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

section 3
Four knowledge realms

Still in process!

The Four Knowledge Realms

Once we recognise how much the naïve and expert modes of these four types of knowledge differ from each other, it becomes clear that there are actually eight clearly distinct forms of knowing that give access to eight different aspects of reality. For psychology it is practical to order these eight methods of knowing on a trajectory that reaches from the purely physical outer reality (studied by objective science) to the deepest innermost self (studied by yoga). Doing so, we can then group the different aspects of reality, which these eight methods of knowing allow us to explore, into four distinct "knowledge realms": objective knowledge, subjective knowledge, inner knowledge and self-knowledge. Only the first two, objective knowledge and subjective knowledge, can be accessed with some confidence in the ordinary waking consciousness (OWC). Normally only an extremely limited, vague and often confused sense of the deeper realms of inner knowledge and self-knowledge can be obtained while one is in the OWC. For a complete understanding of human nature, a detailed and accurate knowledge of these realms is however essential and getting access to them tends to require considerable inner work. In the Indian tradition, this inner work is often referred to as yoga and in this text we use the word "yoga" in this broad and general sense (without implying in any way that it would not be possible to explore these two realms through other methods, or that you could not do yoga without bothering about these different knowledge realms).

Table 2 presents an overview of the four knowledge realms that are needed for a complete psychological understanding. It shows how the naïve and expert modes of Sri Aurobindo's four knowledge types work themselves out into eight types of knowing that can be used to explore eight different aspects of reality.

Knowledge Realm

Known Reality

Knowledge Type
(acc. to usage)

Knowledge Type
(acc. to Sri Aurobindo)


Self- knowledge

Real-Ideas; Self

A. gnosis, truth-consciousness

expert knowledge by identity
(type 1e)


Inner knowledge

inner nature

B. consciousness directly touching other consciousness

expert knowledge by intimate, direct contact
(type 2e)

C. puruṣa-based witness consciousness

expert separative, direct knowledge
(type 3e)

Subjective knowledge

surface self

D. superficial awareness of own existence

naïve knowledge by identity
(type 1n)


outer nature

E. superficial experience

naïve knowledge by intimate, direct contact
(type 2n)

F. introspection

naïve separative, direct knowledge
(type 3n)

Objective knowledge

Physical world

G. ordinary, sense-based knowing

naïve separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4n)

H. objective science

expert separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4e)

Table 2. Four knowledge realms


The four 'knowledge realms' indicated in column 1 of table 2 can be described as follows:


This is the expert variety of knowledge by identity (1e), and it leads us directly to who we are in the very essence of our being. The little of real self-knowledge that reaches our surface consciousness may never attain that level of perfection, but according to the Indian tradition this type of knowledge is in itself intrinsically true and perfect: it is the secret origin of whatever there is of real truth in all other types of knowledge. As there is ultimately only one Self, a perfect knowledge of oneself is also supposed to make perfect knowledge of everything else possible.

Inner Knowledge

This consists of the sophisticated, expert variety of the last two types of knowledge of which subjective knowledge uses the naïve variety. The expert variety of type two (2e), knowledge by intimate direct contact, allows one's consciousness to touch directly the consciousness in others and even in things so that one can know these by an intimate unmediated direct contact. Expert knowledge of Sri Aurobindo's type three (3e) is the pure detached witness consciousness that allows genuinely 'objective' knowledge of whatever happens in one's own inner nature.

Subjective Knowledge

Subjective knowledge is the knowledge we have of what is happening inside ourselves. The word 'subjective' has nowadays largely negative connotations, and I use it here only for the naïve variety of what we know about our own nature and our own self-existence. Within the realm of subjective knowledge, one can distinguish three types: a basic awareness of our own self-existence (1n); experiential knowledge, which deals with processes we intimately identify with (2n); introspection, which is a naïve attempt at being 'objective' about oneself (3n). All three are limited in scope and all that 'subjective knowledge' can contribute is low quality access to a very small portion of all that happens inside us.

Objective Knowledge

This is the knowledge we have of the physical and socio-economic world around us. It is sense-based and (supposed to be) guided by reason and 'common sense'. There are two varieties of it. The naïve variety (4n) is simply whatever ordinary people know about the world outside of themselves. The expert variety (4e) is science. These two don't differ in principle, but they differ considerably in their actual processes and results. Science is more rigorous, specialised and cumulative; the senses are extended by instruments that have been constructed with the help of knowledge of this same type; the reason is extended in the form of mathematics. Modernity is the scene of an almost incredible collective growth of this type of knowledge.

The need for yoga-based research in psychology

As mentioned before, the realms of objective and subjective knowledge (as defined here) are the only ones that can be accessed fully in the ordinary waking consciousness (or OWC). Because we have made such tremendous progress with the expert variety of objective knowledge in the physical domain, we tend to rely on it almost exclusively for our public affairs. The mainstream culture tends to doubt and distrust whatever comes from the domains of "inner knowledge" and "self-knowledge" because the little we know about them tends to be either encrusted in irrational and self-contradictory religious dogmas, or based on all kind of non-self-critical experiments and beliefs that are held within small groups of people at the margin of the global civilisation. It impresses the scientific mind as the kind of intractable mixture of partial truths and total confusion that science has struggled with since its beginning. Only where objective knowledge can clearly not provide the answers, for example on issues that demand a value judgment, society accepts that we have to fall back on subjective knowledge, but beyond that, our mainstream culture is not willing to go.

It is true that to get high quality inner knowledge and self-knowledge, we need an exceptional level of inner purity and a difficult to achieve mastery over a whole range of different types of consciousness, both based on an inner discipline for which few people have the capacity and inner determination.In itself, this is not a problem: not everybody cna study physics or become a professional sportsperson either. What makes the situation difficult is that within the Euro-American cultural tradition, which as of now strongly dominates the social sciences, there is not enough serious knowledge and know-how in this area to even start. While there have been mystics and other especially gifted individuals in all times and cultures, within Europe there have been too few of them and they appear to have left too little starting capital to help much at this stage of our exploration. Within the Indian tradition there is much more, probably simply because the Indian civilization has specialised in this area for millennia.1 Unfortunately, as we have seen in the Introduction, over 800 years of foreign domination have left the Indian civilization in a state of disarray, and much of the ancient spiritual knowledge of India is encrusted in the kind of religious and communal confusion that science understandably tries to stay away from. Only time will tell to what extent it is possible to distill useful knowledge from whatever there is remaining in terms of oral traditions and Sanskrit texts to kick-start a new consciousness-centred science, but with or without that support, it is clear that a solid methodology for rigorous, subjective knowledge will have to be developed, because that is the core condition to take the inner sciences further and turn science into the universal knowledge system it already pretends to be.

So, in the next chapter we'll have a closer look at the basic principles that can make the three inner types of knowledge accessible in a reliable manner, but before we get to that, a little more conceptual mopping-up is required.


1.   As discussed in the Introduction, Sri Aurobindo has made, to the best of my — admittedly limited — knowledge, the most comprehensive synthesis of this knowledge. What is more, he appears to have taken it a crucial step further. This last claim is bound to trigger protest from many within the various spiritual traditions. There is a widespread sense within all spiritual traditions, that spiritual knowledge is static and trans-historical. Though there may be some truth in this, many of the great mystics are remembered exactly because they introduced some new element to our collective understanding. As with physics, the laws underpinning reality are in all likelihood eternal, but that doesn't prevent our understanding of them from developing in time.