The Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience

Author(s) : Donald L. Carveth

The Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience

Book Details

  • Publisher : Routledge
  • Published : June 2013
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 352
  • Category :
  • Catalogue No : 33543
  • ISBN 13 : 9781780491684
  • ISBN 10 : 1780491689
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Whereas Freud himself viewed conscience as one of the functions of the superego, in The Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience, Carveth argues that superego and conscience are distinct mental functions and that, therefore, a fourth mental structure, the conscience, needs to be added to the psychoanalytic structural theory of the mind. He claims that while both conscience and superego originate in the so-called pre-oedipal phase of infant and child development they are comprised of contrasting and often conflicting identifications. The primary object, still most often the mother, is inevitably experienced as, on the one hand, nurturing and soothing and, on the other, as frustrating and persecuting. Conscience is formed in identification with the nurturer; the superego in identification with the aggressor. There is a principle of reciprocity at work in the human psyche: for love received one seeks to return love; for hate, hate (the talion law).

Like Franz Alexander and Sandor Ferenczi before him, Carveth views the therapeutic task as the disempowerment of the superego. But unlike his forebears he does not propose its replacement by the rational ego for, in his view, rationality cannot serve as the source of values. Following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he finds the roots of morality not in reason but in feeling, in sympathetic identification or “pity.” With Pascal, he holds that “the heart has reasons reason cannot know.” Such “reasons of the heart” form the core of conscience. Unlike the torments inflicted by the demonic superego that merely uses transgression as an excuse to do what it wants—punish and torment the ego—the conscience, what Winnicott called “the capacity for concern,” is genuinely troubled by failures to love. The author claims we must face our bad conscience, acknowledge and bear genuine (depressive) guilt, and through contrition, repentance and reparation come to accept reconciliation and forgiveness, or be forced to suffer the torments of the damned—persecutory guilt inflicted by the sadistic internal persecutor and saboteur, the superego.

It is the author’s view that in human history the damage done by id-driven psychopaths amounts to nothing compared to that brought about by superego-driven ideologists. Freud and subsequent psychoanalysis has largely whitewashed the superego while demonising the id, the alleged “beast” in man, when in reality animals are seldom beastly, at least not in the ways humans often are. While aware of its destructiveness in the clinical realm, psychoanalysts have largely ignored the ideologies of domination—the sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism and childism—that are internalised from unconscionable societies into the unconscionable superego.In the penultimate chapter, drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, Terry Eagleton and others, Carveth critically reviews the concepts of psychopathy and evil. In the final chapter, he advocates a demythologising, deliteralising or deconstructive approach to the Bible as metaphor, but one that escapes Freud’s derogation of this approach by acknowledging, with Hegel at his most honest, that its result is a humanistic ethic no longer to be equated with religion.

Reviews and Endorsements

'Carveth's book is a powerful challenge to rethink the ethical basis of psychoanalysis. He wants to add conscience to Freud's typology of id, ego and superego, none of which can be thought of as reified bounded entities but as dynamic dimensions of a single complex self. He sees conscience as the realm of morality, especially the requirement to love one another, something Freud himself seemed to recognize with his late conception of eros in the dichotomy between eros and thanatos. Carveth's book is not only relevant to the psychoanalytic community, which surely needs it, but to the wider public in providing a deeper context for the great insights of Freud and his followers.'
- Professor Robert N. Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Religion in Human Evolution

‘What will be our moral purpose? And, how may we exceed the confines of rationality in learning to live with others? With these questions Donald Carveth’s superb study integrates social theory with the history of psychoanalytic thought. With deep sensitivity to the nuances of mental life and the dilemmas theory inherits, the study proposes the psychoanalytic project as one of listening to the voice of conscience. Carveth provides insightful readings of the moral significance of guilt from a number of perspectives and argues for a shift from the superego to that of conscience. Questions of theology are placed between the cultural and clinical realms and readers encounter the modern dilemmas of tolerating mental pain as the human condition.’
- Deborah Britzman, Distinguished Research Professor, York University, and author of Freud and Education

‘I would like to make Dr Carveth’s book required reading for all psychoanalytic therapists (and recommended reading for their patients) who are working every day on issues of guilt and shame. It represents a truly extraordinary contribution to human knowledge, a contribution that deserves and will reward the reader’s undivided attention.‘
- From the Foreword by Elio Frattaroli, MD, psychoanalyst and author of Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain

About the Author(s)

Donald L. Carveth is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Social and Political Thought and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto. He is a training and supervising analyst in the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis and current Director of the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis. After completing a doctorate (1977) comparing and contrasting sociological and psychoanalytic theories of human nature (a summary of which was awarded the annual Theory Prize of the American Sociological Association in 1984), he undertook clinical psychoanalytic training, graduating from the Toronto Institute in 1985. With Dr. Eva Lester and others he helped found the Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis/Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse of which he is a past Editor-in-Chief. He has published some fifty papers in this and other journals. Over the past decade his work has concentrated on issues of guilt, guilt-substitutes, and the differentiation of conscience as a fourth component of the structural theory of the mind in addition to id, ego and superego. He is in private practice in Toronto.

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