Types of knowledge and their roles in psychology

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

section 3
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 too, 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 Sri Aurobindo)

Knowledge Type
(acc. to usage)


Objective knowledge

physical world

expert separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4e)

A. science,
rigorous knowledge of the outer, physical and social reality


naïve separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4n)

B. ordinary, sense-based knowledge of the outer physical and social reality

Subjective knowledge

outer nature

naïve separative, direct knowledge
(type 3n)

C. introspection

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

D. superficial experience

surface self

naïve knowledge by identity
(type 1n)

E. superficial awareness of one's own 'self'

Inner knowledge

inner nature

expert separative, direct knowledge
(type 3e)

F. puruṣa-based witness consciousness


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

G. consciousness directly touching other consciousness


atman & mahas;
Self & supramental

expert knowledge by identity
(type 1e)

H. gnosis,

Table 2.1.3. Four knowledge realms


Some more detail

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 physical 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; our human 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.

It may be noted that science, the expert variety of this kind of knowledge, deals with things, forces and processes that are also known to the naive variety of this kind of knowledge, but also with aspects of the physical reality that are not. The most frequently used in the latter category is probably electromagnetism, a physical force which is not accessible to our human senses, but about which science has developed so much detailed knowledge that it is now used in the manufacture of virtually every thing we use in our day-to-day lives.

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 to science is what people think about themselves. It cannot tell 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 is the kind of knowledge needed to study the inner domain, the part of reality that within the structure of the personality corresponds to the "sublimenal". Its study is as crucial to take psychology further, as the study of physiology, chemistry and physics are for medicine. There are two varieties of it.

  • The first comprises of the expert mode of what Sri Aurobindo calls knowledge of type three: the pure, detached, puruṣa-centred witness consciousness (type 3e). Since it allows precise and unbiased, 'objective' knowledge of whatever happens within human nature, it can be expected to play an increasingly central role in psychology.
  • The other is the expert mode of type two, knowledge by intimate direct contact (type 2e). As already mentioned, certain aspects of this kind of knowledge are already used by professionals in an extremely wide variety of fields — dance, music, theatre, athletics, sport — but it can be taken much further. Since we humans are in the subliminal not as skin-encapsulated as we are on the surface, it is the type of knowledge on which many of the "anomalous phenomena" that are studied by parapsychology are based. It arises when one attunes one's consciousness to the consciousness in others and even in things, so that one can know them in the same intimate, unmediated, direct manner in which people normally only know what goes on inside themselves. Just as the expert variety of our sense-based knowledge of the physical domain has learnt to deal with physical things and forces that are not accesible to the naive variety of that type of knowledge, so also the expert variety of the two types of knowledge of the "inner worlds" (type 2e and 3e) has access to phenomena that our ordinary waking consciousness is not aware of. This used to be known as "the occult" of which modern man is exceedingly sceptical, but there is no reason that it cannot be studied with the same intellectual rectitude and rigour that hard sciences use for the physical world.


This is the expert variety of knowledge by identity (type 1e), which when perfected, can give us the knowledge of the Divine, who we are in the very essence of our being. The difficulty is that our outer nature does not remotely have sufficient bandwidth to express, or even innerly acknowledge, this type of knowledge in its full grandeur, detail, strength, love, light and beauty. Accordingly, many religious and spiritual traditions describe it in negative terms: in Christian mysticism and European philosophy it is often described as knowledge of the ineffable Transcendent, while the Indian traditions uses terms like moksha, sunya, nirvana and nirbija samadhi. Some traditions also mention the other, the all-inclusive form of this highest type of knowledge. The Vedic tradition calls it the knowledge that "once known makes everything known", yasmin vijñāte sarvam sarvamidam vijñātam (Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad, 2.2), the secret origin of whatever there is of real truth in all other types of knowledge. And yet, however high, and hard to fully "realise", these aspects of the ultimate self-knowledge are, all in their own way, still only pin-pricks into the Infinite. Beyond all of it, is the knowledge that must have created the world. But all this is a long way to go and we'll come back to it in the chapters on self-development.

In the next chapter we'll have a closer look at the basic principles that are involved in making whatever we can have of the three inner types of knowledge more accurate and reliable.