What is knowledge?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: June 2020

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 as a whole. 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 (LD, pp. 524–532). He 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. 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 gives each thing that exists its properties, its form and its function. It is there in every individual part of the manifestation, however small or vast, and even in the cosmos as a whole. In a more traditional language, one could say that it is the way the Divine knows — and manifests — 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 other three types of knowledge. As we will see in the next chapter, this is the reason that the Indian tradition recommends silencing these other types of knowledge not only as the best way to find our own inner happiness back, but also as the best way to develop wisdom and a type of knowledge that is intrinsically true.

  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": intimate, because in this type of knowledge we know a thing or process by being directly involved in it; direct, because we don't need our sense-organs to mediate between ourselves and whatever it is we know. When applied to ourselves, it is called experiential knowledge, and in the ordinary waking state, it is mainly used for bodily states, physical activities, emotions, attitudes, intentions and so on.
  3. Knowledge by intimate direct contact is used in all professional skills and attitudes and its systematic training has led to remarkable results in almost all fields of human endeavour, right from science and management to theatre and sports. It will be interesting to see whether a better theoretical understanding of how it actually works could lead to further breakthroughs with this type of knowing. One specific area where this is likely to happen is that of "anomalous phenomena", things like telepathy and synchronicity. Since such phenomena are extremely hard to explain within the boundaries of a purely physicalist understanding of reality, they have till now been met with much scepsis and they have not remotely received the attention they deserve. Once we acknowledge that consciousness and will are as pervasive throughout reality as mass and electromagnetic force, they don't need to be treated any longer as "anomalous" and it should become possible to study them systematically and effectively. According to the Indian tradition this second type of knowledge cannot only be used to know oneself but also to know other people, animals, plants and even inanimate things. It is hard to predict what a better understanding and mastery in this field could lead to, but it is quite well conceivable that it would equal or even surpass the effect of our increasing physical knowledge.

  4. The third type 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 again because here too, 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 one's mind, but, as the early "introspectionists" found out, 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 in the next chapter how the Indian tradition tackles the difficulties inherent in introspection and we will discuss there the two main methods it uses to enhance introspection’s reliability. As I hope to show, 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 type of knowledge, 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 level of accuracy. For him only intuitive knowledge is direct as it comes as if "ready-made" from inside. Modernity is sceptical about intuition, but we have already hinted at why it must be there [LINK] and we will see later how it can be made more reliable [LINK].
  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 be put together into a table as follows:


1. Knowledge by identity
Awareness of the simple fact of one’s own existence
while details are provided by the 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, according to the Indian tradition, the core-element of all other types of knowledge. 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. It might also be the reason that new discoveries, once fully established, so often give the impression that they have actually been no more than the recollection of something that somewhere deep down was already known.

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.

As mentioned, knowledge by identity (type 1) plays a role in the other three 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 perhaps the least obvious, but even there 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 ourselves, 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 differs considerably from one person to the next. On one extreme, there are mystics who feel in a very concrete sense ‘one with the world’; on the other extreme, there are psychotic states in which hardly any connection is felt between one’s self and the world; the ordinary consciousness wavers somewhere between these extremes.1.
    • 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 the mind to create meaning out of the raw "data" which our senses provide2.

Mixed patterns

Before we can have a closer look at these different types of knowledge and 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 philosophers 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.

We will now have a look at how psychological knowledge of these different types can be made more reliable and informative in the next chapter.


1.   Here is a short note on where different cultures place the borders of the self.

2.   It is an interesting question whether new knowledge can be constructed entirely by induction out of raw data. It may well be found that some pre-existing knowledge is required to recognise the generated knowledge as such.