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Walden Two

B.F. Skinner

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Summary

Burrhus Frederik Skinner was born in 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Hamilton College, a small liberal arts college in New York, Skinner spent a year at his parents' home in Susquehanna trying to succeed as a writer. Having just received a letter of praise from Robert Frost, who had read several short stories Skinner had written as an undergraduate, he had high hopes. But after a year at home he had little to show for his time except a growing depression. After a few months of indifferent work at a coal company, he decided to give up writing and to enter graduate school in psychology. He began his study in 1928 at Harvard, completed his dissertation in 1931, and continued to do research at Harvard until 1936. After working as a professor in Minnesota and Indiana, he eventually returned to Harvard and ended his career there. Skinner died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in August 1990, at the age of 86.

Walden Two was Skinner's only work of fiction. Written in 1945 but not published until 1948, it encapsulated, in fictional form, ideas that he had been developing in his research on rats. In that research, he showed that "positive reinforcement" could be used to control the behavior of rats with a level of precision that had never before been seen. Along with men like Clark Hull and Edward Tolman, Skinner was part of a generation of researchers that had been inspired by the behaviorist John Watson. Watson had argued that psychology was fundamentally the science of behavior; it had no business speculating about unobservable internal states such as "desires" and "beliefs." After Watson, Skinner was the most influential proponent of this idea. Walden Two was his attempt to depict what would happen if behaviorism were used to shape society.

In addition to its academic context, the social context of Walden Two had a profound impact on its content. The book was written just as World War II was ending. It seemed clear to Skinner and many others that something had gone terribly wrong, in both the United States and Europe. New and radical solutions to society's problems, such as the one proposed in Walden Two, would be needed.

Walden Two also has an important literary heritage. As its name suggests, it was written in part according to the model set out by Thoreau in the original Walden, which depicted Thoreau's escape from society to a simple and solitary life on the shore of Walden Pond. Like Thoreau, Skinner depicted a solution to the problems of modern life that involved a radical new beginning, an escape from society, and a rejection of political and economic solutions. Unlike Thoreau, he gave his new community an explicitly scientific, technological foundation and focused on the problems of society, not those of the individual. Skinner's book describes a utopia, and as such it also bears some similarity to Thomas More's original Utopia in that it presents a plan for a perfect society while pointing out the flaws of actual society. Walden Two also makes a striking contrast with a "dystopia" that was published in the same year, George Orwell's 1984, in which the dangers of a totalitarian culture--one that was modeled on Soviet Russia, but bears some resemblance to Skinner's Walden Two--are dramatized.

Skinner had a difficult time finding a publisher for Walden Two, and it did not become popular until the unrest of the 60's made its message of escape and revolutionary change particularly relevant. At the time of its publishing and since, it has been roundly criticized for its totalitarian model of human society and for its utopian idealism. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating expression of the particular academic, social, and literary context in which it was written.

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May not be important, but...

by Funky-Train, September 03, 2013

On your character summary, you wrote that Barbara Macklin is Rodgers' girlfriend, but they're officially engaged. I think this is a significant detail, because Steve introduces his girlfriend, Mary Grove, informally as "my girl." This shows an immaturity in Steve, whereas Barbara and Rodgers view their relationship seriously.

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