What is knowledge?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2019
Two modes of knowing: naïve and expert
Still in process!
Perfecting Sri Aurobindo's Four Types of Knowledge
The four types of knowledge we discussed in the previous section are in their unregenerate form far from perfect, but they can all be perfected, each in its own way. The methods through which they can be perfected are different for each one, and we'll take them up one by one.
1. Separative Indirect Knowledge
Separative indirect knowledge is the sense-based knowledge of the physical world, and the expert mode of this first type of knowledge plays a major role in modern science. Modernity has made stunning progress perfecting this type of knowledge, especially in the physical domain, and we need not detail out the methods it uses here. As we have seen in the introduction [INTERNAL LINK], a number of serious problems arise when we rely too exclusively on this type of knowledge for psychology. For psychology it is the other types of knowledge we need to perfect.
2. Separative Direct Knowledge
In the beginning of the 20th century, mainstream psychology tried its hand at professionalising introspection. Unfortunately, it encountered such serious difficulties that it gave up on it, and redefined itself as the science of behaviour. The reason "introspectionism" failed seems to have been that the introspection-based schools tried to do introspection without taking sufficient distance from the processes it wanted to study. To understand physical objects and events, we use reason, which belongs to an entirely different order of reality than the physical stuff that is being studied. To understand the mind effectively, one also needs a higher type of consciousness than the mind itself, but for this the West missed the required expertise. The early American introspectionists simply used a part of the mind to study the functioning of the mind. The result was comparable to what would happen when a judge would be asked to adjudicate a case in which his own family is involved. It results in conflicts of interest, biases and infinite regress (the psychologist watches that he watches .... that he watches a conflict). The Indian solution is more radical. It advises withdrawing the consciousness entirely from its involvement in mental processes and watching what happens from a completely detached 'witness' consciousness were none of these complications occurs.
The most immediately obvious difference between the two approaches is, that in ordinary introspection there is almost always 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, relaxed yet sharply focused attention. It is, as the old image has it, 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. The details of the Indian process are somewhat complex, both theoretically and practically, and we will come back to them in the second chapter titled "How to improve the quality of our psychological knowledge" [INTERNAL LINK].
3. Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact
Interestingly, the same techniques that enable the kind of detached self-observation which produces reliable knowledge of type two and through that, unbiased access to one's own mind, can also, through type three, give access to what happens in other people's minds and even in things. The reason for 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 so completely wrapped up in the working of our nervous system that we are not aware of this possibility, 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 mainstream science has till now labeled 'anomalous' because they do not fit in its far too narrow, physicalist world view. But if we accept the Indian consciousness-based means of developing psychological knowledge, an enormous world of 'paranormal' psychological capacities and powers can be "naturalised" and opened up to systematic study and development.
4. Knowledge by Identity
Further inner clarity can also open up a way to develop the last type of knowledge, knowledge by identity, which can enable a much more extensive use of intuition. The idea behind this even bolder claim is that if the world is a manifestation of consciousness, then the original consciousness that manifested the world out of itself must have done so according to fundamental "real-ideas" (from the world of ritam cit); and when we free our individual consciousness from its involvement in the small creature we think we are, it can identify itself instead with the original, creative consciousness and thus know everything the way the Divine knows it: from the inside. At first sight, it might seem unlikely that we will see a wide-scale application of this mode of knowing within the foreseeable future, but who knows? One could look at the stunning progress humanity has made in recent years in the physical sciences, as an influx of knowledge of the fourth type into our collective mind.
The naive and expert modes of the four types of knowledge can then be summarised as in Table 1.
|Type of knowledge||Naïve mode||Rigorous, expert mode||1||Separative indirect knowledge||Ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
|The hard sciences|
|2||Separative direct knowledge||Introspection||Pure witness consciousness (sakshi),
|3||Knowledge by intimate direct contact||Superficial experiential knowledge||Pure consciousness directly touching
|4||Knowledge by identity||Superficial awareness of own existence||True intuition|
Table 1. Naive and expert modes of the four types of knowledge
We will now have a look at how these different naive and expert modes of the four knowledge types can be used in the different corners of our complex human existence.
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