What is knowledge?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: June 2020
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 domains, 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 three types of knowledge that are more important and most in need of attention.
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. That "introspectionism" encountered difficulties was by itself not surprising. Introspection is difficult. But it is worthwhile to have a quick look at what went wrong because the errors they made clearly point in the direction in which the solution can be found.
Once you have installed a good instrument to measure rainfall, whether you like rain or what you think about climate change is unlikely to affect the outcome to any substantial degree. When, on the other hand, you want to know whether you have gained from a certain method of therapy, it is extremely likely that your feelings towards the therapist, the effort you have put into it, and your ideas about therapy in general, will effect your self-observations.
To understand physical objects and events, science uses not only observation, but also reason, and reason belongs to an entirely different order of reality than the physical stuff that is being studied. By and large, this works well. In most situations our own human biases do not influence the physical processes under study, and their measurement has become even less prone to human error since we use digital instrumentation. Whatever errors there still are, are due to the organisation of the experiments beforehand, and the interpretation of the results afterwards, places where they are relatively easy to spot. But in psychology things don't work in the same way: we cannot avoid human observers and the very fact of observation effects the psychological processes we try to study in often complex ways. So, if we humans try to understand our our own minds, things tend to go wrong. The early German and American introspectionists did try to train their observers, but their basic method of observation used one part of the mind to study the functioning of another part of the same mind, and the result was comparable to what would happen if a judge would be asked to adjudicate a case in which his own family was involved. This is normally not considered acceptable, as it would result in an obvious conflict of interest. In the case of introspection in which one part of the mind is asked to observe what happens in another part of the mind, this is only one of the problems. There are in fact three. The first is bias; the second is that the act of observation tends to affect what is happening; and the third problem is 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 avoids all three problems, because it is based on a deeper understanding of the relationship between consciousness and mind. In the ordinary waking state, consciousness and mind tend to be entangled in each other, and in Western thought they are commonly equated. The Indian tradition makes a clear distinction between them, both conceptionally, and experientially. Accordingly, its process of self-observation begins with withdrawing one's consciousness entirely from its involvement in the mental processes that happen in one's mind, and then one watches the mental processes from a completely detached, silent 'witness' consciousness. If done well, none of the complications of ordinary introspection 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 see not only 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
In modern society knowledge by intimate direct contact is used extensive in all kind of specialist skills. Athletes use it to train their bodies; actors to master the expression of emotions; painters and musicians to perfect the movements of their hands; authors to describe human nature. But strangely, it is hardly studied in science. In the Indian tradition, this type of knowledge is primarily used, together with the detached, unbiased self-observation of type three, to master one's own consciousness, and then, secondarily, to master one's own nature.
Interestingly, knowledge "by intimate direct contact" has been found to give direct access even to what happens in other people's minds, things and events. What makes this possible 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 we don't realise this because our consciousness is so completely wrapped up in the working of our nervous system, but once it is freed from there, it can in principle contact anything it concentrates upon. It is this that 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. 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 in due time, this will enable a more free inflow of intuition. The idea behind this perhaps rather bold 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 the fields of technology and the hard sciences, as an influx of tiny bits of this type of knowledge into the hyper focussed minds of the whiz-kids who enable our collective progress.
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 one's own existence||True intuition|
|2||Knowledge by intimate direct contact||Superficial experiential knowledge||Pure consciousness directly touching
|3||Separative direct knowledge||Introspection||Pure witness consciousness (sakshi),
|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
In the next section, we will 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.