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 of which at least the early beginnings are part of our ordinary waking consciousness. Sri Aurobindo lists these 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.

  1. The first one is Knowledge by identity. In our ordinary waking state, the presence of knowledge by identity is hardly noticeable. The only thing we know entirely by identity is the sheer fact of our own existence. And yet, it is the most important of the four.

    The existence of knowledge by identity is best understood in the context of the involution and evolution of consciousness we discussed in an earlier chapter.[LINK] As we saw there, it must be a conscious force that gave each part of the universe its specific properties, and knowledge by identity is the knowledge aspect of that conscious force. In other words, it is the intrinsically perfect and comprehensive knowledge that is inherent both in the cosmos as a whole, and in every individual part of the manifestation, however small or vast. In a more traditional language, one could say that it is the way the Divine knows itself in the world.

    It is the presence of this implicit and potentially omniscient knowledge in each part that explains the wondrous harmony we see in nature, where even the simplest, physical thing obeys all laws of nature perfectly. In us humans, knowledge by identity is almost entirely covered up by the "separative indirect" knowledge (type 4) which our nervous system constructs with its help. As we will see in the next chapter, this is the main reason that the Indian tradition recommends silencing the mind not only as the best way to find our own inner happiness back, but also as the best way to develop wisdom and intrinsically true knowledge.

  2. The second type of knowledge is the implicit knowledge we have of things in which we are directly involved. Sri Aurobindo calls it "knowledge by intimate direct contact": because in this type of knowledge we know whatever we know by being directly with it. When applied to ourselves, it is known as experiential knowledge, and in the ordinary waking state, it is mainly used for emotions, attitudes, intentions and other mental states.
  3. 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 third one 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.
  5. In psychology this third type is known as introspection. Psychology cannot do very well without it as it is the simplest 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 that are based on introspection by the subjects being studied. 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 in my humble opinion indispensable if we want to take psychology forward.

  6. 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 perceive with our own eyes and 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 semi-conscious mental construction before it reaches an acceptable state of accuracy. For him only intuitive knowledge is direct as it comes "ready-made" from inside. Modernity is sceptical about intuition, but we'll come back to why and how it exists in the last chapter of Part One.
  7. A tremendous collective effort goes at present into the development of "separative knowledge by indirect contact", and as it can be shared and applied so easily, it plays an ever-increasing role in our society. The expert form of this type of knowledge is known as science and there is an increasing tendency to think that this is the only type of knowledge that really works and is worth cultivating.

The four types of knowledge as they occur in the ordinary waking state can then be put together into a table as follows:


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.


Knowledge by identity

It may be useful to have a closer look at Knowledge by identity as it is the essence of all other forms of knowledge. According to the Indian tradition knowledge by identity provides the core-element of all forms of inner knowledge, and, as such, it is supposed to be 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.

We will now have a quick look at the role knowledge by identity (type 1) plays in the 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.[FN to chapter on borders]
    • 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 hangs together that helps to create meaning out of the raw impressions which our senses provide. One might think that it should be easy to establish by experimentation whether new knowledge is built by induction out of experience or by deduction from pre-existing inner knowledge, but in practice this is an area where it is hard to avoid mistaking assumptions for conclusions. We'll come back to how these two types of knowing interact later.[LINK]

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 two, experiential knowledge.

If the anger is 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 three, 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 four, 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 one, knowledge by identity).

As a whole one could say that the introspective mode of knowing oneself goes more often 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, one could say, for example, "Shankara is one of the greatest philophers the world has seen". There is then a mixture: the thought itself belongs to the realm of ‘separative knowledge’ of type four, while the implicit, pre-reflective self-awareness of being busy thinking belongs to the realm of ‘knowledge by intimate direct contact’, type two. If one slightly doubts what one thinks, one could say: "Hey, I think that Shankara is one of the greatest philosophers (while you don't).". There is then a mixture of type four with type three, introspection.

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 more reliable inner knowledge and 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 but in the daily practice of science all four types of knowledge play a role. Science consists largely of a patient intellectual labour to collect knowledge of type four, but there are stages when knowledge of type one, two and three play a significant role.

We will have a look at how psychological knowledge of these different types can be made more reliable and informative in the next chapter. But before that we'll have a look at a few other ways to distinguish different ways of knowing. -->