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Walden Two

B.F. Skinner




"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What every body echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow.... What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).

This quote from Thoreau's Walden illustrates the driving ideology behind Skinner's Walden Two. Society's practices are not written in stone; everything we do can and should be changed for the better. Throughout the novel, Frazier repeats the mantra that in Walden Two everything, from dinner trays to marriage, is open to change if the right experimental evidence can be found. This, if anything, is the main theme of Walden Two. If a secondary theme were to be picked, it would be that human behavior is always under the control of external forces; the goal of society and of a science of behavior should be to take control of those forces so that individuals can become happy and productive members of society.

Later, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner would defend and elaborate upon these principles. In doing so, he would write a book far more controversial than Walden Two. The latter only hinted at something that would be stated bluntly and repeatedly in Beyond Freedom and Dignity: that autonomous man, as such, does not exist. We are always under control of forces outside ourselves and outside our awareness. The only way we can control our own destiny is by changing the contingencies of reward in the environment. All that a science of behavior does is try to wrest control away from the traditional forces--propaganda, advertising, education, social norms, and random chance--and into the hands of people who have a detailed knowledge of how to change behavior for the better.

This argument followed logically from Skinner's radical behaviorism, and in his eyes it was altogether innocent, albeit revolutionary. But many others looked at it as a betrayal of humanity itself, of the human qua human, of the soul, and so forth. To them, Skinner was trying to turn people into the rats upon which he had based his experimental conclusions: machines that moved according to the dictates of a master plan.

How would Frazier have replied to these arguments? He most likely would have pointed to the happy, productive people of Walden Two. This gives us a hint as to why Skinner may have chosen to write Walden Two as a work of fiction rather than as a piece of non-fiction. Formally, Walden Two is only minimally a novel; a better name for it might be "fictional essay." Each chapter is short--ten or fifteen pages at most--and within each a new point is made, debated, and either settled immediately or tabled for later. Occasionally the plot is developed, as when Steve and Mary make their decision to stay in Walden Two, or the relationship between two characters is complicated, as when Frazier invites Burris to his personal quarters. But in the end these all serve only to illustrate Walden Two better. Steve and Mary's decision gives us a chance to see how new members are recruited and accepted; Frazier's self-revelation gives us a chance to see how founding members, those who are too old to be changed by Walden Two, deal with their jealousies and ambitions. As fiction, however, the book has more emotional impact on the reader than it would as non-fiction. It also allows Skinner to depict the community as something that exists in the world rather than an unrealized (and perhaps unrealizable) fantasy.

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