Obituaries: Jacob Robert Kantor (1888-1984)

Paul T. Mountjoy and Jay D. Hansor

Jacob Robert Kantor organized scientific values into a coherent entity and implemented a naturalistic system of psychology. This is his permanent contribution and monument.

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on August 8, 1888, Robert attended the University of Chicago where an early interest in chemistry was soon supplanted by devotion to psychological science. He earned the PhD in 1914 and was an instructor at the University of Minnesota from 1915 to 1917. Marriage to Helen Rich on September 2, 1916 provided him with a long-term collaborator and later a daughter, Helene Juliette. His PhD was awarded in 1917 and he served as an instructor at the University of Chicago from 1917 to 1920. In 1920 he became Assistant Professor of Psychology at Indiana University where he was to remain for 39 years, he was promoted to Associate Professor in 1921 and became Professor of Psychology in 1923.

Following retirement in 1959 Robert continued his productive life. as Visiting Professor at New York University (1962-1963) and then at the University of Maryland (1963-1964). He lectured often at universities and professional societies in the United States, and beginning in 1974 he frequently lectured and presented seminars at various universities in Mexico. He was appointed a research associate at the University of Chicago in 1964 and continued his scholarly activities there until he was fatally stricken on January 31. He died peacefully two days later on February 2 in his 96th year.

Robert's dissertation was the beginning of the critical historical analysis that is the hallmark of his unique contribution to American psychology. The Functional Nature of the Philosophical Categories (1917) constituted an examination of the psychological aspects of the history of philosophy from Anaximander to the Pragmatists. Discernible in this work are the foundations of the scientific values that were to guide his career as he struggled to produce a natural science of psychology. In it he commented on the barrenness and futility of philosophies of the past and the necessity of considering the actual actions of individuals rather than reified abstractions. These concerns inevitably led to the problem of the definition of the subject matter of psychology.

At the time of Robert's appointment, the Indiana Department was prominent because it boasted the second psychological laboratory established in this country and was in the process of establishing one of the earliest psychological clinics. This eminence in scientific psychology provided a nurturant environment in which Robert flourished and contributed greatly to the continued development of the department. Between 1918 and 1924 alone, Robert published a total of 34 papers, 32 of which reflect his struggle to develop the concepts and terminology that allowed the establishment of an authentic scientific psychology.

Robert entered the lists as a champion of objective psychology in the second decade of the 20th century. Naturalistic viewpoints had been achieved already in physics, chemistry, and biology. Thus, the time was ripe for a scientific revolution in psychology. Robert, however, founded no school of psychology. Instead he proposed a broad group of scientific hypotheses based on minimal assumptions regarding the data of psychology. This was the first modern comprehensive and completely naturalistic program for psychology, that is, the first to advocate complete departure from historically imposed preconceptions.

Robert followed the accepted canons of science in his definition of the primary data of psychology. He proposed that the relationship between two entities in a field be regarded as an event to he studied. In "A Tentative Analysis of the Primary Data of Psychology" (1921) these entities were identified as the stimulus object and responding organism. These names not only indicated his objective posture but also acknowledged continuity with previous workers. Principles of Psychology (1924. 1926) further demonstrated that all phenomena with which psychologists were concerned could be described and analyzed as a series of natural events. The concept that an organism is in active interbehavior with environmental conditions provided the foundation for all Robert's subsequent work. He successfully avoided any overemphasis on either of those two mutually participating factors in the psychological event.

During the early 1920s, Robert investigated the field of social psychology. He began to construct an event-based social psychology in An Outline of Social Psychology (1929) and Cultural Psychology (1982). Psycholinguistics was of special interest to Robert. His paper, "An Analysis of Psychological Language Data" (1922), represents a departure from both the mentalism rampant at the time and the physiological reductionism of Watson. Detailed analyses of complex linguistic responses are found in An Objective Psychology of Grammar (1935) and Psycholog-ical Linguistics (1977).

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An objective science of psychology as an independent member of the family of natural sciences was the goal at which Robert aimed during all of his 67 years of productive life following his dissertation. He furthered the attainment of that goal by founding the Principia Press shortly before World War II. Originally a cooperative organization of faculty who represented various scientific fields the press gradually concentrated on his own publications. In 1937 Robert founded The Psychological Record, which still flourishes. From 1968 onward, under the nom de plume of "Observer," he published over 50 comments and queries in that journal.

Robert justified the title of his 1947 book Problems of Physiological Psychology on the ground that the area is characterized as "grievously encumbered by a series of paradoxes and perplexities." For him these paradoxes flowed from the perseveration of historical concerns with the relationship between soul and body. The age-old questions remain unanswerable by means of the techniques of modern science because they arose long ago in a culture devoid of empirical analyses and hence are not amenable to scientific methodology.

What was needed was a ruthless rejection of the old philosophy that had formulated those questions and the substitution of a new scientific philosophy oriented toward events that would lead to scientific questions derived from the events themselves. New categories needed to be derived from investigation of actual events to replace the theoretical preconceptions of bygone eras, in which mentalistic terms were regarded as entities worthy of scientific concern. For him no amount of verbal obfuscation could conceal the nonnaturalistic origins of mentalistic concepts. Robert also decried all efforts to exalt nervous tissues into the exclusive explanatory factor for behavior and steadfastly advocated an integrated field interpretation that would include physiological events as a portion of his vision of a naturalistic science of psychology.

Robert was unmatched as a modern philosopher of science. Psychology and Logic (1945, 1950) pointed to the central role of behavior in the independent enterprise of logic. And logic, or analytic philosophy, was separated rigorously from speculative philosophy (which he derisively labeled specious philosophy). The necessity for rigorous logical analysis of the scientific enterprise was further explicated in The Logic of Modern Science (1953) and Interbehavioral Psychology (1958, 1959). In all these works he emphasized that valid scientific work included both an empirical and an analytic (logical) component. Most important to him was the clear statement of the assumptions that guided the development of scientific systems and the banishment of all absolutes from the scientific realm.

Only one scholarly treatment of the history of psychology from a completely naturalistic viewpoint is now in existence and that is his monumental work, The Scientific Evolution of Psychology (1963, 1969). In these volumes Robert returned in part to the topic of his dissertation, but intellectually enriched by nearly a half century of scholarly work he transcended it. It is an analytic panorama of the self-corrigibility of science over two and one-half millenia. The message is clear: In spite of its missteps psychology is an integral component of science and consequently shares in the progress enjoyed by science as a whole throughout the historical record. All his intellectual activities rested on the assumption that scientific work led to a definite and precise orientation with respect to things and events.

Teaching was a central and valued portion of Robert's life. All his students remember fondly his application of the Socratic technique. Best of all were the sessions that closed with students arguing among themselves. These stimulating interchanges continued between classes, and the next session began with the most assertive class members offering the solutions they had developed.

Following his retirement, there appeared in the Revista Mexicana de Analisis de la Conducta a regular sequence of 16 contributions beginning in 1975. These and the "Observer" comments illustrate not only his continued productivity well beyond the age at which creativity usually ceases, but also the broad range of his interests within psychological science.

Robert retired soon after the death of his wife Helen and moved to Chicago to live with his daughter Helene (now Professor of Archaeology at the Oriental Institute and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago). A house near the university was renovated to serve as a combined office and residence. Robert's second floor workroom /library/bedroom overlooked the garden-like backyard. Here he continued his productive life in surroundings that visitors thought idyllic.

A cultured gentleman, Robert was an exceptionally knowledgeable connoisseur of literature, art, and music. One of his last publications, Tragedy and the Event Continuum (1983) examined a sample of literature in light of his naturalistic philosophy and psychology. His artistic preference favored the Impressionists and especially German Expressionism.

As we write this we have before us what seems to be Robert's last will and testament for psychology. It was found on his writing table by his daughter and probably represents his final statement of what psychology must escape to become a natural science. It is appropriate that our summary of his life and achievements should end as did his life: "No spirits, wraiths, hobgoblins, spooks, noumena, superstitions, transcendentals, mystics, invisible hands, supreme creator, angels, demons, . . . ."

Paul T. Mountjoy
and Jay D. Hansor
Western Michigan University


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