Two modes of knowing: naïve and expert
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: July 2016

Perfecting Sri Aurobindo's Four Types of Knowledge

The four types of knowledge we discussed in the previous section are in our unregenerate common nature far from perfect, but they can be perfected and the result can then be summarised as in Table 1.

  Type of knowledge Naïve mode Rigorous, expert mode
4 Separative indirect knowledge Ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
3 Separative direct knowledge Introspection Pure witness consciousness (sakshi);
purusha-based self-observation
2 Knowledge by intimate direct contact Superficial experiential knowledge Pure consciousness directly touching
other consciousness
1 Knowledge by identity Superficial awareness of own existence True intuition (3a)

Table 1. Four types of knowledge: naive and perfected forms

Separative Indirect Knowledge

The expert mode of the fourth type of knowledge is science, and modernity is making stunning progress in this area. As separative indirect knowledge is the sense-based knowledge of the world outside of us, it is eminently suitable for studying the physical world but it is not the best way to study psychological phenomena.

Separative Direct Knowledge

In the third type, mainstream psychology failed badly because the introspection-based schools tried to improve introspection without standing back far enough: the observing consciousness did not stand back from the processes it tried to study, but remained involved in them. In other words, in ordinary introspection one part of the mind watches other parts of the mind and as a result the problems of bias, vested interest and infinite regress remain unresolved. The Indian solution is more radical. It suggests withdrawing the consciousness entirely from its involvement in mental processes and watching what happens in one's mind from a completely detached 'witness' consciousness. The details of this process are obviously complex, both theoretically and practically, and they deserve more extensive treatment than can be given here, but there is one easy to notice difference between the two approaches to self-observation that deserves to be mentioned: In ordinary introspection, there is almost always a part of the mind that provides a running commentary, judging, approving, disapproving, comparing, associating, what not. In detached self-observation, there is nothing of the sort; there is only a completely silent, non-judgmental, completely relaxed yet sharply focused attention. It is, as the old texts say, the difference between a windswept muddy stream, in which one can see nothing, and a silent crystal clear pond, in which one can not only see the reflection of the individual leaves of the trees on the other side but also the pebbles on the bottom.

Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact

Interestingly, this detached observation seems to allow not only thorough knowledge of type three, unbiased access to one's own mind, but also, through type two, to what happens in others and even in things. The logic behind this is that consciousness is ultimately one and that the world is not only interconnected in the outer physical world, but even more so inwardly on the more subtle inner planes of thoughts and feelings. In our ordinary waking state our consciousness is entirely wrapped up in the working of our own nervous system, but once it is freed from there it can in principle contact anything it concentrates upon. This opens a door to the whole complex world of parapsychological phenomena, which present day Western science has to label 'anomalous' because they do not fit in its far too narrow, physicalist world view. If we accept the Indian consciousness-based means of developing psychological knowledge, an enormous world of 'paranormal' psychological capacities and powers might open up to us.

Knowledge by Identity

In principle, a further inner clarity should also open up a way to develop the first type of knowledge, knowledge by identity, which should enable a much more extensive use of intuition. The idea behind this even bolder claim is that the world is a manifestation of consciousness; that the original consciousness that manifested the world out of itself did so according to fundamental real-ideas (from the world of ritam chit); and that as we free our consciousness from its involvement in the small creature we think we are, it can identify itself instead with that original creative consciousness and thus know everything the way the Divine knows it from the inside. We can leave most of this safely for a remote future though one could look at the stunning progress humanity has made in recent years in the physical sciences, with a sudden influx of knowledge of the first type into our collective mind.