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Some Reflections on Kantor, Kantorians, and Kantor’s Career

William S. Verplanck

Knoxville, Tn

Some Reflections on Kantor, Kantorians, and Kantor’s Career

Query: Why have I found Kantor’s viewpoint “attractive and inspirational?”

Answer: Because it was based on profound and thorough scholarship that, when coupled with Kantor’s capacity for critical and original thought, leads to an approach that brings order to our interactions with the world in which we live. It confronts the behavior we observe in ordinary, every day living- our own, as well as that of others. It provides intellectual tools for ordering and evaluating what psychologists do-academic, research, clinical, and otherwise. Grounded in “common-sense” and in behavior that occurs without the contrivance of experimental research and theoretical “special effects,” Kantor’s interbehaviorism provides the basis for a Linnaean taxonomizing of a Baconian collection of behavioral phenomena. Interbehaviorism points the way to a general psychology that can reunify what is now an absurdly fractionated field of inquiry.

In sum, Kantor’s viewpoint enables one to look at the science of psychology with a sharper pair of eyes. It provides a naturalistic and empirical view that (a) summarizes what has been done that will also survive, (b) identifies the discardably faddish, and (c) indicates what needs to be done in the future. His diagrams tell us more than do other people’s books. So, reason enough to become a “Kantorian.” One wonders, though, why more psychologists have not found Kantor’s viewpoint not only attractive, but fundamental for further advance in the psychological sciences.

Query: Why aren’t there more of Kantorians? Answer: This cannot be dealt with satisfactorily until we answered another question. The question: How does one come to have, or to arrive at, an interbehavioral view? With this, a third question will have to be partially addressed: Why have Kantor’s ideas remained unknown to everybody else, except, perhaps, as the words of an elderly speaker at a colloquium who went on and on, battling what he called “spooks”-or as a name in a footnote?

“Kantorians” and Fellow-Travelers

Shortly after having heard Karl Pribram tell me that he had read Kantor and has been influenced by him, and then listening to a presentation he gave on metaphors in psychology, I was led to consider four groups (fuzzy sets?) of psychologists who might be termed “interbehavioral” to some degree. There are psychologists: 1. who know and sing all the lyrics in perfect harmony; 2. who know some of the lyrics and can carry the tune, but have to hum a lot; 3. who do not know the words, but can carry the tune, and hum along; and 4. who have heard the melody, recognize it, and like it.

Group 1 and 2 are “Kantorians”-psychologists who identify themselves as interbehaviorist. The members of Group 1 talk and think exclusively in terms of Kantor’s writings, and they are inclined to believe that members of Group 2 do not really understand Kantor, that they misuse or misinterpret his concepts. Members of Group 3 might term themselves interbehavioral, but they have not done so explicitly; Roger Barker, for example, might fall in this group.

Members of Group 4 cannot be called “Kantorian,” but are reasonably knowledgeable, and have been influenced, if not positively (as by adopting some part of his conceptual system), then negatively (by taking heed of his criticisms of what they have been doing or thinking, and then modifying their activities). Frank Beach might be an example. In the early 1950s, when I saw a good deal of Frank, he told me how Kantor’s (1947) Problems in Psychological Psychology, and his own work on the Ford and Beach (1951) book, Patterns of Sexual Behavior, led to his discontinuing his “rigorously experimental” program of research on “sexual behavior.” (It involved dropping solitarily raised and housed male rats into a box in which was placed a similarly solitarily raised and housed female, brought into oestrus by artificial means.) Quite a few other psychologists fall into this group, but have had no opportunity to acknowledge Kantor’s influence by reference.

Becoming a Kantorian

Almost all “Kantorians” (Groups 1 and 2) have been students of Kantor, students of students of Kantor, or close associates of these. For students who encountered Kantor’s system “fresh,” the affiliation came easily. They learned Kantor’s conceptual system from the ground up, and did not have to unlearn so much. Others, who had previously been trained in different conceptual systems and research methodologies had difficulty grasping what Kantor wrote, and learning how to think and work within the framework. The critical factor seems to have been long, first-hand exposure to Kantor’s concepts.

To work and to write within the interbehavioral system requires more than book-knowledge. Familiarity with Kantor’s difficult writings sufficient enough to paraphrase them on an examination or in a lecture with a degree of accuracy does not give the grasp, the overview, or the aptitudes required for practicing or thinking in interbehavioral terms. It also takes experience in talking and writing about a variety of topics within the interbehavioral community. If you do not begin in such a community, joining one requires that you identify and reexamine the premises on which you (and almost all other academic and experimental psychologists) have been functioning, and doing so using Kantor’s concepts. Such self-examination is not easy, and the need for such review is not much recognized. Most psychologists have the notion that psychology is an “experimental” science, carried out in a laboratory with a research methodology borrowed from physics, drilled into them from the first chapter of the first textbook of psychology they studied.

Grasping Kantor’s point of view requires lots of talk with others in the interbehavioral community, and lots of practice (a) looking at the world with an unprejudiced, fresh, and naturalistic eye and (b) detecting when you are appealing to an unobservable agent of one sort or another to account for what you observe. You acquire new skills in observing your own and others’ behavior, whether in or out of an experiment, as either the “S” or the “E.” You learn to catch yourself when one of Kantor’s “spooks” slips into your thinking. These include fashionable and scientifically sophisticated spooks such as intervening variables and hypothetical constructs, as well as “processing centers,” “minds,” and “brains.” The study of how the brain functions is both interesting and important, but it is the study of the brain’s behavior not of the individual’s. Interbehavioral thinking is holistic. As part of the body, the brain participates in interbehaving, but does not “explain” or “cause” it.

It is not easy to break away from Humean views of causality and from scientific analysis in terms of single or limited sets of independent and dependent variables, with other variables “held constant.” Kantor demands that we consider the whole array of natural events-of observables past and present-that play a role in any descriptive (and hence “explanatory”) account of who does what, and when. Furthermore, we must always remember that, as observers, we are partof the event. (Here, Kantor anticipated some physicists.) It is not easy to shed the “analyses” and “scientific methodology” expounded in textbooks.

Thus, participation in a continuing verbal community helps make the break from conventional tacit premises, the axioms of “scientific methodology,” and the limited analyses of behavior associated with Cartesian, mechanistic thinking. “Stimuli” cannot be thought of as physical events or energies that are antecedent to responses. “Responses” are not limited to muscle twitches and the like. You need to bypass retinal images, nerve impulses, projection areas-even the electrical brain-field wholes of Gestalt psychology-and start with the world in which we live, a world of tables and chairs, of circles and squares, of speaking sentences, of Roseanne, Beavis, and Butthead, and of leaning forward in your chair, picking up the remote, and then changing channel. You need to take into account all that is going on, as you observe an event, remembering always that observing is part of the event. When you have had the experience of being a member of an interbehavioral community, it shows in your later work, whether or not it is labeled “interbehavioral.” Witness the careers and emphasis of Foly, Anastasi, and Humphreys-each of whom spent time at Indiana University.

My Coming to Interbehaviorism

I came to interbehaviorism-to be a Group 2 Kantorian-the hard way. My first graduate work at the University of Virginia was with Geldard and Spence. Geldard led me into sensory psychology and psychophysics; Spence made me a confirmed Hullian. At Brown University, Graham led me deeper into sensory psychology and psychophysics (vision), exposed me to Skinner, pounded deeper into my head the problems of measurement, and grounded me in scientific methodology. Walter Hunter further hammered me into the shape of a confirmed “experimental psychologist,” convinced that the retina/brain and the nervous system held all the answers. I had already persuaded myself that Hull had found the true path into that Carnapian unified science.

For me, the stepping stones to interbehavioral views went as follows:

    During World War II, I did field research with real people, real ships, and real problems.
    At Indiana University, when I worked late in the office, Parker Lichtenstein would come by and talk, and I would listen.
    For a year, I worked closely with Kantor, as Assistant to the Acting Department Head, and observed what he did, and how he did it.
      As a non-Skinnerian, but nevertheless a close and good friend of Fred and his family, I undertook the critical analysis of Fred’s system (see Verplanck, 1954), for the book,

Modern Learning Theory

    (Estes et al., 1954). I identified it as a systematic viewpoint, rather than a theory. This led me to a reexamination of my own views on “scientific method” as laid out in the introduction to that book. This prepared me for a fresh look at Kantor’s system.
      My own research on psychophysics was showing that variables other than the physical properties of the stimulus were of major importance in determining the value of a “threshold,” and indeed there was no such animal no “the threshold” I realized that the more I learned about


      the less I knew about


      I read Kantor’s (1947)

Problems of Physiological Psychology

    , and worked through its diagrams.
    An extended visit with ethologists led me to a full functional concept of both “Stimulus” and “response,” and to recognize the indispensability of first-hand observation in uncontrived “naturalistic” or “ecological” contexts.
    In giving a course on Hull’s theory, I found myself progressively skeptical of both his theory and of the rational of putting such a theory together.
    With student participation, I tinkered around with operant methodologies and, in extending them, noted that the behaviors we found were more congruent with Kantor’s precepts than with Skinner’s narrow views.
    I started work on clarifying vocabulary, sorting out classes of interactions of subject and environment, and trying to take into account the active role of subjects’ histories, the environmental context, and the observer in experimental research. This led me to examine in detail the operations carried out in published experiments. I reached the conclusion (to put it crudely) that if you have a theory, you are sure to find a way to confirm it to your satisfaction. Such minor disconfirmation as you may detect can be easily rectified by appeal to “further research” and “theoretical development.” If not, you just “leave it lay,” and move into a new research area. In sum, the identity of the experimenter too often seemed a more important variable than either the subject or the experimental environment.
    That did it; I had gotten there. I was an interbehaviorist! I had been a slow learner, but then I had a lot to unlearn.

One other Kantorian has had a somewhat similar history: Sid Bijou. Like me, he followed the path from Hull-Spence through Skinner, and then on to his present view. He and his students now study language in children, using Kantor’s vocabulary and conceptual system, rather than Skinner’s (1957) Verbal Behavior(e.g.,Bijou, Chao, & Ghezzi, 1988; Bijou, Umbreit, Ghezzi, & Chao, 1985).

The Kantor-Skinner Relationship: Interbehaviorism and Radical Behaviorism

Query: What about Fred Skinner? Answer: In Skinner’s earliest papers, he expounded the functional interbehavioral point of view clearly and cogently. The substrate of interbehaviorism in the Skinnerian system is unmistakable in these papers (e.g., Skinner, 1931, 1935), as it is in The Behavior of Organisms (Skinner, 1938). Robert Kantor recognized Skinner’s systematic and research compatibility, and brought him to Indiana from the University of Minnesota in 1945 for that reason. Kantor considered Aristotle the first interbehaviorist, himself the second, and Skinner the third.

Kantor had substantial influence on Skinner at Indiana, persuading him, among other things, that “drive” was a “spook,” to use one of Kantor’s favorite words. But at Indiana, Skinner exhibited the first clear signs of the equivocal way in which he would later use the word “stimulus,” shifting back and forth between a physical definition and a functional one (see Verplanck, 1954). He also became hooked on ever more elaborate apparatus, progressively limiting the need to observe behavior directly. The Skinner box gave an illusion of objectivity; it was easy for Skinner to forget that the apparatus he designed and built was an intrinsic part of the behavior recorded by the recorders he designed. (Query: Is it the pigeon in the Skinner box, or Skinner in the pigeon box?)

Given the close similarity of Skinner’s early writings to Kantor’s views, you might expect Skinnerians to become attracted to Kantor. Some were, for example, Nat Schoenfeld, who spent a year at Indiana alongside Kantor and thereafter exhibited his intellectual influence in both work and writing (see, e.g., Schoenfeld, 1969). Through the 1950s and 1960s, there were many other signs of Kantor’s acceptability to Skinnerians in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and in other Skinnerian writings-much to Skinner’s uneasiness. (Fred did not like to be considered the third anything, including being an interbehaviorist.)

This encouraging trend ended abruptly in 1970, at an invited address Kantor gave to the American Psychological Association’s Division 25 for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (see Kantor, 1970). He spent the first part of his talk remarking favorably on the diligence of Division 25 members in their research, but then went on to criticze them positively, stating his strong regrets for the experimental obsession of Skinnerians with pigeons, rats, hardware, and schedules of reinforcement. He exhorted them to get out in the world and tackle real problems, seeking accounts of and solutions to the problems that occur naturally.

From that time on, Kantor was, as it were, read out of the Party. Skinner himself went out of his way to ignore Kantor and, when he could not, to minimize Kantor’s work however he could. Kantor got footnotes, not paragraphs in Fred’s writings. Toward the end of his life, Skinner’s last effort to remain “first” appeared in a testy (and both sad and funny) letter published in the ABA Newsletter (Skinner, 1988) complaining about the “cuckoos” who were laying their eggs in his nest. He was referring to interbehaviorists who participated, as a Special Interest Group, in the annual meetings of the Association for Behavior Analysis.

But times are now changing. Kantor’s “setting factors” are creeping in as “establishing operations.” The Cambridge Center for Behavior Science tackles issues such as those Kantor spoke to in 1970. Those Skinnerians who have had a full grasp of Fred’s writings prior to approximately 1955 will not find their development into interbehaviorist difficult, although sadly, they will probably be called “neo-Skinnerians.”

Un-Kantorians, Anti-Kantorians, and Non-Kantorians

In addition to “Kantorians” (Groups 1 and 2) and the “Kantor-influenced” (Groups 3 and 4), other groups of psychologist may be identified on the bias of their parallel or anti-parallel perspectives with respect to Kantor-or by none at all.

There are, for instance, un-Kantorians: those who have read Kantor, but have been unable (or have not been troubled to try) to use his concepts. There is no way to tell how many of them there are, that is, to tell how many have read Kantor, but did not take the trouble to think his propositions through.

Then there are anti-Kantorians: those who read and to a degree understand Kantor, but reject or are openly hostile to his proposals. The anti-Kantorians surely include some contemporaries from the 1920s. A former student of one of the latter sat beside me in Kantor-Skinner “meetings” at Indiana, where he muttered under his breath and into my ear in agreement with meÄthen a doctrinaire logical-positivist-theory-constructing-experimental psychologistÄand in disagreement with Kantor. Thereafter, I had the advantage of working first-hand with Kantor, and came to know him as the thorough, conscientious, and sophisticated scholar he was, even though I disagreed with him in toto. My colleague rejected Kantor’s concepts so completely, however, that he rejectedÄeven hatedÄthe person himself. I could not tolerate listening to such paeans of contempt, and broke off what had been a close friendship.

Still, I was scientifically outraged by such Kantorisms as his denial of the importance (even exsistence) of retinal images, and his statements to the effect that “there are no such phenomena as monochromatic light.” James J. Gibson caught on much later. Interestingly, a comparable aversion to unwelcome ideas is found in elementary textbooks in relation to Skinner, as well as in Skinnerian books that ignore “cognitive” problems in behavior (e.g., remembering, perceiving).

Finally,there are the non-Kantorians. These are psychologits who never heard of Kantor, but who were or are working along interbehavioral lines, rediscovering interbehavioral concepts. Viewpoints advanced by Kantor seventy years ago, for instance, have reappeared in the guise of contextualism, dialectic psychology, and the like. Among the non-Kantorians, we may now add Paul Schiller who was developing interbehavioral concepts parallel to Kantor’s shortly before his untimely death in 1950. Ironicallly, he was then about to work closely with Skinner at Harvard.

Why So Many Non-Kantorians?

The largest sub-group of non-Kantorians includes just about every psychologistÄboth then and now. Why have so few people had the opportunity to study with Kantor, his students, or other interbehaviorists, to examine critically at first-hand his systematic approach? Why did Kantor remain relatively isolated in Indiana? Given the publication and immediate, but short-lived success of Kantor’s first books (Kantor, 1924, 1926), why was he not brought back east, into the intellectual power-center of the Ivy League universities, as was, for example, Clark Hull? If Kantor had been brought to those centers and been able to teach their graduate students, the history of psychology would likely have been considered as a possibility for Ivy League appointment, but he was unwelcome, for at least two reasons.

A Disciplinary Reason

First, Kantor was an iconoclast. He thought that almost everthing being done in psychological laboratories was misguided and that psychology demanded its own new investigative methods. His views on the research and research methods suitable to psychology were unacceptable to men such as Walter Hunter; even Boring had research publicatons. The mainstream establishment departments of psychology accepted fully the philosophers’ of science cookie-cutter recipes for how to do experimental research, constructed theories, and find explanations. They identified themselves with hard scientists, with physicists and chemists in style and in action. The metric of qualityÄwhether of individuals, departments or universitiesÄwas the number of research papers published. Universities had succumbed to the strangulation predicted by William James (1912) in “The Ph.D. Octopus.”

It was all but impossible for students to complete dissertation requirements under Kantor’s directon. Able students of Kantor had to complete their dissertations under the direction of others. With no published experimental research of his own, nor dissertation students publishing research, Kantor was a most unlikely candidate for appointment at any of those universities whose unadmitted motto was “Publish or Perish.” (Kantor, we can safely say, was in no way responsible for the kilopiles and macropages of trivialities that pass for dissertaions, most of which become published as scientific research.)

A Cultural Reason

The second reason for Kantor’s exclusion from the power-structure of psychology, and his isolation from the variety and number of graduate students found in the northeast, is one I might hesitate to put forth, but it must be stated. Most psychologists, including historians of psychology who do not consider the social context of people and events, prefer to overlook this regrettable part of our history.

During World War I, eminent psychologists who developed and worked on the Army Alpha and Beta intelligence test had proved to their satisfaction the intellectual inferiority of, among others, “Eastern Europeans.” These mainly Ivy League psychologists, together with labor unions, then played a role in the Congressional enactment of the restrictive and racist 1922 immigration laws. The social and intellectual climate of the times was, in short, more than mildly xenophobic. The Ku Klux Klan ruled state politics in Indiana, and was powerful elsewhere. In universities, xenophobia was more specifically anti-Semitic. Restrictive racist quotas applied, except at the City College of New York and, perhaps, at New York University.

As for Jacob Robert Kantor he was very Jewish-in name, in origin, and in appearance. Like his positions on causality and research methodology, he was personally alien, too. Moreover, his iconoclasm was likely confirmed to the WASP ascendancy their preexisting suspicions of “Eastern Europeans.” Kantor was not alone, of course. As late as the mid-1930s, Isidore Krechevsky had to change his name to David Krech; and the gentile, Harry Israel, had his surname legally changed to Harlow. It is ironic that the dissemination of Kantor’s views was limited by anti-Semitism, for Kantor himself was a thorough secularist, a card-carrying atheist. Although he acted like the prototypical rabbinical scholar-albeit one who studied people and their behavior, rather than the Talmud-he was an opponent of any theology.

Kantor’s brilliance, and the public recognition gained by the publication of Principles of Psychology (Kantor, 1924, 1926) were not enough to break through the social walls built around the major graduate universities by the WASP establishment. There was no way on God’s Green Earth that, in the 1920s and 1930s, this Jew with iconoclastic views of psychology as a science could have won an appointment at an Ivy League school. Well, there was S.W. Rernberger at the University of Pennsylvania. And, at Columbia University, Otto Klineberg first broke the barrier, and proceeded to deflate the conclusions of Army Alpha and Beta.

If Kantor had been admissible into the psychological power-structure of the Ivy League, things might have been very different. When talents such as Hunter and Hull emerged from mid-western or other non-northeastern roots, they wound up on Ivy League faculties in fairly short order. But not Kantor. He never had access to those generations of graduate students who, through old-boy networks, have dominated psychological research over the years, either directly or through colonization (as at Stanford, Berkeley, Rochester, and Duke). Indeed, Kantor was fortunate to get to Indiana. That he was appointed and was able to stay attests to his brilliance and promise. I have no doubt that if it had not been for the systematic anti-Semitism of the WASP establishment, which did not end until World War II, the number of Kantorians today would be greater indeed.


Robert Kantor was a kind, gentle, and wise man, profound in his scholarship, cogent in his arguments, incisive in his criticism, original in his contributions, seminal in his thinking, worthy of the deepest respect and admiration-and is nationally neglected. Sadly, too, he did not always explicate and emphasize his own unique positive contributions as one wishes he had. When, in retirement, he was asked to teach or speak, he spent time and effort pursuing is war against “spooks,” that is, against explanations or descriptions in terms of the supernatural-the mentalistic in any form, shape, or guise.

Toward the end of his life, he told me of his disappointment that his viewpoint had received such limited acceptance. He remained confident, however, that if psychologists kept interacting with their subject matter, they would eventually arrive at the interbehavioral point of view. Some are well on their way to getting there. Like Kantor, I expect they will, but for psychology, this may take a generation or so.

Robert was a quiet man, a humble man, a gentle man. There is a photo of him taken while lecturing in the University of the South. He looks like a Michelangelo Jehovah, caught in an intense but compassionate moment, a moment when he may be in the very act of deciding whether to conceive/have/become a son. (How is that for hyperbole?)

Author’s Note: This manuscript is based on recent queries from and correspondence with Professor John A. Mills (University of Saskatchewan). My answers and other commentary, and the bases on which they were formed, were written to some degree in the context of my own progression to the interbehavioral viewpoint. The author thanks Edward K. Morris for his considerable editorial contributions to this manuscript.


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