First, Berlin insists emphatically that knowledge depends entirely on language. When he explains the dialectic at work among observer, social group, and material reality, he says:
Knowledge is never found in any one of these but can only be posited as a product of the dialectic in which all three come together. … Most important, this dialectic is grounded in language: the observer, the discourse community, and the material conditions of existence are all verbal constructs. This does not mean that the three do not exist apart from language: they do. This does mean that we cannot talk and write about them – indeed, we cannot know them – apart from language. Furthermore, since language is a social phenomenon that is a product of a particular historical moment, our notions of the observing self, the communities in which the self functions, and the very structures of the material world are social constructions – all specific to a particular time and culture. These social constructions are thus inscribed in the very language we are given to inhabit in responding to our experience. Language, as Raymond Williams explains in an application of Bakhtin (Marxism and Literature 21-44), is one of the material and social conditions involved in producing a culture. This means that in studying rhetoric – the ways discourse is generated – we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence.If I'm reading Berlin correctly, then he is saying that knowledge is created, managed, expressed, and propagated solely through language. If that is his point, then I disagree. Berlin does not clearly define either language or knowledge in this essay (they are not his central terms), so perhaps he is using both or either in a way that allows him to make them concomitant, but my understanding of both leaves room for much knowledge that is not concomitant with language. For me, it is sensible to say that my dog knows where to find his food or knows how to find his way home, yet aside from a few barks and growls, the dog has no language to speak of (sorry, I couldn't help that. I didn't see it coming). Limiting myself to humans, Berlin's view seems to disregard body knowledge. I've coached enough soccer to know that the foot knows how to do some things that the mind cannot speak of. Any craftsman's hands knows things that her tongue cannot articulate. Our lives are laced with aesthetic, ecstatic, religious, and emotional cognitions that capture a knowledge too deep for words and yet that form some of the most profound and precious knowledge we possess. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people to feel that capturing such knowledge in language profanes that knowledge. For me, this knowledge is real.
I suspect that a dialectical materialism – a wonderful ideology – lies at the heart of Mr. Berlin's point of view, yet he may be giving it too narrow an interpretation. For me, knowledge is a collection of beliefs that structure my interactions with the world. In other words, knowledge is what I'm willing to take action on or against. I am well aware that most of what I know is likely wrong, incorrect, inaccurate, unreliable, inconsistent, unreasonable, irrational, and more. Most of what I take for knowledge will be nonsense, error, and myth 100 years from now, much less 1,000 years, but my errors are my current knowledge none the less. Mr. Berlin may not allow for any reality other than the material or any knowledge other than that which can be named, but that is too narrow for me and, in my rhetoric, it is indefensible.