I am preparing the draft of a scientific article which greatly benefits from the well known quote:

"The whole is other than the sum of its parts"

However, I am unable to find the correct citation for it.

According to Wikipedia:

This principle maintains that when the human mind (perceptual system) forms a percept or "gestalt," the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. The original famous phrase of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts" is often incorrectly translated[4] as "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," and thus used when explaining gestalt theory, and further incorrectly applied to systems theory.[5] Koffka did not like the translation. He firmly corrected students who replaced "other" with "greater". "This is not a principle of addition" he said.[6] The whole has an independent existence.

To the best of my understanding, since I am using it as a quote, I am required to cite it. I have tried finding the source of the quotation using Google, but have been unsuccessful thus far. In such a scenario, is it appropriate to cite the 6th citation from the Wikepedia page, i.e,

Heider, F. 1977. Cited in Dewey, R.A. 2007. Psychology: An introduction: Chapter four - The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts. Retrieved 4/12/2014.


  • 8
    Citation in scientific publication is required so that readers can source and verify statements of fact. Unless the exact source of the quote is important to your article, you can probably use it as a well known saying.
    – David
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 17:47
  • But, is it well-known enough that I do not need to cite it?
    – DotPi
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 17:56
  • 4
    Well, that concept dates back to Aristotle: "[...] the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts [...]". Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 22:29

3 Answers 3


It sounds like you are effectively asking if it is OK to cite a secondary source, if the primary source is not able to be located or retrieved. This varies by publication style guides; for example, in IEEE secondary sources are (at least in theory) prohibited, though as far as I'm aware there are no Grand Inquisitors enforcing this rule, so if you do it I don't know that anyone would think that an adequate reason to suggest rejection of your paper...but I haven't tried it.

As you mention Psychology, I'll note that in APA format, the answer is: yes, it absolutely is OK to use secondary sources, so long as you keep them to a minimum. However, your use of the brackets makes me think you might be using an ACM/IEEE style, in which case you are not supposed to use secondary sources; either you find a primary source, or you simply do not cite it at all.

If ACM/IEEE is your style, I would tend to suggest you just say something along the lines of, "in the words of the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, the whole...". And then you just don't cite it, because it's clear you are using someone else's words, you don't have a primary source, and it would seem weird to me for a reviewer to object to there not being a citation to that unless your work absolutely depends on Kurt Koffka having said those words (which would make no sense in a field that uses ACM/IEEE).

  • The quotation I used in the question is from Wikipedia. It is not my own work.
    – DotPi
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 0:11

I've been looking into this as well.

And despite Jan's answer being plenty adequate to your question and extremely informational beyond, I may be able to add this; The first mention of this saying was supposedly by Aristotle, but he said "greater than the sum...". Where Koffka's version is "other than the sum..." I believe the key here is that Koffka's way of seeing things was distinctively different from how Aristotle phrased it. Thus wanting to change that one particular word to make it fit his vision. The subtlety probably made him feel real clever about himself.

To this conclusion, I'd suggest researching the difference between the two versions and decide which one is more for you. Quote that.

Then again we are 2 years, 9 months further from your post - so this information now only matters to whom it may concern.

Godspeed, or whatever fuel you're on!


It is possible to find the quote on Koffa's book "Principles Of Gestalt Psychology", page 176:

It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful.

Here the link to the digitalised source

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