Book challenges Freud’s view of conscience as part of superego

In a new book, York University Emeritus Professor of sociology and social and political thought Donald L. Carveth breaks with Freud on his theory of conscience as a function of the superego and CarvethBookinstead argues that superego and conscience are two distinct mental functions.

In The Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience (Karnac Books), Carveth, a senior scholar at York University, contends the conscience is a fourth mental structure that needs to be added to the psychoanalytic structural theory of the mind.

The book’s launch will take place Wednesday, Oct. 30, from 7 to 9pm, at Caversham Booksellers, 98 Harbord St., Toronto. Everyone is welcome to attend the event. RSVP to Caversham Booksellers at 416-944-0962 or

Carveth 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, 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), says Carveth, who is a training and supervising analyst in Don Carveththe Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis and current director of the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Donald L. Carveth

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.”

In The Still Small Voice, Carveth claims people must face their 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 his view that in human history the damage done by id-driven psychopaths amounts to nothing compared to that brought about by superego-driven ideologists.

As Professor Robert N. Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, says: “Carveth’s book is a powerful challenge to rethink the ethical basis of psychoanalysis.”

Currently in private practice in Toronto, Carveth, along with Eva Lester and others, helped found the Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis/Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse of which he is a past editor-in-chief.