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Hinshelwood, B. (2000). Karin Stephen and the Superego. Psychoanal. Hist., 2(2):287-291.

(2000). Psychoanalysis and History, 2(2):287-291

Responses

Karin Stephen and the Superego

Bob Hinshelwood

Can I ask for a little space to add to Michael Brearley's contextualizing of the historical document published in the Journal (Psychoanalysis and History 2(1)), the paper, ‘Relations between the superego and the ego’ given by Karin Stephen in 1945. In fact, Brearley ignores one significant element of the context. The origins of Stephen's ideas on the superego were published in 1943, a couple of years before she gave her paper to the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1945. This was a correspondence between her and C.H. Waddington (19051975), an eminent British geneticist in the 1930s and, after the war, part of The Visible College, so named by Werskey (1988). Waddington had constructed an elaborate evolutionary ethics. He wished to create a natural ethics that emerged from the sciences. This argument turned to psychoanalysis and was founded on the idea that evolution had created a species that contained a superego. This is the organ of morality, as it were, and is an evolutionary product of nature. He sent his thesis to a number of theologians, philosophers and biologists and compiled a book of their comments and often of his responses to their comments. He also included some psychoanalysts, one of whom was Karin Stephen, and they exchanged six letters between them on the thesis. This book of all the comments was published as Science and Ethics (Waddington 1943).

Science and Ethics

Karin Stephen took issue with one aspect of Waddington's evolutionary ethics. In a cogent though maybe challenging way, she asserted that the superego is not a healthy product of evolution. She was certain:

that the Superego is not always a reliable guide in matters of good and evil… though sometimes ethical in its demands, [it] may, and at times does, inspire appalling behaviour whose results have been disastrous for humanity by any conceivable criterion of ‘good’. (Stephen 1943, p. 58)

And in consequence:

The subject-matter of Ethics is human personalities: ‘evil’ would coincide roughly with neurosis and psychosis, i.e. with mental and moral disease, and ‘good' with spiritual growth, health and sanity. (pp. 59-60)

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