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Holism (from Greek ὅλος holos "all, whole, entire") is the idea that systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. This often includes the view that systems function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts.[1][2]

The term Holism was coined by J C Smuts in Holism and Evolution.[3] It was Smuts' opinion that Holism is a concept that represents all of the wholes in the universe, and it is a factor because the wholes it denotes are the real factors in the universe. Further, it was his opinion that Holism also denoted a theory of the universe in the same vein as Materialism and Spiritualism; that the ultimate reality in the universe is neither matter nor spirit but wholes as defined in Holism and Evolution. While he offered these different definitions, Smuts clearly stated his opinion that its primary and proper use was to denote the totality of wholes which operate as real factors and give to reality its dynamic evolutionary creative character.[4] It is important to note that aside from the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, there have been no authoritative secondary sources corroborating Smuts' views on Holism. When elaborations for the mental, personal and social categories are provided, and a case is made that Holism is a bonafide monistic ontology, we can revisit the vision of Holism that Smuts held.

General Concept, Functions, and Categories

This section provides an overview of Smuts' opinions regarding the general concept, functions, and categories of Holism; like the definition of Holism, other than the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, there have been no authoritative secondary sources corroborating his opinions.


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Wholes are composites which have an internal structure, function or character which clearly differentiates them from mechanical additions, aggregates, and constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis. This concept of structure is not confined to the physical domain (e.g. chemical, biological and artifacts); it also applies to the metaphysical domain (e.g. mental structures, properties, attributes, values, ideals, etc.)

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

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The fundamental holistic characters as a unity of parts which is so close and intense as to be more than the sum of its parts; which not only gives a particular conformation or structure to the parts, but so relates and determines them in their synthesis that their functions are altered; the synthesis affects and determines the parts, so that they function towards the whole; and the whole and the parts, therefore reciprocally influence and determine each other, and appear more or less to merge their individual characters: the whole is in the parts and the parts are in the whole, and this synthesis of whole and parts is reflected in the holistic character of the functions of the parts as well as of the whole.[5]

Smuts implies that there is a distinction between a whole and it constituent parts, and in presenting the inductive argument for Holism he identifies atoms, cells and organisms as wholes. If an organism, such as a human being, is composed of organs such as brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, etc.; which in turn are composed of cells that are composed of molecules and atoms one might conclude that there is a no distinction between wholes and parts and that there are no wholes, there are only parts. Smuts is clear on this point when he states that Wholes are not mere artificial constructions of thought; they actually exist; they point to something real in the universe.[6] Clarification on this distinction is needed as all existants are both whole and part depenending on the field and point of reference.

Progressive grading of wholes

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There is a progressive grading of the holistic synthesis in Nature, so that we pass from (a) mere physical mixtures, where the structure is almost negligible, and the parts largely preserve their separate characters and activities or functions, to (b) chemical compounds, where the structure is more synthetic and the activities and functions are strongly influenced by the new structure and can only with difficulty be traced to the individual parts; and, again, to (c) organisms, where a still more intense synthesis of elements has been effected, which impresses the parts or organs far more intimately with a unified character, and a system of regulation and co-ordination, and finally of central control of all the parts and organs arises; and from organism, again, on to (d) Minds or psychical organs, where the Central Control acquires consciousness and freedom and a creative power of the most far-reaching character; and finally to (e) Personality, which is the highest, most evolved whole among the structures of the universe, and becomes a new orientative, originative centre of reality.[7] Clarifications and elaborations as it relates to the gradiations of holistic synthesis are needed, for example, with our current understanding of the subatomic particles that comprise the chemical elements it is inaccurate to say that the structure of atoms is almost negligileis almost negligible.


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Elaborations on the concept of field are required as it relates to location, boundary and activity; at a high level the field of a whole characterizes it as a unified and synthesised event in the system of Relativity, that includes not only the present but also the past and future potentialities.[8]


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The creativeness of matter is, as we saw, confined to the aspect of structure and to the refashioning of new structures out of the pre-existing material units : in that sense matter has only a limited though real creativeness. When we come to organisms we find a very much larger measure of creative- ness in Evolution. For, as will be shown in Chapter VIII, the new qualities or characters which give rise to new varieties or species are really new in the sense that they have not been there before and are not mere reshufflings of characters which were there before. New characters are created, and on the basis of them new varietal or specific forms of a stable kind arise. A still larger measure of creativeness applies to mind both in its intellectual and ethical aspects ; thought is creative in all its activities from the simplest sensation up to the most complex judgment; and the ethical or practical reason is creative of values, moral, spiritual and religious values, in the fullest sense. Hence arises the view of Evolution as creative of the new, as an epigenesis instead of an explication 91-2


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The whole thus appears as a marked power of regulation and co-ordination in respect of both the structure and the functioning of the parts. This is probably the most striking feature of organisms that they involve a balanced correlation of organs and functions. All the various activities of the several parts and organs seem directed to central ends; there is thus co-operation and unified action of the organism as a whole instead of the separate mechanical activities of the parts. The whole thus becomes synonymous with unified (or holistic) action.

It is this holistic character distinguishing the activity and functions not only of the whole but also of its parts which underlies the remarkable phenomena of co-operation among cells to which attention was drawn in the fourth chapter. The co-operation is not so much the interaction of independent units as in truth and really the pressure of the whole on the parts. Indeed the entire function or system of the organism is holistic; the synthetic unity of the whole is so deeply stamped on the parts and reflected in the activities of the parts, that they all appear to " play up " to each other, and to co-operate in maintaining or, in case of disturbance, restoring the balance of equilibrium of activities which is characteristic of the particular whole. From the synthetic unity of the whole follows the holistic action of all its parts, as well as the characteristic power of correlating and regulating which the whole seems to exert in respect of the parts. All these properties really flow from the idea and nature of the whole; once this idea is clearly realised, the true principle of organic explanation is found, and the application of the ideas and methods of mechanism or vitalism becomes superfluous.

In Chapter 6 the discussion is still geared towards evolution and hence the emphasis on organism and organs. However, the regulatory function of Holism can be generalized: This is probably the most striking feature of wholes; that they involve a balance correlation of parts directed to central ends; there is thus co-operation and unified action of the whole instead of the separate mechanical activity of the parts.


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The whole, therefore, completely transforms the concept of Causality. When an external cause acts on a whole, the resultant effect is not merely traceable to the cause, but has become transformed in the process. The whole seems to absorb and metabolise the external stimulus and to assimilate it into its own activity ; and the resultant response is no longer the passive effect of the stimulus or cause, but appears as the activity of the whole. This holistic transformation of causality takes place in all organic stimuli and responses. The cause or stimulus applied does not issue in its own passive effect, but in an active response which seems more clearly traceable to the organism or whole itself. In fact the physical category of " cause " undergoes a far-reaching change in its application to organisms or wholes generally. The whole appears as the real cause of the response, and not the external stimulus, which seems to play the quite minor role of a mere excitant or condition.


The term "holism" was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, a South African statesman, in his book Holism and Evolution.[9] Examples of holism can be found throughout human history and in the most diverse sociocultural contexts. The French Protestant missionary Maurice Leenhardt coined the term "cosmomorphism" to indicate the state of perfect symbiosis with the surrounding environment which characterized the culture of the Melanesians of New Caledonia. For these people, an isolated individual is totally indeterminate, indistinct, and featureless until he can find his position within the natural and social world in which he is inserted. The confines between the self and the world are annulled to the point that the material body itself is no guarantee of the sort of recognition of identity which is typical of our own culture.[10][11]

The concept of holism played a pivotal role in Baruch Spinoza's philosophy[12][13] and more recently in that of Hegel[14][15] and Edmund Husserl.[16][17]


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In the latter half of the 20th century, holism led to systems thinking and its derivatives, like the sciences of chaos and complexity. Systems in biology, psychology, or sociology are frequently so complex that their behavior is, or appears, "new" or "emergent": it cannot be deduced from the properties of the elements alone.[18]

Holism has thus been used as a catchword. This contributed to the resistance encountered by the scientific interpretation of holism, which insists that there are ontological reasons that prevent reductive models in principle from providing efficient algorithms for prediction of system behavior in certain classes of systems.[citation needed]

Scientific holism holds that the behavior of a system cannot be perfectly predicted, no matter how much data is available. Natural systems can produce surprisingly unexpected behavior, and it is suspected that behavior of such systems might be computationally irreducible, which means it would not be possible to even approximate the system state without a full simulation of all the events occurring in the system. Key properties of the higher level behavior of certain classes of systems may be mediated by rare "surprises" in the behavior of their elements due to the principle of interconnectivity, thus evading predictions except by brute force simulation.

Complexity theory (also called "science of complexity") is a contemporary heir of systems thinking. It comprises both computational and holistic, relational approaches towards understanding complex adaptive systems and, especially in the latter, its methods can be seen as the polar opposite to reductive methods. General theories of complexity have been proposed, and numerous complexity institutes and departments have sprung up around the world. The Santa Fe Institute is arguably the most famous of them.


There is an ongoing dispute as to whether anthropology is intrinsically holistic. Supporters of this concept consider anthropology holistic in two senses. First, it is concerned with all human beings across times and places, and with all dimensions of humanity (evolutionary, biophysical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.) Further, many academic programs following this approach take a "four-field" approach to anthropology that encompasses physical anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology or social anthropology.[19]

Some leading anthropologists disagree, and consider anthropological holism to be an artifact from 19th century social evolutionary thought that inappropriately imposes scientific positivism upon cultural anthropology.[20]

The term "holism" is additionally used within social and cultural anthropology to refer to an analysis of a society as a whole which refuses to break society into component parts. One definition says: "as a methodological ideal, holism implies ... that one does not permit oneself to believe that our own established institutional boundaries (e.g. between politics, sexuality, religion, economics) necessarily may be found also in foreign societies."[21]


The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

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Ecology is one of the most important applications of holism, as it tries to include biological, chemical, physical and economic views in a given area. The complexity grows with the area, so that it is necessary to reduce the characteristic of the view in other ways, for example to a specific time of duration.

John Muir, Scots born early conservationist,[22] wrote "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".

More information is to be found in the field of systems ecology, a cross-disciplinary field influenced by general systems theory.


With roots in Schumpeter, the evolutionary approach might be considered the holist theory in economics. They share certain language from the biological evolutionary approach. They take into account how the innovation system evolves over time. Knowledge and know-how, know-who, know-what and know-why are part of the whole business economics. Knowledge can also be tacit, as described by Michael Polanyi. These models are open, and consider that it is hard to predict exactly the impact of a policy measure. They are also less mathematical.


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In philosophy, any doctrine that emphasizes the priority of a whole over its parts is holism. Some suggest that such a definition owes its origins to a non-holistic view of language and places it in the reductivist camp. Alternately, a 'holistic' definition of holism denies the necessity of a division between the function of separate parts and the workings of the 'whole'. It suggests that the key recognizable characteristic of a concept of holism is a sense of the fundamental truth of any particular experience. This exists in contradistinction to what is perceived as the reductivist reliance on inductive method as the key to verification of its concept of how the parts function within the whole.

In the philosophy of language this becomes the claim, called semantic holism, that the meaning of an individual word or sentence can only be understood in terms of its relations to a larger body of language, even a whole theory or a whole language. In the philosophy of mind, a mental state may be identified only in terms of its relations with others. This is often referred to as "content holism" or "holism of the mental". This notion involves the philosophies of such figures as Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine.[23]

Epistemological and confirmation holism are mainstream ideas in contemporary philosophy. Ontological holism was espoused by David Bohm in his theory[24] on The Implicate Order.

Hegel's holism

Hegel rejected "the fundamentally atomistic conception of the object," (Stern, 38) arguing that "individual objects exist as manifestations of indivisible substance-universals, which cannot be reduced to a set of properties or attributes; he therefore holds that the object should be treated as an ontologically primary whole." (Stern, 40) In direct opposition to Kant, therefore, "Hegel insists that the unity we find in our experience of the world is not constructed by us out of a plurality of intuitions." (Stern, 40) In "his ontological scheme a concrete individual is not reducible to a plurality of sensible properties, but rather exemplifies a substance universal." (Stern, 41) His point is that it is "a mistake to treat an organic substance like blood as nothing more than a compound of unchanging chemical elements, that can be separated and united without being fundamentally altered." (Stern, 103) In Hegel's view, a substance like blood is thus "more of an organic unity and cannot be understood as just an external composition of the sort of distinct substances that were discussed at the level of chemistry." (Stern, 103) Thus in Hegel's view, blood is blood and cannot be successfully reduced to what we consider are its component parts; we must view it as a whole substance entire unto itself. This is most certainly a fundamentally holistic view.[25]


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Émile Durkheim developed a concept of holism which he set as opposite to the notion that a society was nothing more than a simple collection of individuals. In more recent times, Louis Dumont[26] has contrasted "holism" to "individualism" as two different forms of societies. According to him, modern humans live in an individualist society, whereas ancient Greek society, for example, could be qualified as "holistic", because the individual found identity in the whole society. Thus, the individual was ready to sacrifice himself or herself for his or her community, as his or her life without the polis had no sense whatsoever.

Psychology of perception

A major holist movement in the early twentieth century was gestalt psychology. The claim was that perception is not an aggregation of atomic sense data but a field, in which there is a figure and a ground. Background has holistic effects on the perceived figure. Gestalt psychologists included Wolfgang Koehler, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka. Koehler claimed the perceptual fields corresponded to electrical fields in the brain. Karl Lashley did experiments with gold foil pieces inserted in monkey brains purporting to show that such fields did not exist. However, many of the perceptual illusions and visual phenomena exhibited by the gestaltists were taken over (often without credit) by later perceptual psychologists. Gestalt psychology had influence on Fritz Perls' gestalt therapy, although some old-line gestaltists opposed the association with counter-cultural and New Age trends later associated with gestalt therapy. Gestalt theory was also influential on phenomenology. Aron Gurwitsch wrote on the role of the field of consciousness in gestalt theory in relation to phenomenology. Maurice Merleau-Ponty made much use of holistic psychologists such as work of Kurt Goldstein in his "Phenomenology of Perception."

Teleological psychology

Alfred Adler believed that the individual (an integrated whole expressed through a self-consistent unity of thinking, feeling, and action, moving toward an unconscious, fictional final goal), must be understood within the larger wholes of society, from the groups to which he belongs (starting with his face-to-face relationships), to the larger whole of mankind. The recognition of our social embeddedness and the need for developing an interest in the welfare of others, as well as a respect for nature, is at the heart of Adler's philosophy of living and principles of psychotherapy.

Edgar Morin, the French philosopher and sociologist, can be considered a holist based on the transdisciplinary nature of his work.

Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind at a Time,[27] and co-founder (with Charles R. Schwab) of the not-for-profit organization All Kinds of Minds, can be considered a holist based on his view of the 'whole child' as a product of many systems and his work supporting the educational needs of children through the management of a child's educational profile as a whole rather than isolated weaknesses in that profile.

Theological anthropology

In theological anthropology, which belongs to theology and not to anthropology, holism is the belief that body, soul and spirit are not separate components of a person, but rather facets of a united whole.[28]


Holistic concepts are strongly represented within the thoughts expressed within Logos (per Heraclitus), Panentheism and Pantheism.[citation needed]


A lively debate has run since the end of the 19th century regarding the functional organization of the brain. The holistic tradition (e.g., Pierre Marie) maintained that the brain was a homogeneous organ with no specific subparts whereas the localizationists (e.g., Paul Broca) argued that the brain was organized in functionally distinct cortical areas which were each specialized to process a given type of information or implement specific mental operations. The controversy was epitomized with the existence of a language area in the brain, nowadays known as the Broca's area.[29]



There are several newer methods in agricultural science such as permaculture and holistic planned grazing that integrate ecology and social sciences with food production. Organic farming is sometimes considered a holistic approach.


Architecture is often argued by design academics and those practicing in design to be a holistic enterprise.[30] Used in this context, holism tends to imply an all-inclusive design perspective. This trait is considered exclusive to architecture, distinct from other professions involved in design projects.


A holistic brand (also holistic branding) is considering the entire brand or image of the company. For example, a universal brand image across all countries, including everything from advertising styles to the stationery the company has made, to the company colours.

Education reform

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives identifies many levels of cognitive functioning, which can be used to create a more holistic education. In authentic assessment, rather than using computers to score multiple choice tests, a standards based assessment uses trained scorers to score open-response items using holistic scoring methods.[31] In projects such as the North Carolina Writing Project, scorers are instructed not to count errors, or count numbers of points or supporting statements. The scorer is instead instructed to judge holistically whether "as a whole" is it more a "2" or a "3". Critics question whether such a process can be as objective as computer scoring, and the degree to which such scoring methods can result in different scores from different scorers.


In primary care the term "holistic," has been used to describe approaches that take into account social considerations and other intuitive judgements.[32] The term holism, and so called approaches, appear in psychosomatic medicine in the 1970s, when they were considered one possible way to conceptualize psychosomatic phenomena. Instead of charting one-way causal links from psyche to soma, or vice versa, it aimed at a systemic model, where multiple biological, psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked.[33]

Other, alternative approaches in the 1970s were psychosomatic and somatopsychic approaches, which concentrated on causal links only from psyche to soma, or from soma to psyche, respectively.[33] At present it is commonplace in psychosomatic medicine to state that psyche and soma cannot really be separated for practical or theoretical purposes.[citation needed] A disturbance on any level - somatic, psychic, or social - will radiate to all the other levels, too. In this sense, psychosomatic thinking is similar to the biopsychosocial model of medicine.[citation needed]

Many alternative medicine practitioners claim a holistic approach to healing.

See also


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  3. Smuts, J. C. (1927). Holism and Evolution. London: Macmillan and Co. The first publication of Holism and Evolution was by MacMilian and Co. in 1926. Smuts published a 2nd edition in 1927 and there have been at least three subsequent reprints; Compass/Viking Press 1961, Greenwood Press 1973, Sierra Sunrise Books 1999 (a version edited by Sanford Holst). The full text of the 1927 2nd edition is available on the Internet Archive site and this is the source used in updating the Holism page
  4. ibid pp. 120–121
  5. ibid page 88
  6. ibid page 101
  7. ibid page 88
  8. ibid page 89
  9. Jan Smuts (1926). Holism and Evolution. London: McMillan and Co Limited. p. 88.
  10. Anne Bihan, "The Writer, a Man Without Qualities", Literature and Identity in New Caledonia.
  11. Susan Rasmussen, "Personahood, Self, Difference, and Dialogue (Commentary on Chaudhary)", International Journal for Dialogical Science, Fall 2008, Vol. 3, No. 1, 31-54.
  12. Charles Huenemann, Interpreting Spinoza: Critical Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 41
  13. Eccy De Jonge, Spinoza and Deep Ecology: Challenging Traditional Approaches to Environmentalism, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2003, p. 65
  14. Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, London: Routledge, 1990, p. 6 & p. 135
  15. Merold Westphal, Hegel, Freedom, and Modernity, New York: SUNY, 1992, pp.79-81, & p. 86
  16. Michael Esfield, Holism in Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Physics, Springer, 2001, p. 7
  17. Johanna Maria Tito, Logic in the Husserlian Context, Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 245
  18. von Bertalanffy 1971, p. 54.
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  21. anthrobase definition of holism
  22. Reconnecting with John Muir By Terry Gifford, University of Georgia, 2006
  23. Holism, The Basics of Philosophy
  24. Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-0971-2
  25. Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, London: Routledge Chapman Hall, 1990 (full text download)
  26. Louis Dumont, 1984
  27. (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
  28. "The traditional anthropology encounters major problems in the Bible and its predominantly holistic view of human beings. Genesis 2:7 is a key verse: ‘Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (NRSV). The ‘living being’ (traditionally, ‘living soul’) is an attempt to translate the Hebrew nephesh hayah, which indicates a ‘living person’ in the context. More than one interpreter has pointed out that this text does not say that the human being has a soul but rather is a soul. H. Wheeler Robinson summarized the matter in his statement that ‘The Hebrew conceived man as animated body and not as an incarnate soul.’" (Martin E. Tate, "The Comprehensive Nature of Salvation in Biblical Perspective," Evangelical review of theology, Vol. 23.)
  29. 'Does Broca's area exist?': Christofredo Jakob's 1906 response to Pierre Marie's holistic stance. Kyrana Tsapkini, Ana B. Vivas, Lazaros C. Triarhou. Brain and Language, Volume 105, Issue 3, June 2008, Pages 211-219 doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2007.07.124
  30. Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 82-547-0174-1.
  31. Rubrics (Authentic Assessment Toolbox) "So, when might you use a holistic rubric? Holistic rubrics tend to be used when a quick or gross judgment needs to be made" [1]
  32. Julian Tudor Hart (2010) The Political Economy of Health Care pp.106, 258
  33. 33.0 33.1 Lipowski, 1977.[page needed][need quotation to verify]


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  • Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-0971-2
  • Leenhardt, M. 1947 Do Kamo. La personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien. Gallimard. Paris.
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  • Jan C. Smuts, 1926 Holism and Evolution MacMillan, Compass/Viking Press 1961 reprint: ISBN 0-598-63750-8, Greenwood Press 1973 reprint: ISBN 0-8371-6556-3, Sierra Sunrise 1999 (mildly edited): ISBN 1-887263-14-4

Further reading

  • Descombes, Vincent, The Institutions of Meaning: A Defense of Anthropological Holism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2014.
  • Dusek, Val, The Holistic Inspirations of Physics: An Underground History of Electromagnetic Theory Rutgers University Press, Brunswick NJ, 1999.
  • Fodor, Jerry, and Ernst Lepore, Holism: A Shopper's Guide Wiley. New York. 1992
  • Hayek, F.A. von. The Counter-Revolution of Science. Studies on the abuse of reason. Free Press. New York. 1957.
  • Mandelbaum, M. Societal Facts in Gardner 1959.
  • Phillips, D.C. Holistic Thought in Social Science. Stanford University Press. Stanford. 1976.
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  • James, S. The Content of Social Explanation. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1984.
  • Harrington, A. Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler. Princeton University Press. 1996.
  • Lopez, F. Il pensiero olistico di Ippocrate, vol. I-IIA, Ed. Pubblisfera, Cosenza Italy 2004-2008.
  • Robert Stern, Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, London: Routledge Chapman Hall, 1990
  • Sen, R. K., Aesthetic Enjoyment: Its Background in Philosophy and Medicine, Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1966

External links