What is knowledge?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2019

section 1
Four types of knowledge in the ordinary waking state

Humanity has made such incredible progress in science and technology, that it may be tempting to think that the kind of explicit, evidence-based knowledge that the hard sciences produce is the only kind of knowledge that can be trusted and pursued systematically. If we take a little distance, it becomes clear that this is not justified. There actually are all kinds of knowledge, and paying attention to their differences and the way they are related to each other is crucial for a good understanding of the human condition. In this chapter we will begin with a distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between four types of knowledge that are all part of our ordinary waking consciousness. Sri Aurobindo lists the different knowledge types, in harmony with the Vedic tradition, from the inside out: he starts with the knowledge of the Self, and ends with the knowledge of the outside world. He calls them, 1) knowledge by identity, 2) knowledge by intimate direct contact, 3) knowledge by separative direct contact, and 4) separative knowledge by indirect contact (Aurobindo, 1990, pp. 524–532). The first of these, knowledge by identity, or vijñāna, plays a central role in the Vedas and Upaniṣads, but is almost entirely ignored in contemporary science. Aspects of the other three are known, respectively, as experiential knowledge, introspection, and the ordinary, sense-based knowledge of the outside physical world.

  1. The first one is Knowledge by identity. For Sri Aurobindo it is the first and most important of these four types of knowledge. In the ordinary waking state it is, however, hardly developed. The only thing we normally know entirely by identity is the sheer fact of our own existence. According to Sri Aurobindo it does play, however, a crucial role in all other types of knowing.
    • In experiential knowledge (type 2) this is clear enough, as here we tend to identify, at least partially with our experience.
    • In introspection (type 3) it is less immediately apparent, as we do not fully identify with what we see, but try to observe what goes on inside ourselves in as detached and ‘objective’ a manner as we can muster. Still, in introspection we recognize that what we look at is happening within our own being.
    • In sense-based knowledge (type 4) the involvement of knowledge by identity is the least obvious, but even here knowledge by identity does play a role in at least two distinct ways:
      • The first is that even though we normally feel a certain distance between ourselves and the things we observe ‘outside’ of us, we still see them as part of ‘our world’, we feel some inner, existential connection between ourselves and what we see. The degree of this sense of connectedness may, of course, differ. On one extreme, there are the mystics who feel in a very concrete sense ‘one with the world’; on the other extreme, there are forms of schizophrenia, in which hardly any connection is felt between one’s self and the world; the ordinary consciousness wavers somewhere between these extremes.
      • The second manner by which knowledge by identity supports all other forms of knowledge is not through this existential sense of connectedness, but through the structural core of their cognitive content. According to Sri Aurobindo, the information the senses provide is far too incomplete and disjointed to create the wonderfully precise and coherent image that we make of the world. He holds that there must be some inner knowledge, some basic ‘idea’ about how the world should hang together that helps to create meaning out of the raw impressions which our senses provide.
  2. The second is the implicit knowledge we have of things in which we are directly involved. When applied to ourselves it is known as experiential knowledge. Sri Aurobindo calls it "knowledge by intimate direct contact": not anymore separative, because we don't try to look at ourselves from the outside, and by intimate contact because we know the processes that are taking place in ourselves by being directly with them. When I’m very happy, for example, I need not observe myself to find out whether I am happy or not. I can stay directly with the happiness, and exclaim, in full identification with my feelings, "What a great day it is!" I know the state I'm in, but not in a representative, objective manner. I know then what and how I am as if from within, through a direct intimacy with the inner state or process. If I would look at myself in a (pseudo-)objective manner, through introspection, I would say something like "Hey, today I’m happy", and this would imply a certain distance from the happiness.
  3. The third one, introspection, has a much lower status both in contemporary science and society. It is the knowledge we acquire when we try to look pseudo-objectively at what is going on inside ourselves. Sri Aurobindo calls it "knowledge by separative direct contact": separative because we try to look at what is going on inside ourselves objectively, as an outsider; direct because in this type of knowledge the usual sense-organs are not needed. Psychology cannot do very well without introspection as it is the simplest, and in some areas the only way to find out what is going on inside a person’s mind, but it is notoriously difficult to make reliable. Classical behaviourism tried for many years to avoid it entirely, but at present psychology is making an extensive use of self-reports based on introspection. We will see later how the Indian tradition tackles the difficulties inherent in introspection and we will discuss some of the methods it uses to enhance introspection’s reliability. As we will see, these Indian methods are not only logically impeccable, but also effective and indispensable if we want to take psychology forward.

    It might appear as if the introspective mode of knowing oneself goes more with the mind, while experiential knowledge, knowledge ‘by being with’, goes more with one’s feelings and body-sense, but this is not always the case: When one fully identifies with one’s thoughts, for example, there is a mixture: the thought itself belongs most likely to the realm of ‘separative knowledge’, while the implicit, pre-reflective self-awareness of being busy thinking belongs to the realm of ‘knowledge by intimate direct contact’.

    Knowledge by intimate direct contact is used in many forms of therapy and in skill and attitude training, but till now it does not seem to have received the theoretical attention it deserves. As we'll see later, according to the Indian tradition it cannot only be used to know oneself but also to know other people and even things .

  4. The last one Sri Aurobindo calls "separative knowledge by indirect contact", separative because it goes with a clear sense of separation between the observer and the observed, and indirect, because it is dependent on the physical senses. Most of us would call what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears "direct knowledge" because it is based "directly" on our own experience. Sri Aurobindo, who lived much deeper within, calls sense-based knowledge indirect because it is mediated by our sense-organs and needs an elaborate process of subconscious mental construction before it reaches an acceptable state of accuracy. A tremendous collective effort goes at present into the development of this type of "separative knowledge by indirect contact", and as it can be shared so easily, it plays an ever-increasing role in our society. It is an expert form of this type of knowledge that makes the continuous stream of ever more fancy gadgets possible, and perhaps as a result of this, there is an increasing tendency to think that this is the only type of knowledge that really works and is worth cultivating.
  5. According to the Indian tradition knowledge by identity provides the core-element of all forms of intuition, and, as such, the source of the deep theories about reality that guide our perception, the fundamental rules of logical thinking, a large part of mathematics, the ability to discriminate between what is true and false, real and unreal, and perhaps even the essential core of many of the new insights about the physical reality that have flooded the human knowledge-space in recent years.

    Once fully developed and purified, Sri Aurobindo considers it the only type of knowledge that can be made completely reliable. Within Indian philosophy it is known by different names that each highlight one aspect of it. One typical example is the fascinating quaternity of saṃjñāna, ājñāna, vijñāna, prajñāna which we will have a closer look at later [INTERNAL LINK]. Another is ātmavidyā, the knowledge of the Self which contains the largely subconscious link that exists between our individual consciousness and the cosmic consciousness that sustains the manifestation as a whole.


1. Knowledge by identity
Awareness of the simple fact of one’s own existence
(details of self-concept provided by other three types).
Knowledge inherent in one’s existence
2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact
Awareness of one’s own inner states
‘by being with them’.
Experiential knowledge
3. Knowledge by separative direct contact
Looking at one’s own mental processes,
‘as if from outside’.
4. Separative knowledge by indirect contact
Sense-based, constructed knowledge
of the outer world.
Factual knowledge

Table 16.1. Four types of knowledge in the ordinary waking state.


Mixed patterns

Before we can have a closer look at these different types of knowledge and especially at the possibility of developing expert modes for each of them, we have to consider a few caveats which Sri Aurobindo mentions about this division of four distinct types of knowledge. The first disclaimer is that these four types of knowing are not entirely separate or exclusive of each other. There are smooth transitions between them, and in daily life they often occur mixed up together. When I get angry, for example, the anger can invade different parts of my nature and the way I know myself will be effected accordingly. If the anger is strong I will fully identify with it and to some extent become the anger. I know the anger then through type 2, experiential knowledge. If it is a little less strong, part of my mind may stand apart and manage to watch what is going on semi-objectively. I observe then that I do not think clearly, that I have a cramp in my stomach and that there is a nagging fear in me that things are going wrong (type 3, introspection). If I distance myself even further from the anger, I can look at my own outside behaviour, notice that I don't speak very clearly, that my hands tremble and that the person I am talking to looks nonplussed about what I am so worked-up about (type 4, sense-based knowledge). If I live deeper within I may identity with something in me that remains entirely unaffected and I will know that I am what I am, that the world is what it is, and that deep, deep within, in spite of anything that may happen on the surface, all is well (type 1, knowledge by identity). The beauty is, that once these different ways of knowing become more clear to oneself, one can learn to move from one to the other at will, which creates a wonderful inner freedom which, in due time, can lead to wiser action.

A completely different example of a fruitful collaboration of these different types of knowing we have already alluded to: it is provided by science. If all is well (which is not always the case), intermixture of vital movements should not effect the proceedings too much and there may not be more need for knowledge of type 3 than in any other human activity, but 4, 2, and 1 will always play a role. The actual practice of science consists largely of a patient intellectual labour to collect knowledge of type 4, but there is a stage when knowledge of types 1, 2 and 3 appears to play a significant role. We will now have a look at how they can be made more reliable and informative. -->

Three gradients

Underlying the four types of knowledge there are three, closely related gradients.

  • The first is the gradient from gross matter, via mind, to pure spirit.
  • The second is the gradient from the surface aspects of the outer world to our own inmost essence.
  • The third is the gradient from knowledge which is constructed with difficulty out of diverse elements, to knowledge which comes directly, spontaneously, simply because it is.

We had look at the first gradient in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness which is part of the Introduction. We will have a look at the second in the chapter on "The Self and the structure of the personality", and at the third in the chapter on "Higher types of knowledge". [INTERNAL LINKS] Here in this chapter, we will now focus on a few other ways in which we can distinguish different types of knowledge.


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