Types of knowledge and their roles in psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 01 August 2022

section 2
two modes of knowing: naïve and expert

Perfecting the 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 so 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 4.

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, a number of serious problems arises when we rely too exclusively on this type of knowledge for psychology since for psychology, it is the other three types of knowledge that are more important.

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 why trained, objective observation of the physical outside world works well, while the way in which the early introspectionists tried to conduct trained objective observation of inner processes didn't.

To understand physical objects and events, science uses not only observation, but also mathematics and logical reasoning, and the latter two belong 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 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 still 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 he or 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 at least four. The first is this conflict of interests; the second is, that the ordinary waking mind is not a good instrument to study inner processes that are more subtle than that mind itself; the third is, that the act of observation tends to affect what is happening; and the fourth problem is infinite regress.1

The Indian solution avoids all four 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. As a result it has access to a very different process of self-observation which begins with withdrawing one's consciousness entirely from its involvement in the mental processes that happen in one's mind. One can then watch these mental processes from a completely detached, silent 'witness' consciousness. If done well, none of the complications of ordinary introspection occur. Arriving at a state of pure, absolutely silent witness consciousness is of course not trivial, but interestingly, it is actually doable. The details of the process are somewhat complex, however, both theoretically and practically, and as the issue is so central to the further development of psychology, we will come back to them in the next chapter which is entirely devoted to the question how to improve the quality of our psychological knowledge.

2. Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact

As already mentioned, in modern society knowledge by intimate direct contact is used extensively in a wide variety of professions. Athletes use it to train their bodies; actors to master the expression of emotions; authors to describe the different situations and personalities that populate their stories. But for real mastery something more is needed. Musicians know that it is not enough to make the physical movements of their hands technically perfect. They need to pour some secret extra into their work which changes sound into music. In many of these professions, physical action plays a crucial role, but it is not all, and perhaps not even the most important. The social and human sciences have been aware of that extra on the side of their subjects, but, strangely enough, they have been blind to it on their own side, for their own work. It is as if they have been so mesmerised by the succes of the hard sciences that they are scared to tread outside the safe limits of what they think the physical sciences do. But the physical sciences themselves have actually crossed the boundaries of what our outer, physical sense-organs can tell in a manner that is very similar to what the social and human sciences should have done but haven't. Once physicists discovered that there are all kind of forces and types of radiation that cannot be perceived with the ordinary human senses, they have hypothesised fields and constructed instruments that are sensitive to those extra aspects of reality.

The hard sciences would have made no progress whatsover if they had limited themselves to what the ordinary human senses can perceive and if they had refused to create instruments that are sensitive to things the ordinary human senses cannot perceive, things like electromagnetism, x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light, ultrasound, etc. In psychology it is the same: limiting ourselves to what the ordinary physical senses can perceive blocks all possibilities for progress: we must create new instruments of knowledge that can accurately perceive those aspects of reality that the ordinary mind cannot see or that it can see only vaguely or in a distorted manner. The only difference is that the instruments of knowledge psychology needs to create and perfect must be appropriate for psychology, for what is happening in our own human consciousness, and this is not exactly easy. For one, it requires a mastery over mental processes and other things happening in our consciousness that most people don't have. A second hurdle is that to maintain sufficiently high standards of rigour and intellectual rectitude it is essential to have at least some access to the pure witness consciousness we discussed in the previous section under knowledge of type three. A third difficulty is that some of these inner explorations lead to types of knowledge that cannot be rendered fully in the explicit and exclusive language science is used to. A fourth difficulty is that the Indian tradition has found promising solutions for many of these issues, but not for all, so we'll have to see where we stand and what is still to be done. But if we are honest, one of the biggest hurdle might well be that since this instrumentation by necessity has to be part of our own nature, we, as psychologists, become vulnerable and open to public scrutiny in a way that we as academics are not used to...

1. Knowledge by Identity

If we take this process of standing back from the mind mentioned under knowledge of type three one step further and manage to silence the normal working of the mind completely, the resulting inner clarity opens up the way to the last type of knowledge, knowledge by identity, and with that the possibility of a wide variety of extraordinary inner powers or siddhis. Together with the conceptualisation of saccidananda as the ultimate nature of reality, this discovery of methods to silence one's outer nature completely, appears to me as one of the greatest discoveries humanity has made. Indian mystics found, thousands of years ago, that if you withdraw your consciousness from the ego and from its entanglement in the ordinary activities of the human mind, it does not diminish (as Jung for example thought) , but it expands, and there appears to be no limit to how far this expansion can go. If you do it on the level of the heart, for example, it can lead to an intensity of delight that seems to be limited only by the limited capacity of your body and mind to bear with delight. And something similar happens in the field of knowledge. Here too, the limits appear to be imposed only by the outer nature which can neither express nor bear with anything that goes too far beyond what it is used to. Most Indian schools of spirituality have accepted these limits and either strive for a final release into an effectively transcendent state of infinite bliss, or accepted a temporary compromise where one lives a more or less normal outer life while one knows that behind the appearance of suffering, imperfection and ignorance that characterise the ordinary human existence, there is an unassailable perfection of eternal light and delight in a state, or rather a world, beyond that ordinary reality. As mentioned at the end of the chapter on the ongoing evolution of consciousness, one of the main motivations to write this text is Sri Aurobindo's assertion that there actually is a possibility of radically increasing our nature's capacity to bear and express these higher degrees of consciousness and delight.

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

The naive and expert modess of the four types of knowledge can then be summarised as in Table 2.1.2.

  Type of knowledge Naïve mode Rigorous, expert mode
4 Separative indirect knowledge ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
the hard sciences
3 Separative direct knowledge introspection pure witness consciousness (sakshi);
purusha-based self-observation
2 Knowledge by intimate direct contact superficial experiential knowledge knowledge of realities beyond what is knowable in the ordinary waking state
1 Knowledge by identity superficial awareness of one's own existence true intuition and a variety of other siddhis

Table 2.1.2. Naive and expert modes of the four types of knowledge

In the next section of this chapter, 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.

A more detailed look at how to develop the expert mode of the three inner types of knowledge will follow in the following chapter.


1.     Infinite regress occurs when the psychologist watches that something happens in his mind; then watches that he watches that something happens in his mind; then watches that he watches that he watches... and so on ad infinitum.