Jan Smuts’ Influence on Philosophy and Psychology

Guy du Plessis
Published in
20 min readJul 31, 2021


Uncredited photograph. Jan Smuts overlooking the Riebeek Valley, his birthplace.

No other epoch has accumulated so great and so varied a store of knowledge concerning man as the present one. No other epoch has succeeded in presenting its knowledge of man so forcibly and so captivatingly as ours, and no other has succeeded in making this knowledge so quickly and easily accessible. But also, no epoch is less sure of its knowledge of what man is than the present one. In no other epoch has man appeared so mysterious as in ours.

- Martin Heidegger, (1962, p. 206)

If the soul of our civilization is to be saved we shall have to find new and fuller expression for the great saving unities — the unity of reality in all its range, the unity of life in all its forms, the unity of ideas throughout human civilization, and the unity of man’s spirit with the mystery of the Cosmos in religious faith and aspiration.

– Jan Smuts (1926, pp. v-vi)

The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1962) points out that in our current era, which has more accumulated knowledge than any other time in history, man, ironically, remains even more mysterious than before. The solution to our current state points not only to the generation of yet more knowledge but rather, as a philosopher and Commonwealth statesman General Jan Smuts (1926, p. v) suggested, we “have to find new and fuller expression for the great saving unities” (Our Italics). What we need are meta-frameworks that have the capacity to integrate the overwhelming amount of information at our disposal into a more coherent, pragmatic, and meaningful worldview or Weltanschauung. Smuts’ theory of Holism is an attempt at such an integrative “new and fuller expression” of man’s being in the world.

Contemporary integral metatheorists, like American philosopher Ken Wilber (1995, 2000), acknowledge many antecedent foundational influences, and proto-integral thinkers. Wilber’s (2000, 2006) integral theory is often referred to as the AQAL model, with AQAL representing all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, and all types; these five elements signify some of the most basic repeating patterns of reality. Curiously, as this article will point out, Smuts’ (1912, 1926) theory of Holism is seldom acknowledged, as a key progenitor of contemporary integral metatheory, although it has significantly contributed, albeit often implicitly, to the development of contemporary integral metatheory (Du Plessis, 2010; Edwards, 2003). For example, in the canon of published integral theory literature, Smuts is only explicitly mentioned once (that I am aware of), which is in the opening paragraph of the Prologue of Wilber’s (1980) book The Atman Project.

“Everywhere we look in nature, said the philosopher Jan Smuts, we see nothing but wholes. And not just simple wholes, but hierarchical ones: each whole is a part of a larger whole which is itself a part of a larger whole. Fields within fields within fields, stretching through the cosmos, interlacing each and everything with each and every other.

Further, said Smuts, the universe is not a thoughtlessly static and inert whole — the cosmos is not lazy, but energetically dynamic and even creative. It tends (we would now say teleonomically, not teleologically) to produce higher- and higher-level wholes, ever more inclusive and organized. This overall cosmic process, as it unfolds in time, is nothing other than evolution. And the drive to ever-higher unities, Smuts called holism.” (p. 13)

It must be noted that Wilber (personal communication, 21 July 2009) does acknowledge Smuts’ book Holism and Evolution as having a significant influence on him when he was beginning to develop his theories, but has not indicated this sentiment in his writings. The neglect of the acknowledgment of Smuts’ philosophical contribution is not unique to only the integral community, but also in the field of psychology, where the influence of his theory of Holism is often not adequately accredited.

It is remarkable that out of the numerous books and autobiographies written about Smuts, only two deal directly with his theory of Holism. (See Kolbe, 1928, A Catholic View of Holism: A criticism of the theory put forward by General Smuts in his book, Holism and Evolution and Beukes, 1998, The Holistic Smuts, A study in personality.)

This article will briefly highlight that some of the ideas presented by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution (1926) are now associated with contemporary integral metatheory, in particular Wilberian integral theory. Also, that Smuts’ theory of Holism had a significant influence on psychology. In both cases, Smuts’ influence is seldom acknowledged.

Smuts’ Theory of Holism

Although the concept of holism has been implied by many thinkers, the term Holism, as an academic terminology, was first introduced and appeared publicly in print, by Smuts (1926) in his book Holism and Evolution, a book that is “primarily a philosophical treatise relevant to science” (Shelly (2008, p. 91). He writes that: “Holism (from ολος = whole) is the term here coined for this fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” (p. 86). Smuts wrote the first entry of the concept of Holism for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, the concept of holism is commonplace in many fields of study, for example, physics, general systems theory, biology, anthropology, medicine, cybernetics, and various branches of psychology. It must be noted that the concept of Holism as introduced and applied by Smuts is not the same as the word holism as it is generally applied in many disciplines.

Smuts used the word in a metaphysical sense (as an ontological principle/process inherent in nature), not as a broad principle as it is often used today indicating that the sum is bigger than its parts. Smuts (1926) defined Holism as “the ultimate synthetic, ordering, organizing, regulative activity in the universe which accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom and the physic-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through Mind in animals, to Personality in man” (p. 326). He goes on to say that, “Evolution is nothing but the gradual development and stratification of [a] progressive series of wholes, stretching back from the inorganic beginnings to the highest levels of spiritual creation” (Smuts, 1926: v.).

Although Smuts’ Holism is grounded in the natural sciences he did claim that it has relevance to problems of general philosophy, ethics, sociology, psychology, and “the higher spiritual interests of mankind” (1926, p. vi.). For Smuts the great pinnacle of wholes, after evolving from matter to life to mind is to be found in the human personality: “Personality [is] the highest form of Holism” (1926, p. 292). Smuts argues that the notion on the self, drawing from Immanuel Kant’s (Allison, 1983) synthetic unity of apperception, is “the most elusive phantom in the whole range of knowledge” (p. 263), and “is the key to understanding the holistic foundation of personality” (Shelly, 2008, p. 92).

Although Holism is an “attempt at a synthesis” it is not be understood as a system of philosophy, as Smuts (1942) did not “believe very much in systems” and stated that Holism “tries to emphasize one aspect of thought that has hitherto been a neglected factor. I am trying to hammer out this neglected factor, which is, to my mind, all-important in getting the synoptic vision” (p. 147).

Foundational Concepts of Holism

There are several foundational concepts that underlie Smuts’ theory of Holism. In the next section of the article, I briefly explore four of these foundational concepts. I will focus on what I believe are four essential foundational concepts in understanding Smuts’ Holism, which also has some relation with contemporary integral metatheory and contemporary psychology.

The Relationship of Parts to Wholes

Smuts (1926) suggests that “wholeness is the most characteristic expression of the universe in its forward movement in time” (p. 101) and “individuation and universality are equally characteristic of Evolution” (p. 93). Smuts distinguishes his notion of wholes from earlier concepts of wholes, especially from Leibniz’s Monads. In making his distinction he points out that his notion of wholes are not unchanging philosophical concepts and or mere mechanical systems that are confined to the biological domain (Whitford, 1998). “Not only are plants and animals wholes, but in a certain limited sense … atoms, molecules and chemical compounds are … wholes; while in another closely related sense human characters, works of art, and the great ideal of the higher life are or partake in the character of wholes” (Smuts, 1926, p. 100).

It is important to note that for Smuts the concept of wholes does not refer to the whole domain of nature as one unity. “When we speak of Nature or the Universe as a Whole or The Whole … we do not mean that either is a real whole in the sense defined in this work” (Smuts, 1926, p. 352), nor does he refer to a spiritual Absolute. “The great whole may be the ultimate terminus, but it is not the line which we are following. It is the small natural centers of wholeness which we are going to study and the principle of which they are an expression” (Smuts, 1927, p. 103). Consequently, the idea of God, Spirit, or supernatural force active in evolution cannot be inferred from his notion of whole or whole-making.

For Smuts, the whole and its parts are a synthesis that reciprocally influences and determines one another. He points to this fact by saying that “holism is of the parts and acts through the parts, but [it is] the parts in their new relation of intimate synthesis which gives them their unified action” (Smuts, 1926, p. 125–126). This is not the same as the Hegelian viewpoint, often associated with holism, which proposes that the whole determines the parts (Whitford, 1998). Although Smuts (1926) believed that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, he clearly pointed out that it was the result of the “structural relationship between the parts” that comprised the whole (In Whitford, 1998, p. 56).

For Smuts (1926) a chief feature of organisms is that “they involve a balanced correlation of organs and functions” (p. 125) and that they display a degree of self-regulation. Smuts (1926) believed that if there was an anomaly or disturbance “among the parts which upset the routine of the whole, then either this disturbance is eliminated by the co-operative effort of many or all the parts, or the functions of the other parts are so readjusted that a new balance and routine is established” (p. 131).

The Notion of Fields

According to Smuts to be able to have an adequate understanding of how wholes function and evolve one must turn to the notion of “fields”. He considered the idea of fields as central to understanding his Holism, and also that for philosophy and science to adopt the notion of fields it will be “[o]ne of the most salutary reforms in thought” (Smuts, 1926, pp. 18–19).

Smuts (1926) believed that one of the great mysteries surrounding life is that “the sensible data are insufficient to account for its character and properties” (p. 116). Consequently, he believed that an analytic and reductionist understanding is hopelessly inadequate in providing an intelligible understanding to living organisms, as well as how life evolved from inorganic matter. To unlock some of the mysteries of life he suggested we must understand that each object, as well as concepts, also exist as fields beyond their observable “luminous points”. Smuts (1926) writes:

“We have to return to the fluidity and plasticity of nature and experience in order to find the concepts of reality. When we do this we find that around every luminous point in experience there is a gradual shading off into haziness and obscurity. A “concept” is not merely its clear luminous center, but embraces a surrounding sphere of meaning or influence of smaller or larger dimensions, in which the luminosity tails off and grows fainter until it disappears. Similarly, a “thing” is not merely that which presents itself as such in clearest definite outline, but this central area is surrounded by a zone of intuitions and influences which shades off into the region of the indefinite” (p. 17).

Smuts’ (1926) notion of fields influenced and was in turn influenced by, his understanding of causality. He was critical both of Cartesian dualism, which emphasized a fundamental split between mind and matter, and at the time the prevailing, mechanistic view of life that tried to account for life and mind in the same way as it explains the natural sciences. (See Medard Boss, 1983, for a similar critique of Freud’s metapsychology.) He also criticized vitalism for being “nothing but a pale copy of physical force” believed to control an organism externally (Smuts, 1926, p. 166). Smuts (1926) was of the opinion that these mentioned views represent an inaccurate view of cause and effect, and suggested that we should:

“[c]onceive of a cause as a center with a zone of activity or influence surrounding it and shading gradually off into indefiniteness. Next, conceive of an effect as similarly surrounded. It is easy in that way to understand their interaction and to see that cause and effect are not at arm’s length but interlocked, and embrace and influence each other through the interpenetration of their two fields” (p. 18).

According to Smuts the deterministic concept of causality was due to the mechanistic view of things with rigid boundaries which ignored the fact that these observable “luminous” points in Space-Time also extend as surrounding fields. It is only within these fields that things and organisms interact with each other. Whitford (1998) suggest that Smuts’ view on causality is in keeping with modem systems theory; and his critique of the view that sees objects and organism as having rigid borders, is echoed in the work of Bohm (1984) and McNeill & Freiberger (1993).

The Relationship Between Mind and Body

Apart from suggesting that there are no rigid boundaries between objects and organisms, Smuts also did not see mind and body as having clear boundaries, nor is it correct to assume that they interact with each other. He believed the concept of ‘interaction’ is inadequate to decide the relationship between body and mind, and suggested the term “intro-action” as more accurately describing the relationship. “Mind does not so much act on Body as penetrate it, and thus act through or inside it” (Smuts, 1926, p. 270).

Smuts alleged that the mind evolved from matter and life to move the organism towards greater freedom. The concept of freedom played a central role in Smuts’ conception of the human condition, and correlates and predates Heidegger’s (1927) ontology of Dasein and notion of “being-in-the-world.” (A serious study needs to be conducted to explore Smuts’ unarticulated contribution towards existential philosophy and especially existential-phenomenological psychology.) Smuts writes that Mind “through its power of experience and knowledge comes to master its own conditions of life, to secure freedom and control of the regulative system into which it has been born. Freedom, plasticity, creativeness become the keynotes of the new order of Mind” (Smuts, 1926, p. 234).

Smuts rejects the idea of a disembodied and transcendent spiritual realm that interacts with, or influences, the mind and the body. “The universal realizes itself not in idle self-contemplation, not in isolation from the actual, but in and through individual bodies, in particular things and facts. The temple of the Spirit is the structure of matter; the universal dwells in the concrete particular” (Smuts, 1926, p. 93). Smuts also rejects the Gnostic outlook that Spirit or Soul is to be given ontological priority and value over the body. “The view that degrades the body as unworthy of the Soul or Spirit is unnatural and owes its origins to morbid religious sentiments …. The ideal Personality only arises where Mind irradiates Body and Body nourishes Mind, and the two are one in their mutual transfigurement” (Smuts, 1926, p. 270). Smuts rejects the dualistic mind-body view of Berkeley, which suggests that “God is the agent that acts between the two different substances,” and Spinoza’s view that mind and body operate “as two modes of action under one substance” (In Whitford, 1998, pp. 60–61). Smuts (1926) says “the fact is all these theories have an element of truth…Mind and Body are elements in the whole of Personality…This whole is an inner creative, recreative and transformative activity, which accounts for all that happens in Personality as between its component parts” (p. 270–271).

Smuts considered the human personality to be the latest and pinnacle manifestation of Holism in the known universe. In his theory of Holism, he considered the movement toward human wholeness an important component. He states that “[t]he object of the holistic movement is simply the Whole, the Self-realisation and the perfection of the whole” (Smuts, 1926, p. 324). For Smuts, this “Self-realisation” of the “holistic movement” manifests in the human realm as a movement towards greater freedom. This position is in stark contrast to thinkers like Hegel (evolutionary determinism) and others, who suggest that humans are part of a greater collective movement towards the realization of Spirit/God/State. For Smuts, the highest manifestation of Holism is in the freedom of the individual.

“To be a free personality represents the highest achievement of which any human being is capable. The Whole is free, and to realize wholeness or freedom (they are correlative expressions) in the smaller whole of individual life represents not only the highest of which an individual is capable, but expresses also what is at once the deepest and highest universal movement of Holism” (Smuts, 1926, p. 312).

This notion of freedom also has significant existential implications from a socio-cultural and political perspective. The highest realization of mankind does not lie in some future idealized collective state-of-being, realized Spirit or collective level-of-consciousness, of which the highest existential duty of the individual is to contribute to this goal — but rather in the here and now, in the free individual. The State is not seen as a whole, for which the individual is only a means to an end, and only exists to contribute to it, but rather the State should serve and promote the freedom of the individual. The State should not be seen as a holistic unity or a holistic organism; they are merely aggregates of wholes (individuals), never more than the sums of their parts (Smuts called these types of organizations “holoïds”, which are mechanical and not organisms per se). Obviously, Smuts is not suggesting a form of self-absorbed narcissism, but rather a state of being in the world where an individual’s actions contribute towards greater freedom individually and collectively.

Rejection of Materialism and Idealism

Smuts rejected the materialist conception dominant at the time of writing Holism and Evolution. He argued that a pure materialist view of the natural world constitutes “a mere collection of disjecta membra, drained of all union or mutual relations, dead, barren, inactive, unintelligible” (as cited in Hancock, 1968: 180). Even though Smuts rejects a strict materialist conception, he did not revert to idealism.

Although Smuts suggested that there is an inherent striving for continual growth in wholeness or fullness in the universe, he however insisted that such striving is not towards a being of any sort of a whole of any type. He argued strongly against positing the existence of a deity as a “Supreme Whole” (Smuts, 1926/1973, p. 338) of which all other things are parts, whether conceived as “Mind” or organically as “Nature,” insisting that such reasoning was “unsound and false” (p. 341). “No inference to a transcendent Mind is justified,” Smuts insisted, “as that would make the whole still of the same character and order of its parts; which would be absurd” (p. 342).

It is important to note that for Smuts the “spiritual order”, although he never clearly defines his use of the concept, is not something that has always been present in the evolution of the universe, but as a later stage of the process of Holism. “The evolutionary facts of Science are beyond dispute, and they support the view of the earth as existing millions of years before ever the psychical or spiritual order had arisen, and what is true of the earth may be similarly true of the universe as a whole” (Smuts, 1926, p. 340).

Moreover, Smuts did not adhere to a belief of Spirit as transcendent from matter, or that Spirit infused matter with some creative energy. “There is … no spiritual Society of the whole universe, but there is Holistic order, which is something far greater, and stretches from the beginning to the end, and through all grades and degrees of holistic fulfillment. Holism, not Spiritualism, is the key to the interpretation of the universe” (Smuts, 1926, p. 344). It must be pointed out that when Smuts used the term “Holism” instead of “Spiritualism” is not a mere semantic switch where the concept of “Holism” now has similar foundational assumptions that “Spiritualism” has.

Smuts (1926) was in agreement with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose book A Critique of Pure Reason he studied in great depth while fighting in the Boer War, that proof of a transcendent influence or being cannot be found in studying nature (as natural theology suggests), and suggests that such belief “must rest on quite different grounds” (p. 342).

Smuts does not see Holism in any way as a ‘spiritual’ force, with religious undertones. He adds that Holism negates “the far-reaching spiritual assumptions of the Monadology, or Panpsychism” and “is … in firm agreement with the teachings of science and experience” (Smuts, 1926, p. 344). For Smuts, wholes are co-creators in the process of evolution. “It is the synthesis involved in the concept of the whole which is the source of creativeness in nature” (Smuts, 1926, p. 126). He also notes that apart from Holism’s creative features (Eros) it also contains repressive (Thanatos) aspects so that “the balanced whole of the Type is achieved” (Smuts, 1926, p. 192).

Smuts’ Influence on Anglo-Saxon Psychology

When conducting a literature review search of psychology databases, one will find a very little direct reference to Smuts, however, his term Holism does relate to a substantial number of articles. From the lack of references to Smuts, one might assume that Smuts’ Holism was irrelevant to the genesis of Anglo-American psychology. This is not the case, as Shelly (2008) states that “both his holistic thesis and holism more broadly have played, and continue to play, a crucial theoretical role in some threads of Anglo-American psychology” (p. 97).

For example, Fritz Perls (1947), co-founder of Gestalt Therapy, was greatly influenced by Smuts’ work while living in South Africa after fleeing Nazi Germany and wrote his book Ego, Hunger, and Aggression at that time. Barlow (1981) states that “[t]his basic premise [holism] was not only adopted by Gestalt psychology, but also by Gestalt therapy, and in fact all of the humanistic and existential psychologies” (Back, 1973, p. 1). Perls approved of how Smuts’ ideas complemented the holistic work of Kurt Goldstein (1937). The greatest value in the Gestalt approach, according to Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1951), “lies in the insight that the whole determines the parts, which contrasts with the previous assumption that the whole is merely the total sum of its elements” (p. 19). Both Gorten (1987) and Wulf (1998) list Smuts as a significant influence in the development of Gestalt Therapy.

Kurt Koffka (1935), one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and author of the book Principles of Gestalt Psychology, enthusiastically read Holism and Evolution and in a letter to Smuts indicated that was “interested in the wider principle of Holism…” (Smuts in Blanckenberg, 1951, p. 159). In 1937 Koffka sent Smuts his book Principles of Gestalt Psychology. In a reply Smuts (In Blanckenberg, 1951) says that “[y]ears ago I read your ‘Growth of Mind’ with deep interest and much instruction. Ever since I have followed, so far as my circumstances allow, the great developments which have taken place in Gestalt Psychology” (p. 159).

Alfred Adler (1956) was one of the first psychodynamic thinkers to synthesize Smuts’ holistic philosophy into his school of thought (individual psychology). Ansbacher (1994) notes,

He [Adler] wrote to Smuts in January 1931:

“Reading your book Holism and Evolution, I felt very much moved by all your explanations. I could see very clearly what had been the key to our science. Besides the great value of your contributions in many other directions, I recognized the view in regard to what we have called “unity” and “coherence”. I feel very glad to recommend your book to all my students and followers as the best preparation for Individual Psychology.” (Italics in original, p. 490)

Adler (In Blanckenberg, 1951) used Holism and Evolution for his university lectures in Vienna (and had it translated into German) and described Smuts’ Holism theory as “supplying the scientific and philosophical basis for the great advance in psychology which had been made in recent years” (p. 81).

In the U.S. and also Britain, Adolf Meyer was a colossal figure often referred to as “the Dean of American Psychiatry” (Neill, 1980: 460). In 1945 Meyer wrote to Smuts in support of his goals for the United Nations, he concluded:

“Long one of your admirers, and cheered with your declaration of a wonderful conception of the San Francisco [UN] conference goal, I beg to send you my words of admiration and gratitude…

Deeply stirred by your gift to the cause, I send you these words,

Sincerely, your humble fellow-holist.” (in Shelley, 200, p. 99)

Meyer’s statement, “Long one of your admirers,” clearly indicates that he was familiar with Smuts’ ideas. Shelly (2008) notes that “[i]t seems no great leap to suggest that Smuts also influenced one of the great founding figures [Meyer] of American psychiatry” (p. 99).

In his book Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli (1975) acknowledged Smuts as a contributor to the holistic approach in psychology, as well as of the psychology of personality. Assagioli (1975) describes Smuts’ holistic approach as one of the most “significant and valuable contributions to the knowledge of human nature and its betterment” (p. 14).


This article briefly attempted to point out that the philosopher-statesman Jan Smuts could be recognized as having a significant influence on integral metatheory, and contemporary psychology. If Smuts (1927) were alive today, we the authors believe, that he would champion contemporary integral metatheories as a positive impulse for his clarion call for a “new and fuller expression for the great saving unities” (p. v).


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Guy du Plessis

Guy is a researcher at the I-System Institute for Transdisciplinary studies, Utah State University. He has published in the fields of psychology and philosophy.