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

section 2
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 our ordinary unregenerate human state 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. This time, we'll look at them in the opposite direction from the sequence followed in the previous chapter: we'll take them up from four to one. The reason to do it this way is that our collective effort during the last few centuries has gone almost entirely into objective knowledge of the physical and social domain, and as a result we have become much better in this type of knowledge than in the other three types. In fact, for most of us now, objective knowledge feels familiar and reliable while the other types appear increasingly vague, unreliable and "mystical". So, we will move this time from the known to the unknown and start with knowledge of type four.

4. Separative Indirect Knowledge

Separative indirect knowledge is the sense-based knowledge of the physical world, and the expert mode of this 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 that are more important and in need of a greater perfection.

3. 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 sufficient understanding of the processes involved.

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, and by and large, this works well. In most situations our own human biases do not influence the physical processes too much, and their measurement has become less prone to human error since we use digital instrumentation. Whatever errors there still are, are due to the organisation of the experiments and the interpretation of the results, places where they are easier to spot. But in psychology things don't work in the same way: the fact of observation does effect the psychological processes in often complex ways, and we have to rely on human observers. So, if we try to use standard "objective" methods to study our own minds, things go wrong. The early German and American introspectionists ended up using one part of their own mind to study the functioning of another part of their own mind, the result was comparable to what would happen if a judge would be asked to adjudicate a case in which his own family is involved. This is normally not accepted, as it would result in an obvious conflict of interest. There are then two problems, the first is bias, the second that the observation inescapably effects what is happening, and there is a third problem; that of infinite regress: Initially the psychologist watches that something happens in his mind. Then he watches that he watches that something happens in his mind. Then he watches that he watches that he watches... and so on ad infinitum. The Indian solution is based on a deeper understanding and far more radical. It begins with withdrawing one's consciousness entirely from its involvement in the mental processes that happen in one's mind. If this is doen well, and and watches from a completely detached, silent 'witness' consciousness, none of these complications occur.

Phenomenologically, 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. Arriving at a state of pure, absolutely silent, witness consciousness is obviously not trivial, but it is doable. The details of the process are somewhat complex, however, 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].

2. Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact

Interestingly, the same techniques that enable the kind of detached self-observation which produces reliable, unbiased access to one's own mind through knowledge of type three, can also 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 labels as 'anomalous' because they do not fit in its far too narrow, physicalist world view. But if we accept the Indian consciousness-based view of reality and its means of developing reliable psychological knowledge, an enormous world of 'paranormal' psychological capacities and powers can be "naturalised" and opened up to systematic study and development.

1. Knowledge by Identity

If we take this process of standing back from the mind one step further and manage to silence the normal working of the mind completely, the resulting inner clarity will open up the way to the last type of knowledge, knowledge by identity, and enable a more free inflow of intuition. The idea behind this even bolder claim is that if the world is indeed 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 normally identify with, 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.

Summing up the naive and expert modes of the four types of knowledge.

Back to their original order, 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 Knowledge by identity Superficial awareness of own existence True intuition
2 Knowledge by intimate direct contact Superficial experiential knowledge Pure consciousness directly touching
other consciousness
3 Separative direct knowledge Introspection Pure witness consciousness (sakshi),
purusha-based self-observation
4 Separative indirect knowledge Ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
The hard sciences

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 realms that together make up our complex human existence.