Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego

In the course of my training in Logotherapy, I have been asked to define my perception of the difference between an experience of true conscience and superego-type pressures. First, let us define the two things according to their respective models.

Frankl’s notion of conscience is a spiritual mechanism possessed by every human being for detecting the transcendent meaning that comes from beyond him or herself and his or her situation, that enables him or her to make the one right choice in that moment. Note that several assumptions are implicit in this idea. One, that there exists an objective meaning that transcends the subjective context in which an individual finds him or herself. Two, that there is a realm called “beyond”. Three, that there can be one right meaning, decision, task or exercise of responsibility in a given moment.

Of course, Frankl’s use of the term “spiritual” accords with a more secular understanding of that term that the more specific manner in which a religious person understands it, and I am personally wrestling with the question as to whether it can be adapted to accomodate the Torah’s definition of spiritual. At present, I have concluded that Frankl’s spirituality is a step down from religious spirituality, but his model can be stepped up, or a new dimension added to it based on Torah.

Freud’s superego is the third character in his structural model of the personality, the others being the ego and the id. The id is the conglomerate of all the raw drives that demand satisfaction in a human being, whereas the superego is its opponent, an internalized policeman or a father figure, that subdues this id through guilt and allows the person to thus function normally within the context of society, according to that which is deemed acceptable behavior in society. The superego is fueled by the didactic instruction we have received in many forms, whether through parental discipline, religious training, school, etc. Although the superego has two divisions, the ego ideal and the conscience, we will focus here on the conscience.

Clearly, Freud’s model does not allow for there being an objective meaning (read: morality), but rather, what is right and wrong depends on the cultural or societal context in which the individual is. In addition, a person’s ability to manifest right or good is essentially only a function of the repression of their animal-like id drives. This is how Freud defined conscience. For this reason, we might view a criminal as being unable to make moral decisions because of his impaired–or absent–superego.

Frankl would disagree. A criminal is no different from any other human being in his or her ability to tune into meaning and hear the demands that meaning makes upon him or her! Hence, Frankl’s emphasis on the uncovering of responsibility in the client. Freud’s client, by contrast, can plead insanity. There was a notable incident in Frankl’s life when he spoke to a group of prisoners who were slated for execution, and he prefaced his remarks by telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all guilty of their crimes. Here, Frankl was demonstrating his idea that becoming guilty is one of the prerogatives of man, and therefore functions as a result, not of his being disadvantaged, but of his freedom to choose. The inmates indicated that they had never felt so understood by any of the psychological professionals who had addressed them previously.

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

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One thought on “Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego

  1. Yosef says:

    I hope you keep writing. I’d love to hear more what some possible answers may be, considering how often I find myself questioning my own motivations!

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