Four types of knowing in the ordinary waking consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: July 2016
Sri Aurobindo (2005: 54372) makes a distinction between four different types of knowledge that all occur in our surface awareness.
(a) The first, and original one, is hardly used in ordinary life, and almost forgotten in modern philosophy of science, even though the case for its existence is easy to make (Cornelissen 2006). Sri Aurobindo calls it 'knowledge by identity', and it is the knowledge inherent in being. All we know of it in our naïve surface awareness is the simple fact of our own existence. Besides this, it is supposed to be the ultimate origin of the intuitive knowledge we have about the fundamental rules of logic and reasoning.
(b) The second type is 'knowledge by intimate direct contact'. In our ordinary waking consciousness, it comes to the fore primarily in direct, pre-reflexive experiential knowing, as in our awareness of our own feelings and sensations. But as will see later, there are many other uses for it.
(c) The third is used in introspection, where one looks at oneself in a semi-objective fashion. Sri Aurobindo calls it 'separative direct knowledge': 'separative' because one distances one's self from what one observes, and 'direct' because it does not need the outer, physical senses. The difference between the second and the third type is that in the second type one says, 'What a great day', while in the third type one says, 'I seem to be happy today'. In other words, in the second type one knows one is happy without any need for reflection, while in the third one looks at oneself as if one looks at another person and one comments on what one sees.
(d) The fourth is our ordinary sense-based knowledge of the physical world, fully 'separative and indirect': here one experiences oneself as entirely separate from what one observes and one knows indirectly by means of the physical senses.
For our ordinary surface life the division may not be so interesting as these four modes of knowing generally occur together, but for the development of psychology the distinction between them is crucial. The reason for this is that science has mastered type four, 'objective knowledge', with stunning success but has failed completely to move ahead with the other three. Early attempts to use type three in introspection failed as it turned out to be too difficult to make introspection reliable. As far as type two is used (in therapy and skill-training), it is limited to its most simple and superficial manifestations. Of type one, we have only used one derivation successfully and that is mathematics and the basic intuitive insight that underlies much of scientific development. Yet it is type three, type two, and a more complete version of type one that we need if we want to take psychology ahead. The Indian tradition has put a tremendous effort into perfecting all three, and it is this that makes it so valuable for the further development of psychology.
The Role of Yoga in Perfecting Inner Knowledge
Science has perfected Sri Aurobindo's type four, separative indirect knowledge, to a remarkable degree. To understand the Indian attempts at perfecting the other three types of knowledge, we need to understand the role of yoga in the Indian tradition. (1) The important point to note here is that yoga is not only an effort to overcome suffering and reach a permanent state of happiness but also, and perhaps even primarily, an effort to overcome ignorance and attain true knowledge. An extremely simplified form of the first of these two efforts, the pursuit of happiness, is already used extensively in applied psychology as 'mindfulness'. What we suggest here is that we should also use the second half, the pursuit of knowledge, this time for the development of the theoretical foundation of psychology.
The processes and 'inner gestures' (Petitmengin-Peugeot 1999) yoga uses are complex and immensely varied in their appearance, but there is one essential movement which permeates all the different forms yoga can take, and that is that yoga advocates for both happiness and reliable knowledge a peculiar type of inner detachment, a standing back from our habitual involvement in the workings of our mind, and with this, a release from our ego. Within the more limited context of knowledge gathering in the field of psychology, one could say that as long as we are obsessed with the defence of our existence as one small creature in a large and dangerous world, we have vested interests and so we cannot judge freely. Interestingly, mainstream science has accepted this in the study of physical nature as the need for objectivity, for 'a view from nowhere', but it has not pursued it sufficiently for subjective, inner enquiry where one has to take one further step backwards. For the physical sciences it is sufficient to draw back from one's first impressions and habitual thoughts into an area of purer, more disciplined thinking. For psychology one has to draw back further, stand back from one's own thinking, feeling and sensing altogether, and watch one's own inner movements from an entirely pure, uninvolved consciousness. It appears that this possibility has simply not arisen in the Western mind, or to the extent that it has, in phenomenology for example, it has not led to the same level of philosophical sophistication and detailed technical know-how as in the Indian tradition. One finds in Western thought a widespread tendency to conflate consciousness with its content, and this failure to distinguish consciousness from the mental processes that are taking place within it has hampered the effective development of psychology. The Indian thinkers found that it is possible, though not necessarily easy, to separate the two and to fix one's consciousness in a position from where it can observe the workings of one's mind with complete impartiality. They realised that to increase one's psychological insight, it is not sufficient to get rid of one's preoccupation with self-assertion and self-defence, but that one should also withdraw one's consciousness from its involvement in one's thoughts, feelings and sensations. They developed an extensive inner 'technology of consciousness' to achieve this split and found that one's consciousness does not diminish in the process, but actually increases in clarity, intensity, sharpness, happiness, and even power.(2) In other words, they found that from that completely detached, silent and inherently safe inner position, one can study one's own inner movements with far higher levels of precision and detail than is possible through ordinary introspection, and that one can learn to modify the workings of one's mind and heart in ways that are completely inconceivable from the ordinary waking states of consciousness.
We'll take these issues up in more detail in chapter 08, "How to improve the quality of our psychological knowledge".