Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 15–32 | Cite as

Why we should stop conflating the superego with the conscience

  • Donald L CarvethEmail author
Original Article


Freud’s decision to merge conscience into the superego has made it difficult to study conflict between them. While the superego comprises aggression turned back against the self, identification with the aggressor, and (often immoral) internalized social norms, conscience emerges from early libidinal attachments and identification with the nurturer. The distinction between superego and conscience is grounded in the Freudian and Kleinian distinctions between Thanatos and Eros and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive or reparative positions. While Freud, Alexander and Ferenczi all viewed the analytic cure as involving the demolition of the superego, mainstream psychoanalysis, following Strachey, has preferred superego modification to recognition of a separate conscience, failing to understand that it is only on the basis of conscience that one can know in which direction the superego needs to be modified. The social and cultural as well as the clinical import of these distinctions is explored.


superego conscience persecutory guilt reparative guilt borrowed guilt capacity for concern 


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Glendon College, York UniversityTorontoCanada

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