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  • “Who’s ‘we’?”: Claims to Community in Howards End
  • Greg Chase (bio)

They aren’t our sort, and one must face the fact.

—Henry Wilcox, Howards End

E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) makes Henry Wilcox a mouthpiece for classical liberalism’s belief in the inevitability of historical progress. In conversation with Margaret and Helen Schlegel, he assures them that “there always will be rich and poor. You can’t deny it . . . and you can’t deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward.”1 After he departs, Helen derides his position: invoking the name of Leonard Bast, the struggling clerk whose circumstances the Schlegels have taken it upon themselves to improve, Helen censures Henry’s belief that “the Mr. Basts of the future will benefit because the Mr. Basts of today are in pain” (Howards, 192). For Helen, the key word—and point—is “pain.” Leonard is suffering, and Henry, whose bad business tip has contributed to Leonard’s difficulties, responds inadequately.2 The scene highlights the degree to which the narrative drama of Howards End centers on questions of acknowledgment. What, the novel asks, would it mean for British society to acknowledge the pain of its poor? What forms of social, political, or economic redress—if any—would constitute sufficient acknowledgment of the suffering Leonard personifies? What prevents England’s Wilcoxes from recognizing and responding to the pain of its Basts?

The philosophy of Stanley Cavell, in which the concept of acknowledgment plays a central role, offers an illuminating perspective on Howards End’s engagement with these questions.3 [End Page 823] In his pioneering approach to the problem of other minds, Cavell proposes acknowledgment as a mode of responsiveness toward the inner lives of others that accepts the limits of human knowledge while avoiding the defeatist, amoral bent of skepticism. Cavell sees skepticism as taking root in the linked anxieties “that I may be suffering . . . [and] no one (else) may know . . . ; and that others may be suffering and I not know.”4 Given the sense of isolation such realizations may induce, Cavell proposes that we conceive of pain, first and foremost, as something to be acknowledged. In this sense, the statement “‘I know you are in pain’ is not an expression of certainty . . . ; it is an expression of sympathy” (Must, 263, emphasis in original).

Cavell’s emphasis on language’s capacity to provide acknowledgment allows us to re-consider the longstanding critical claim that modernist texts—of which Howards End is an early, partial example—exhibit a fundamentally suspicious or mistrustful attitude toward language.5 Howards End shows how the social and material conditions of modernity put pressure on the capacity of individuals to speak about the world in shared ways, but it connects these moments of linguistic misalignment back to the political inadequacies of pre–World War I British liberalism, rather than to the inadequacies of language as such.6 Building on recent scholarship on Cavell and literary modernism by Cora Diamond, Toril Moi, and others, this article argues that Howards End foregrounds issues of acknowledgment in historically and formally specific ways.7 Confronting the widespread disenfranchisements and disappointments wrought by liberal theories of social progress, Forster’s novel envisions a model of political community founded upon practices of mutual acknowledgment. The novel’s narrative voice articulates an emergent aesthetics of acknowledgment, seeking—though not always finding—a middle path between unimaginative skepticism and unjustified knowledge in its representations of characters.

Cavell develops his concept of acknowledgment via his reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language, as encapsulated in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and Forster (1879–1970) were near contemporaries who lived and worked in the same Cambridge-Bloomsbury orbit.8 Nonetheless, Forster’s fiction has rarely been read alongside Wittgenstein’s philosophy.9 Reading Howards End in conjunction with Wittgenstein’s philosophy—and with Cavell’s interpretation of that philosophy—highlights the linked epistemological and ethical concerns that underlie Forster’s own examination of language. Wittgenstein’s Investigations characterizes language as a set of shared social practices, but it is also permeated by anxieties about the fragmentation of human...


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