Medium 9781780491783

The Petrified Ego

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Due to the inherent contradiction in Freud's concept of the Superego, there is a gap in our psychoanalytic understanding of how conscience evolves. This distinction is essential for the successful treatment of patients dominated by a harsh Superego and provides valuable insight into how contemporary society evaluates moral decisions.The Petrified Ego argues for a revision of psychoanalytic theory to include instinct as the primary form of morality. It makes the case that our earliest, infantile notion of 'good' and 'bad' is rather founded on experiences which have been 'safe or 'threatening'. More often than not, this is the basis of our moral judgement of others. It is only through direct challenge to these visceral values that beliefs independent of the survival instinct can be forged.Why does this matter? Lack of distinction between the two means that consideration of the 'right or wrong' or the 'good or bad' of others' behaviour is no more than the rationalising of an instinctual response. To apply rationality is quite different to the act of rationalising.The author argues that weighty issues such as the right to work and to claim benefit, the judicial handling of rioting adolescents, prisoners' right to vote, institutional 'group think' such as seen in the banking sector, care homes and even recently, the BBC, flounder for want of a sound framework around the origin and evolution of morality.Contrary to the accepted view, the stability of society and the individuals who comprise it, is not a compromise between opposites but the articulation of a relationship between two entities of a different order: social and individual. An apparently well-structured organisation too often disguises a rigid moral order which represses individual perspective. Once rigidity is acknowledged to be the hallmark of a moral order founded on instinctual fear, it can be dissipated, allowing for the integration of individual experience, facilitating a mature and inclusive moral stance.

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Chapter One: Introduction

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There is a gap in our psychoanalytic understanding of the evolution of conscience that obscures the fact that there are two quite distinct types of morality. This omission camouflages a truth about the psychological relationship between the individual and society that has long needed articulation. This book seeks both to illuminate this truth and to set out the theoretical framework for a revised theory of the evolution and function of conscience. In much of everyday life, debate concerning what is “right or wrong”, or “good or bad”, is not driven by rational thought but by anxiety, revulsion, or retribution. These reactions are triggered by primary affective processes present in the individual, which have evolved from primal group behaviours driven by the survival instinct. I shall argue that judgments based on these instinctive responses are thus rooted in what is deemed to be “safe” or “threatening” not what is “right” or “wrong”. I aim to show that this type of judgment constitutes a morality that has its own discrete identity and is generically distinct from “rational” morality. I shall also present a case for why I believe that the distinction is essential.

 

Chapter Two: The Protective Superego

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This chapter is divided into two sections; the first reviews literature that documents the historical development of Freud's concept of the superego in an attempt to capture the broadest sense in which it is still held to be viable “currency” and if not, why not. This review throws up two recurring dissatisfactions with the 1923 theory: the first dissatisfaction is that the dropping of the protective function of the ego ideal, defined in “On Narcissism”, was a critical omission in the original definition of the oedipal superego. The second dissatisfaction is that the formulation is contradictory in stating that both the values of the superego and of the ego are dominant. A review of clinical material constitutes the second section of the chapter. The existence of so much clinical data since the formulation was made, makes it possible to test this formulation to see whether the protective function of the superego is, in fact, in evidence and if so, what exactly is being protected and why. Further, a review of clinical data throws some light on the issue of whether in the emotionally mature individual, it is superego or ego values that are dominant.

 

Chapter Three: “Totem and Taboo” Revisited

ePub

In Chapter Two, I mapped out evidence for the protective function of the superego gathered from both Freudian and independently oriented clinical and theoretical work over the decades since Freud's formulation of the concept. Freud's 1923 definition centres on “prohibition”, whereas his earlier thinking identified its primary function as protective. In a paper written almost thirty years before his formulation of the superego—“Project for a Scientific Psychology”—he stated that the first trigger for morality lies in the fact of dependence on others for our survival: “[the] initial helplessness of human beings…is the primal source of all moral motives” (Freud, 1895, p. 317). That is to say, our sense of morality originates in the (unconscious) knowledge that we are dependent upon external protection: this knowledge is the source of conscience.

In this chapter I turn to Freud's work “Totem and Taboo” and show that his undeveloped lines of thinking about the earliest manifestation of conscience (i.e., in totem morality) identify a protective, adaptive function, which clinical work by practitioners, working after his time, has proven to be the case.

 

Chapter Four: Two Types of Morality

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Freud's pre- and post-1923 thinking about the origins of conscience and morality

Notwithstanding the conceptual power of Freud's concept of the oedipal superego, his formulation of the evolution of conscience and morality is opaque. This is evidenced, according to the literature, in the lack of clarity about conceptual differences between the ego ideal and the superego and about whether mature ego development is marked by the ethics of the superego or of the ego, as it cannot be both. In tying the development of morality to sexual development and gender identification, the formulation of the 1923 superego theory has remained problematic—as evidenced in the criticisms of the theory by classical and post-Freudians—ever since its formulation (Arlow, 1982; Finkelstein, 1991; Jones, 1926; Sandler, 1960; Schafer, 1960; Shecter, 1979; Stephen, K., 1946; Westen, 1986). “The theory [of the superego] confuses gender identification with moral internalization” (Westen, 1986, p. 180) and “…moral development may dovetail with, but not be reducible to, psychosexual development and in particular the resolution of the Oedipus complex” (Westen, 1986, p. 199).

 

Chapter Five: Two Types of Reality-Testing

ePub

Introduction

Freud was never finally clear about the apprehension of reality. He first used the term “reality-testing” in “On the Formulation of Two Principles of Mental Functioning” (1911). “With the introduction of the reality principle one species of thought-activity was split off; it was kept free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure principle alone” (Freud, 1911, p. 221). In “Group Psychology and the Development of the Ego” he attributes reality-testing to the Ego Ideal.

The fact that the ego experiences in a dream-like way whatever he may request or assert reminds us that we omitted to mention among the functions of the ego ideal the business of testing the reality of things. No wonder that the ego takes a perception for real if its reality is vouched for by the mental agency which normally discharges the duty of testing the reality of things. (Freud, 1921, p. 113)

In 1923, he re-attributed reality-testing to the ego (in “The Ego and the Id”). This re-attribution is mentioned only in a footnote in that paper and without account for his change of mind.

 

Chapter Six: A New Theory of Conscience

ePub

The archaic superego is the founding structure of the psyche: the phylogenetic legacy of the survival instinct. It is the founding structure upon which rests—at the higher individual level of psychic functioning—the capacity for the more neutralised energies and abstract values concomitant with mature ego functioning. It is realised in the infant through corporeal experience, which gives rise to a sense of boundary. With regard to the external environment, this will principally be via the eyes and ears (through light and sound) and through the skin (via physical constraint); with regard to the internal environment, through bodily sensations, principally the workings of organs such as the bowel and bladder. Although in essence structural and therefore neutral as to morality, the infant's experience of the archaic superego will be coloured by affective and instinctive responses to these external and internal sensations as either “safe” or “threatening” to his survival. Experiences that engender constancy, coherence and integration will be “safe”. Experiences that evoke anxiety will be “threatening”. In time, the primary experience of boundary facilitates the capacity for differentiating sensory from mental experience and as such is, in a psychoanalytic sense, the cornerstone of the psyche: a prerequisite of the capacity for symbolisation and thinking.

 

Chapter Seven: Concluding Remarks

ePub

In the introduction to this book, I put forward the case that in everyday life, judgment as to what is right or wrong, that is to say, the taking up of a “moral position”, is as frequently made by individuals on the basis of what is perceived to be personally safe or threatening as it is through appeal to any other principle. I have argued, with reference to his earliest understanding of the roots of conscience that this was also Freud's belief. His view was that conscience originates in the relationship between the individual and the primary protective object: the totem. I have shown that notwithstanding this, his 1923 formulation of the oedipal superego neglected the idea that the superego had its origin in the survival instinct. I have argued for, and formulated, its reinstatement, and in so doing, have found that augmentation of the concept of the superego along these lines yields two distinct stages to superego development: an archaic superego that, in healthy development gives rise to a superego negotiated by the ego. Research of clinical material, predominantly from the past half-century and analysis of clinical material from my own practice suggests that mature superego functioning is distinguished by the way in which “moral evaluations”, about both individuals and society, are made by an ego that is forged through challenge to archaic superego dominance. I found that the differentiation of these two stages of superego development implies two types of morality. I have taken care to emphasise that attainment of the second does not mean that the first is somehow dispensed with. On the contrary, ego-negotiated morality defines itself in reference to survival morality. In cases of immature superego functioning, we find that a petrified embryonic ego has become trapped in a state of deference to survival morality.

 

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