Types of knowledge and their roles in psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 08 June 2021

section 1
four types of knowledge in the ordinary waking state

Humanity has made such incredible progress in science and technology, that many people now think that the explicit, evidence-based knowledge that the hard sciences seek is the only kind of knowledge that can be trusted and pursued systematically. This is tragical, because this kind of objective knowledge is unfit for the study of far too many things that are central to our existence as human beings. Fortunately, as we hinted at in the Preface and in several chapters of the Introduction, there actually are other ways of knowing that can be developed in a systematic and rigorous manner. While the West has focused during the last few hundred years with stunning succes on objective knowledge of the outer, physical side of reality, the Indian civilisation has concentrated for millennia on the inner, spiritual side, and it has found ways to study this inner domain with the same rigour and mental rectitude that science has applied to the outer world.

Bringing the two knowledge systems together is however more complicated than it may look at first sight. The core of the problem is that the study of the inner domain requires not only different methods of enquiry, but also different types of knowledge and a different understanding of the basic structure of reality as a whole. Since the Indian knowledge system is wider, more complex, and in certain respects more sophisticated than that of mainstream science, incorporating it as a small niche within the existing framework of science is not possible without missing out on what may well be the most important contribution the Indian tradition can make to science: its more complex and sophisticated, consciousness-centred understanding of reality and, with that, its understanding of knowledge itself. It is true that certain techniques that have their origin in the Indian tradition, like mindfulness and hathayoga, have been found to be beneficial in fields like counselling and self-help even when used in a "decontextualised" manner, but without the deeper understanding of the knowledge systems on which they are based, it is rather like getting exited about the tools Michelangelo used for making his statues: it is alright, but it misses the point. The real treasures hidden within the Indian knowledge systems will become visible only when we study them in the context of their own understanding of the basic nature of reality and of ourselves as human beings. Only then can we understand how they saw the inner, psychological domain and how they managed to make their knowledge of it so effective and reliable. Doing so is not easy, as it requires a very different attitude towards life, work, and self, than the one which academics have learned and are habituated to, but as I mentioned earlier, the stakes are high. Humanity has become far too powerful for its own good and we are in urgent need of a better understanding of ourselves. As I hope to show, the Indian tradition has developed an actually small but powerful set of in itself pretty simple ideas about reality and knowledge that together have the potential of making psychology as logically coherent, effective and quickly progressive as the physical sciences already are. But before we have a look them, we first need to do some basic groundwork, and for this we will start with four well-known types of knowledge we all use in our ordinary lives.

Four types of knowledge in the ordinary waking state

In one of the chapters of The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo lists four types of knowledge of which at least the early beginnings are part of our ordinary waking consciousness (LD, pp. 524–532).

Sri Aurobindo 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, according to the Indian tradition it is the most important of the four as it is this type of knowledge that makes all the other types possible. We will come back to it in the last chapter.
  2. The second type of knowledge is "knowledge by intimate direct contact". It is the implicit knowledge we have of things in which we are directly involved. Sri Aurobindo calls it intimate, because in this type of knowledge we know a thing or process by being directly involved with it, and 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 known as 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 management to theatre, dance and sports. It will be interesting to see whether a better theoretical understanding of how it actually works could lead to further breakthroughs in these and other areas.

  4. The third type is "knowledge by separative direct contact". It is the knowledge we acquire when we try to look pseudo-objectively at what is going on inside ourselves. Sri Aurobindo calls it separative, because we try to look at what is going on inside ourselves objectively, as an outsider, and again direct 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. 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 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.1
  7. The expert form of "separative knowledge by indirect contact" is known as science, and a tremendous collective effort goes at present into its development. As we are so incredibly good at it and as it can be shared and applied so easily, it plays an ever-increasing role in our society 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 our own existence
(while details are provided by the other three types)
Knowledge inherent in existence
2. Knowledge by intimate direct contact
Awareness of our 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 as the core of the other three types of knowing

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, as we already saw, 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 here 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, others and the outside world. The degree of this sense of connectedness differs considerably from culture to culture and from person to person.1 On one extreme, there are mystics who feel in a very concrete sense one with others and the world. On the other extreme, there are deeply pathological psychotic states in which hardly any connection is felt between one’s self and the rest of reality. The ordinary consciousness wavers somewhere between these extremes.
    • 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 provide.2

Mixed patterns

A second thing to keep in mind 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 tend to get 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 2, experiential knowledge.

If the anger is less strong, part of my mind may stand apart and 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 3, introspection).

If I distance myself even further from the anger, I will 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 4, sense-based knowledge).

On the other hand, if I live deep within I will identify 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 1, knowledge by identity).

The difference between experiential knowledge of type two and introspection of type three.

It may be useful to say a few words on the difference between the second and third types of knowledge. When I’m very happy, for example, I need not observe myself to find out whether I am happy or not. I can stay directly with the happiness, and exclaim, in full identification with my feelings, "What a great day it is!" I know the state I'm in, but not in a representative, objective manner. I know then what and how I am through knowledge of type two as if from within, through a direct intimacy with the inner state or process. If I would look at myself in a (pseudo-)objective manner, through introspection of type three, I would say something like "Hey, today I’m happy", and this would imply a certain distance from the happiness.

As a whole one could say that the introspective mode of knowing oneself (type 3) goes more often with the mind, while experiential knowledge, knowledge ‘by being with’ (type 2), 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 4, while there is at the same time a possibly vague and implicit self-awareness of thinking this which belongs to the realm of ‘knowledge by intimate direct contact’, type 2. If one slightly doubts what one thinks, or for another reason takes some distance from one's own thinking, 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 4 with type 3, introspection.

All these different ways of being aware of our own state can follow quickly one after the other or even be there at the same time. 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.

In the next section, we will have a first look at how psychological knowledge of these different types can be made more reliable and informative.



1.   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 and we will see later how it can be made more reliable.

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

3.   In principle, well-designed research in Machine Learning should be able to tell whether new knowledge can be constructed entirely by induction out of raw data. It may well be found that some pre-existing knowledge or purpose is required to recognise the newly generated knowledge as such. Till now, it appears that for all practical applications it is more efficient to feed such systems with humanly determined prior knowledge of at least some rules and notions on what constitute desirable outcomes.