Anne Harrington. Reenchanted Science. Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996 (xxiv + 309 pages) Cloth: $US 39.50.

In Reenchanted Science, Anne Harrington, professor of history and science at Harvard University, has produced a thought-provoking book on holistic thought in German science and culture from the 1890s to the end of World War II.

Holistic life and mind sciences developed in a German intellectual context where the modern scientific enterprise represented a ”disenchanting” force. Natural sciences had, it was commonly agreed, given rise to an empty, mechanistic Machine-perspective, threatening to undermine traditional ideals and social relations, and replace Gemeinschaft with a Machine Gesellschaft. Harrington tells the story of scientists who believed that disenchantment could be replaced, not by abandoning Science as such, but by replacing the mechanistic, instrumentalist life and mind sciences with a new holistic Ganzheitlehre of man and his relations with the natural world. A Science of Wholeness, with new ”intuitive” and ”anti-reductionist” standards, would ”reenchant” the world and heal what the Science of Machine had ruined.

Focusing primarily on the careers of four recognised German-speaking holistic scientists – von Uexküll (biologist), von Monakov (neurologist), Wertheimer (Gestalt psychologist), and Goldstein (neuropsychiatrist) – Harrington’s book provides a detailed account of holistic scientific thinking and its interrelations with the broader cultural and political scene.

In stark contrast to Lukács’ analysis of the relationship between irrationalism and the rise of fascism, holism for Harrington is dependent not only on the broader German culture but also on its own internal scientific rationale. What makes science worth taking so seriously is, according to the author, "... the fact that it apparently does, in highly ritualised ways, engage phenomenal realities that ‘talk back’ and whose logic is not wholly human – and yet simultaneously does so in ways richly generative of human meanings and social imperatives" (p. xxiii).

Harrington is thus far from proposing that holism led to Auschwitz. German holism proved, according to Harrington, to be a complex, pluralistic and sometimes even ”quarrelsome” phenomenon; the history of German holism is rather the history of German holisms. As Harrington is anxious to show, several democratic scientists – liberal or leftist – were attracted to the intellectual as well as the cultural promises of holism (Goldstein and Wertheimer, as Jews persecuted by the Nazis, are prominent representatives). Yet, as the author’s analysis points out, the language of Ganzheit provided important metaphorical resources for National Socialist ideology, especially in the early founding years of the Nazi regime, and holistic biologists and psychologists with conservative leanings welcomed the Nazi take-over as a long-awaited spiritual revolt against the Machine society. The ”racializing” of holism is an important part of the story. It was argued that the very capacity for Ganzheitsbetrachtung was firmly rooted in different biologies and different perceptual abilities: the Jew, with an inherited mechanistic and materialistic spirit, is always attempting to split things, and make them complicated, while the healthy non-Jew (read German), thinks organically and in terms of wholes.

What are the implications for the critical study of present-day holistic thought? The history of German holism and the recent resurgence of holistic thought (e.g. in the holistic health movement) are not simply one of a kind, but Harrington suggests that it is important ” ... to better understand the ways in which we ... mingle a range of cultural meanings and goals into our scientific dialogues with nature.” (p. 212). Harrington's well-researched, well-written study provides an excellent starting-point. It deserves thoughtful examination not only by historians of science but also by sociologists and other scholars across the social sciences.

Klas Borell
Dept. of Social Work
Mid-Sweden University

November 1998
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