Types of knowledge and their roles in psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 10 May 2021

section 4
some lesser distinctions

Before we proceed, there are still a few practical and conceptual issues that are good to pay attention to. They are not specific to Indian or integral psychology, but they are good to keep in mind as they tend to create confusion when one is not sufficiently aware of them.

The purpose of knowing: why do we actually need to know?

From a practical standpoint, the first and perhaps most important distinction to make is why we actually need knowledge. In humans, knowledge exists only very rarely just for its own sake. It is almost always in service of life and some plan or program for action. There is a great difference between the knowledge of the academic, manager, prosecutor, police detective, defence lawyer, entertainer, engineer, gardener, doctor, therapist, artist, mother, lover, the seeker of the Divine. All of them know something special about their subject, but what they want to do with their knowledge changes its character.

The underlying gradients

Closely related to this, there are, underlying all these different kinds of knowledge, several, closely related gradients:

  • from loving and caring, to factual, or even accusing;
  • from pure spirit, via mind, to gross matter;
  • from our own inmost essence to the surface aspects of the outer world;
  • from knowledge which comes directly, spontaneously, simply because it is, to knowledge which is constructed with difficulty out of diverse elements;
  • from knowledge by identity to separative knowledge;
  • from pure knowledge to practical know-how.

Universal and situated knowledge

The most interesting of all these gradients is perhaps the difference between universal and situated knowledge. Within science, generic knowledge is the kind of knowledge philosophers and theoretical scientists try to develop. It aims at understanding the basic nature of reality in terms of its structure as well as its processes. The details of this kind of knowledge tend to be established by a combination of logical and mathematical deduction (from more general truths) and inference (from the disciplined observation of specific events). The end result of efforts towards this kind of knowledge is a well-formulated piece of abstract knowledge, an hypothesis or theory.

Situated knowledge is the kind of knowledge engineers, mechanics, planners and therapists require. How to optimise the design of this specific part of a machine? How to repair this piece of equipment? How to make this organisation function better? How to help this client solve the problem that stands in the way of a fulfilling life? The end product of efforts towards this kind of knowledge are bits of reality that function better. It is true that the first kind of knowledge can help with the solution of problems of the second type, and experience with the second type can help with the formulation of knowledge of the first type, but still the two kinds are very different. They require different attitudes and skill-sets and in their pursuit one has to follow different practical, moral and ethical considerations.

Interestingly these two different kinds of knowledge differ not only in their outer operations, but even in the type of consciousness they go with, and in the location they occupy in the subtle body. As we saw in the chapter on the structure of the personalty, there are many different types of inner knowledge and consciousness. Some of them can be experienced as planes or centres of consciousness stacked vertically in our subtle body, and one reaches the "higher" types by moving as if upwards within that subtle reality.

An entirely different type of intuitive knowledge is arrived at by going inside: here one finds situated knowledge of a more personal type, as if coming from an "inner oracle" that helps one to do, non-egoically, what is needed in the specific situation one finds oneself in.

One can stay where one is and call or open oneself up to intuition coming from either dimension. One can also move the centre of one's own being in either direction. Though there are no absolutely fixed rules, when one pursues the vertical dimension far enough, one rises beyond the Universal into the Transcendent, the Absolute beyond all name and form. If one follows the inwards journey to the end one generally doesn't find the cosmic or transcendent Divine, but more frequently the Divine as person, guide, inner friend or comrade, as a divinity with a distinct personality.

Stages of knowing

From a practical standpoint it is worth paying attention to the stages of knowing. Knowing — especially of important, potentially life-changing things — is only rarely a simple yes/no phenomenon. Much more commonly the new idea arises slowly, from a state where there is no knowledge at all, to a complete transformation of one's entire existence under its influence. One can distinguish four stages.

The first stage can take two entirely different forms, depending on whether the first contact comes from inside or outside. If it arises from inside, it is called faith, a kind of fore-knowledge in the soul which knows there is something, though it is initially not yet very clear what it is exactly. If the first contact comes from outside, the first contact comes in the form of information, a bit of factual content without much weight or import. If such information arrives when faith is already there, it can help to give that faith a more concrete form, so that it becomes more tangible and effective.

The second stage involves a first concrete, personal experience. Such experiences go way beyond hope or simple intellectual information, but, still, experiences are fleeting, they fade and don't bring about a fundamental change.

This is different for the third stage, the stage of realisation, which involves a fundamental change in terms of who one is in one's essence.

What happens in the final stage depends again, as in the first stage, on whether we are dealing with something close to the surface or with a deep inner change. If the whole thing is about some relatively superficial know-how or a mental skill, this fourth stage is called the stage of integration and utilisation, in which one connects the new knowledge to everything else one already knows, and learns how to use it. If it is about something deeper, it involves a complete change of one's nature.

If one would compare one's being to a company, stage one would be a vague sense of the need for change. Stage two might involve calling in a consultant, or collecting concrete ideas on how to change. Stage three would be the appointment of a new CEO. Stage four would be the actual transition period during which, gradually, over time, all the employees begin to function in line with the new corporate identity.

These stages are, however, most significant for a deep spiritual change. The first stage is then a deep but as yet vague faith that there is something Divine, something way beyond our normal understanding. Stage two involves one's first undeniable experiences. Stage three involves a realisation which permanently changes who one feels one is and how one looks at the reality. Stage four involves a complete transformation of one's nature.