Insanity and the Law of Lunacy in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 2. J. & A. Churchill. p. 678. Some of the French alienists extend the use of the term [imperative idea] to actual delusion (idée fixe ), as for instance, ideas of persecution. but it is to be hoped that [imperative idea] will be carefully restricted to that intellectual tyranny which the individual deplores and is not deluded by.
  6. ^ "Névroses et Idées Fixes". Mind, Volume 9. Oxford University Press. 1900. pp. 94ff.
  7. ^ a b Jan E. Goldstein (2002). Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century. University of Chicago Press. p. 155. ISBN 0-226-30161-3.
  8. ^ a b Lennard J. Davis (2008). Obsession: a history. University of Chicago Press. p. 69 ff. ISBN 978-0-226-13782-7.
  9. ^ Dorothea E. von Mücke (2003). The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale. Stanford University Press. pp. 114 ff. ISBN 0-8047-3860-2.
  10. ^ McKenna, P. J. (1984). "Disorders with overvalued ideas". British Journal of Psychiatry. 145 (6): 579–585. doi:10.1192/bjp.145.6.579. ISSN 0007-1250. PMID 6391600.
  11. ^ American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 826. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596. ISBN 978-0-89042-554-1.
  12. ^ G. E. Berrios (1996). "Note 63; page 153". The history of mental symptoms: descriptive psychopathology since the nineteenth century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43736-9.
  13. ^ Ian Jakes (1996). "The distinction between obsessional and psychotic thinking". Theoretical Approaches to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-521-46058-1.
  14. ^ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th ed.). American Psychiatric Society. 2000. ISBN 0-89042-025-4.
  15. ^ a b Femi Oyebode (2008). "Chapter 21: The expression of disordered personality". Sims' Symptoms in the Mind: An Introduction to Descriptive Psychopathology (Updated 4th ed.). Saunders Ltd. p. 404. ISBN 978-0-7020-2885-4.
  16. ^ For example, Raymond J. Corsini (2002). The dictionary of psychology. Psychology Press. p. 467. ISBN 1-58391-328-9.
  17. ^ John Farrell (2006). Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau. Cornell University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-8014-4410-1.
  18. ^ Anthony J. Close (1990). Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. Cambridge University Press. p. 106. ISBN 0-521-31345-7.
  19. ^ Marina Van Zuylen (2005). Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art. Cornell University Press. pp. 10, 38, 64, 68. ISBN 0801442982.
  20. ^ a b Thomas Cooley (2001). The ivory leg in the ebony cabinet: madness, race, and gender in Victorian America. University of Massachusetts Press. p. 42. ISBN 1-55849-284-4. Page numbers refer to Herman Melville (1983). G Thomas Tanselle (ed.). Moby-Dick, or the Whale (Reprint of the 1851 Northwestern-Newberry ed.). Library of America. ISBN 0-940450-09-7.
  21. ^ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2003). "The return of Sherlock Holmes". In Kyle Freeman (ed.). The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 Barnes & Noble Classics. Spark Educational Publishing. p. 128. ISBN 1-59308-040-9.
  22. ^ Abraham B. Yehoshua (1993). Mr. Mani (Hillel Halkin translation ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 338. ISBN 0-15-662769-8.
  23. ^ Richard A Clarke (2004). Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. Free Press. p. 265. ISBN 0-7432-6045-7.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of idée fixe at Wiktionary