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He’s Always Been There First

In the conclusion of his personal note that serves as the preface for Reassessment in Psychology: The Interbehavioral Alternative (Smith, Mountjoy, & Ruben, 1983), W. S. Verplanck (1983) wrote that

Time after time, when I thought I had reached a new position, I’d stop myself short…. “Hey, wait a minute, Kantor wrote that” — or “That’s what Kantor would say.” He’s always been there first. (p. xxv)

My purpose in this brief set of comments is to draw readers’ attention to an area of fundamental importance where Kantor had been first. The area is scientific epistemology, particularly with regard to critical assessments of the influence of operationism and logical positivism. Certain writings of B. F. Skinner on the same topic are also examined to show that Kantor anticipated much of Skinner’s position on this topic.

As recounted elsewhere (Moore, 1975, 1985), American psychology underwent a great conceptual revolution during the 1930s. To be exorcised was the concern with the contents of consciousness as revealed through introspection. In its stead was to be established a concern with behavior, as revealed through objective methods. Operationism was hailed as a means of imparting an objective meaning to psychological concepts, and together with the epistemological foundation provided by logical positivism, the two were regarded as the distinguishing features of psychology’s new methodological and epistemological beginnings.

What was not widely recognized at the time was that the conventional interpretations of operationism and logical positivism were themselves tainted by dualistic presuppositions. This problem is indeed ironic, because operationism and logical positivism were supposed to cure the problems brought about by transcendental metaphysics, rather than perpetuate them. In the second volume of B. F. Skinner’s autobiography, Skinner (1979) includes the text of a letter he wrote to S. S. Stevens about operationism in 1935. Although the text of the letter clearly indicates Skinner had a number of concerns about Stevens’ interpretation of operationism at that time, the letter also indicates that, according to Skinner:

[I am] much impressed with your paper on operationism…. It is essentially what I have always supposed behaviorism to represent–…. In any event, congratulations on a damn good job of exposition. (p. 163)

In referring to this same article by Stevens, Kantor (1938) was to write three years later:

Obviously we have here such a truncation of the operational conception as to convert it into a thoroughgoing subjectivism. (p. 15)

These two statements clearly indicate a different evaluation of Stevens’ article, and although Skinner’s correspondence antedates Kantor’s article, it seems obvious that the two had a quite different approach to the question of operationism during the late 1930s.

More pronounced contrasts may be seen by formally comparing Kantor’s (1938) article with Skinner’s (1945) famous contribution to E. G. Boring’s symposium on operationism. This contribution was published in 1945, seven years after Kantor’ article, yet they are alike in many ways. Kantor (1938) begins by stating:

It is the thesis of the present paper that the operational principle first formulated for physics can with suitable modification be employed to the psychologist’s advantage in clearing up many of his age-old problems. (p. 3)

Skinner (1945) writes:

The operational attitude, in spite of its shortcomings, is a good thing in any science but especially in psychology because of the presence there of a vast vocabulary of ancient and non-scientific origin. (p. 271)

Kantor (1938) further suggests:

To reduce properties to observations is to confuse the operations involved in discovering and determining the nature or naming of properties with the existence of the discovered properties themselves. (p. 7)

In this regard, Skinner (1945) was to comment seven years later:

A considerable advantage is gained from dealing with terms, concepts, constructs, and so on, quite frankly in the form in which they are observed, as verbal responses. There is then no danger of including in the concept that aspect or part of nature which it singles out. (p. 271)

Kantor (1938) continued:

While in all interbehavior, as the term is meant to imply, stimulus objects are emphasized quite as much as the scientist’s action, the way the stimulus objects are approached differs. How far are investigators influenced by… their contacts with events? (p. 29)

Skinner’s (1945) language is similar:

What we want to know in the case of many traditional psychological terms is, first, the specific stimulating conditions under which they are emitted…, and, second…, why each response is controlled by its corresponding condition. (p. 272)

Kantor (1938) also notes:

Conventional sensation-psychologists have attempted to assimilate the principle [of operationism] with the result that what has been proposed as a fundamental improvement in forms of physical science has been used to implement conventional dualism in psychology…. Despite the verbal insistence upon discrimination as physical and the inevitable acceptance of psychological phenomena as interbehavior when actual experiments are described, Stevens’ adoption of the operational principle comes to nothing more than a mentalistic psychologist’s surface concession to objectivity. (pp. 14-15)

These statements may be compared with Skinner’s (1945):

What happened instead was the operationism of Boring and Stevens…. A concession is made in accepting the claim that the data of psychology must be behavioral rather than mental if psychology is to be a member of the United Sciences, but the position taken is merely that of “methodological” behaviorism…. This was never good behaviorism, but it was an easy position to expound and defend and was often resorted to by the behaviorists themselves. It is least objectionable to the subjectivist because it permits him to retain “experience” for the purposes of self-enjoyment and “non-physicalistic” self-knowledge. The position is not genuinely operational because it shows an unwillingness to abandon fictions…. What is lacking is the bold and exciting behavioristic hypothesis that what one observes and talks about is always the “real” or “physical” world (or at least the “one” world) and that “experience” is a derived construct to be understood only through an analysis of verbal (not, of course, merely vocal) processes. (pp. 292-293)

According to the logical positivist view, terms had to refer to either phenomena that were directly observable or phenomena whose meanings were determined by their logical function. Terms whose meanings could not be so established were ineffable, and could not be part of science. The big problem in this regard was what to do about terms that referred to the scientist’s own mental life. They were to be regarded as theoretical terms, provided they could be likened to observations. Thus, terms like thinking, images, and so on came to be approached in a particular way, as a consequence of transcendental assumptions concerning how humans constructed unobservable phenomena from observable. For both Kantor and Skinner, this entire orientation bought into dualism. Thus, Kantor (1945) says:

Inferential and problem-solving interbehavior can occur in private situations which are never recorded. Let us stress nevertheless that even the private reflections of individuals concerning what happens in logical procedures are inseverably connected with linguistic events. In other words, all reflection may be regarded as an individual’s conversation with himself. (p. 233)

Skinner’s (1957) own influential book, Verbal Behavior, was approximately 20 years in the making, and when it finally appeard its language was remarkably similar:

A better case can be made for identifying thinking with behaving which automatically affects the behaver and is reinforcing because it does so. This can be either covert or overt. We can explain the tendency to identify thinking with covert behavior by pointing out that the reinforcing effects of covert behavior must arise from self stimulation. (p. 438)

Again, it is important to note that Kantor was there first.


Kantor, J. R. (1938). The operational principle in the physical and psychological sciences. The Psychological Record, 2, 1-32.

Kantor, J. R. (1945). Psychology and logic (Vol. I). Chicago: Principia Press.

Moore, J. (1975). On the principle of operationism in a science of behavior. Behaviorism, 3, 120-138.

Moore, J. (1985). Some historical and conceptual relations among logical positivism, operationism, and behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 8, 53-63.

Skinner, B. F. (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 52, 270-277, 290-294.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Skinner, B. F. (1979). The shaping of a behaviorist. New York: Knopf.

Smith, N. W., Mountjoy, P. T., & Ruben, D. H. (Eds.). (1983). Reassessment in psychology: The interbehavioral alternative. Washington, DC: University Press.

Verplanck, W. S. (1983). Preface. In N. W. Smith, P. T. Mountjoy & D. H. Ruben (Eds.), Reassessment in psychology: The interbehavioral alternative (pp. xi-xxv). Washington, DC: University Press.

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