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Walden Two | Context


Walden and Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that began in the 1830s. European romanticism and the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant coupled as its core influences. Romanticism rejected classical interests in rationality and reason. The romantics uplifted emotion, subjectivity, imagination, nature, and the self. Kant proposed there is something eternal outside of the self that allows people to be aware of their own existences and people's minds construct the world around them. He proposes people are basically good by nature. Parallel to this, the underlying beliefs of transcendentalism are people are essentially born good and social constructs have corrupted humankind. Transcendentalists uplift the power of imaginative insight and believe everyone can generate new ideas regardless of the concepts previously generated by others.

Henry David Thoreau was an American writer, philosopher, and naturalist. He desired to understand human existence by distancing himself of social institutions. To this end he lived for two years, two months, and two days in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts in a house he built himself. His transcendentalist philosophy influenced his written account of this experience, and Walden was published in 1854.

In the text Thoreau separates himself from society to strip away social conventions in an effort to discover the true essence of existence and to find peace of mind. The major themes in the book are self-reliance, simplicity, progress, and spiritual awakening. B.F. Skinner mirrors these themes in Walden Two. However, instead of a spiritual awakening in Walden Two, the main character, Burris, undergoes an overall shift in consciousness that is in part very rational.

Utopian Communities and Literature

In the 19th century people created many planned communities, due in part to dissatisfaction with a competitive economy and inspiration from the Second Great Awakening. The latter was a Protestant movement that emphasized romantic ideals, such as emotions and interest in the supernatural. Most of these communities were religious. In the 1840s alone, 80 such communities emerged in America. One of these, Brook Farm, was a transcendentalist community founded by the Unitarian minister George Ripley. It was the only community of its kind that was secular. Another community, Oneida, was in existence from 1848 to 1881. It adopted what was called "complex marriage," which meant every member of the community was married to one another. A committee controlled childbearing and procreation. Mothers were given care of their children until about age three, and the community took charge of rearing older children. Skinner offers a similar process of child-rearing in Walden Two. Infants are left in a controlled environment in the care of a small group of nurses, but the community as a whole engages in rearing the older children. This practice is not left to the biological parents alone.

Utopian Literature

Writings about utopias and the possibility of a better world go as far back as Greek philosopher Plato's Republic in c. 370 BCE. This work describes a society led by elite and benevolent men called "guardians" who ruled over a class-based society. In 426 CE North African theologian St. Augustine's City of God was published. It proposes a Christian-based life with obedience to God as the primary concern.

In 1516 English philosopher Thomas More's Utopia criticized European government, economics, and morality. The story is set in a fictional place called Utopia, where everyone is employed and there is a six-hour workweek. There is no private ownership and no money, but there are slaves, and criminals and prisoners of war are confined to indentured servitude.

Erehwon, written by English author Samuel Butler and published in 1872, depicts a mythical place supposedly visited by the narrator. The setting falls into dystopian dysfunction because of an inability of the society to function because of infighting and opposing governmental views. There are warring religions and banking systems. Illness is against the law, and advancement is replaced with complacency.

Skinner's Walden Two follows these predecessors to a point. The major difference is his story injects scientific observation and behavior modification to preempt the citizens from being overly concerned with self, money, ownership, and religion. Unlike More's Utopia Skinner's story does not include slavery or criminality. These states are unheard of in the Walden Two community.

Behavioral Psychology

Unlike biological psychologists, who believe the brain and bodily functions are the underpinnings of human behavior, behaviorists believe observations of and interactions with the world make people who they are. Behaviorists do not rely on theory alone. Their work is empirical, which means it is based on observable and measurable information. Therefore, each conclusion is totally justifiable. They use stimuli to modify behavior. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov experimented with dogs. His line of inquiry arose because he had observed salivary reactions (drooling) among dogs when they were in the presence of food. He would control certain actions with either "unconditioned" or "conditioned" stimuli. An unconditioned stimulus requires no overt manipulation on the part of the researcher, such as a dog salivating when offered meat. A conditioned stimulus requires repeated exposure, for instance, to a piece of music. For his work Pavlov is considered a founder of behaviorism, and his work influenced American psychologist John Watson as well as Skinner.

John Watson did not favor looking inward for behavioral answers and did not accept the idea behavior was inborn. He was certain all behavior, even how people learn and how they respond emotionally, could be controlled. This belief was central to Skinner's later work in "operant conditioning." American psychologist Edward Thorndike contributed the "law of effect" to behavioral psychology: a behavior will continue under favorable responses but will diminish under unfavorable ones. He developed the theory of "connectionism," which relates to how individuals respond to certain stimuli in conditioned environments. Skinner's work with "operant conditioning" was directly related to Thorndike's "connectionism" since it proposed learning is an effect of "stimulus and a response."

Skinner's work centered on the proposition physiology (branch of biology that addresses the function and activity of living matter) had nothing to do with behavior and how people respond to stimuli around them is what shapes them. He created "operant conditioning," which refined Pavlov's approach by recognizing the researcher is part of the conditioning. This shift is evident in Walden Two as Frazier, the creator of the Walden Two community, is the primary researcher in the community and is directly responsible for the manner in which the inhabitants' behaviors are modified.

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