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I am reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The sentence in the question title is mentioned in Chapter two, and here's the full paragraph that contains it.

“Silence, silence,” whispered a loud speaker as they stepped out at the fourteenth floor, and “Silence, silence,” the trumpet mouths indefatigably repeated at intervals down every corridor. The students and even the Director himself rose automatically to the tips of their toes. They were Alphas, of course, but even Alphas have been well conditioned. “Silence, silence.” All the air of the fourteenth floor was sibilant with the categorical imperative.

What does it mean? I know what is the categorical imperative, but I can't fit its literal meaning in this context. Is it simply a rhetorical way of saying that the sound of the loud speakers saying "silence, silence" filled the room? Any pointers would be appreciated.

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This is a joke! The loudspeakers are calling for silence, but this does not lead to silence, but to noise—the noise of the loudspeakers calling for silence. This is self-defeating: if you want silence then at some point you must yourself fall silent.

Kant’s categorical imperative is:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Immanuel Kant (1785). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 30. Translated by James W. Ellington (1981). Indianapolis: Hackett.

His argument for the imperative was partly based on the analysis of self-defeating or self-contradictory principles, for example:

The maxim of his action would then be expressed as follows: when I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, although I know that I can never do so. Now this principle of self-love or personal advantage may perhaps be quite compatible with one's entire future welfare, but the question is now whether it is right. I then transform the requirement of self-love into a universal law and put the question thus: how would things stand if my maxim were to become a universal law? He then sees at once that such a maxim could never hold as a universal law of nature and be consistent with itself, but must necessarily be self-contradictory.

Kant, p. 31.

So the loudspeakers on the fourteenth floor in Brave New World are self-contradictory. But explaining this simple idea in terms of Kant’s categorical imperative is ridiculously high-faluting.

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The word "silence" begins and ends with a sssss sound. That's what sibilant refers to.

The word is usually a noun, but when you say "Silence!" to someone you are issuing an imperative. You are ordering them to be silent, to contribute to the silence that is being demanded.

Why a categorical imperative? It could refer to some other important or categorical imperative, or the word categorical could be being used as an intensifier. Not just an order, but an order you absolutely must obey that cannot be resisted. For example, Merriam-Webster's first definition is absolute, unqualified.

If you reworded the sentence to end "the absolute order" or "the uncontestable instruction" or something like that, the meaning would be the same.

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What you say is one thing you might take from the sentence; I think the combination of all the air and sibilant captures those qualities of 'silence, silence' fine, though. Categorical imperative does end it on a stern, grand note, but it evokes something new too.

Because it's a reference to Kant's categorical imperative (hence 'the categorical imperative': a separate phrase), it's conveying something other than the sound of 'silence, silence'. 'Silence, silence' is an imperative way to speak, but it's not a categorical imperative. This three-tiered association is deeply linked to the themes of Brave New World.

If you're unfamiliar with it, you could just consider Kant's imperative like... as if the Golden Rule ('treat others as you want to be treated') were regarded more like a law than a guideline. It is a claim about the most ethical choices anyone could make, so it has greater scope.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

(emphasis mine, to point out the scope of the law; the bolds are limits of choice/knowledge/effect, and the italics are constraints along the same lines)

Enjoy the book!

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    "This three-tiered association is deeply linked to the themes of Brave New World" - could you expand on this? Drawing a stronger connection between Kant's categorical imperative and Huxley's Brave New World seems like it could be the crux of what this Q&A is all about. Although "silence" is usually a simple contextual imperative, would intepreting it as a categorical imperative tie into the themes of Brave New World?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 8, 2023 at 14:28
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Kant’s categorical imperative is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Considering the restraints on personal will in the World State of “Brave New World”, where “even Alphas have been well conditioned,” Kant’s categorical imperative could be seen, with Huxleyan irony, as a World State motto.

As well as the sibilance of “Silence, silence,” Huxley may have had in mind that of the defining clause at the end of the categorical imperative in the original German: Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.

(I look forward to any amplification, correction or refutation of the above which Stack Exchange’s admirable polymaths might deem necessary.)

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  • Could you expand on your first paragraph? How could Kant's categorical imperative be seen as a World State motto, how would this be ironic, and how would the irony be Huxleyan? Feb 8, 2023 at 19:18
  • @GarethRees I guess it would be ironic because it it not a result of "sapere aude" and the unrestrained application of mental faculties. Instead they want it to become a law because they have been conditioned to want it to become a law. I did not know the man personally, but I am certain turning Kant cleverly on his head made Huxley giggle. Feb 8, 2023 at 21:57
  • @EikePierstorff I'm afraid that your explanation needs explaining! How would Horace's Letters 2.40 explain the irony in Kant's categorical imperative being seen as a World State motto in Brave New World? Consider writing an answer—this is probably too complex to explain in a comment. Feb 9, 2023 at 17:48

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