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 the context of epistemology, we use the word "yoga" in this broad and general sense.

Table 2.1.3 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)


Objective knowledge

physical world

H. objective science

expert separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4e)


G. ordinary, sense-based knowing

naïve separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4n)

Subjective knowledge

outer nature

F. introspection

naïve separative, direct knowledge
(type 3n)

E. superficial experience

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

surface self

D. superficial awareness of own existence

naïve knowledge by identity
(type 1n)

Inner knowledge

inner nature

C. puruṣa-based witness consciousness

expert separative, direct knowledge
(type 3e)


B. consciousness directly touching other consciousness

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


atman & mahas;
Self & supramental

A. gnosis,

expert knowledge by identity
(type 1e)

Table 2.1.3. Four knowledge realms


The four 'knowledge realms' indicated in column 1 of table 2.1.3. can be described as follows:

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 (type 4n) is simply whatever ordinary people know about the world outside of themselves. The expert variety (type 4e) is science. These two don't differ in principle, but they differ massively 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 way beyond its normal capacity in the form of mathematics. Modernity is the scene of an almost incredible collective growth of this type of knowledge.

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 (type 1n); experiential knowledge, which deals with processes we intimately identify with (type 2n); introspection, which is a naïve attempt at being 'objective' about oneself (type 3n). All three are limited in scope and all that 'subjective knowledge' can contribute is to science is what people think about themselves, not what is actually happening in people. As we have perhaps repeated too often, using population surveys in which people are asked to complete Likert scales about themselves is like doing astronomy by asking people about what they see in the evening sky.

Inner Knowledge

This consists of the sophisticated, expert variety of the two types of knowledge of which subjective knowledge uses the naïve variety. The expert variety of type two, knowledge by intimate direct contact (type 2e) allows one's consciousness to align with 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 is the pure, detached witness consciousness (type 3e) that allows precise and unbiased, 'objective' knowledge of whatever happens in one's own inner nature.


This is the expert variety of knowledge by identity (type 1e), and, when perfected, it gives us the knowledge of who we are in the very essence of our being. As there is ultimately only one Self, a perfect knowledge of one's Self is also a direct knowledge of the Divine. Accordingly, this is the type of knowledge that gives us the possibility of knowing the ineffable Transcendent in inner states that have been described with terms like moksha, nirvana and nirbija samadhi. Though high, this aspect of the ultimate self-knowledge is also narrow, to the extent that it is often described as empty, sunya. There is however also another form of this highest type knowledge, which has been described as the knowledge that "once known makes everything known", yasmin vijñāte sarvam sarvamidam vijñātam (Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad, 2.2). This is the knowledge that one can attain by tuning in — to prefection — with the knowledge that has created the world. As we already discussed it is also supposed to be the secret origin of whatever there is of real truth in all other types of knowledge. The little of this type of self-knowledge that reaches our surface consciousness may never attain that level of perfection, but according to the Indian tradition this type of knowledge too is in its origin intrinsically true and perfect.

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 also for our public affairs, government, education and so on, while it is actually not suitable for those areas.. The reason is that 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 we are not good at it. The incredible political chaos we see at present all over the world shows that, as of now, humanity has not found a satisfying method to deal with this domain.

It is true that to attain 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, and that both require an inner discipline and persistence of which few people are capable. But in itself, this is not a problem: not everybody can study physics or become a professional sportsperson either.

One difficulty 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 as the Indian civilization has specialised in this area for millennia. 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 the various oral traditions and Sanskrit texts to build 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 psychology 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.