A few useful ways to classify different types of knowing

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

There are many other ways to classify different types of knowing than the one we have used in the section on Knowledge. Here are a few I've found useful.

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 want the 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 differs and this changes its "flavour".

Underlying gradients

One can place the many different types of knowledge on 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 abstract, universal knowledge to situated know-how.
Several of these, like the one between knowledge by identity and separative knowledge, we have already discussed in the previous three sections. Others may be worth a few short remarks here.

Abstract, universal knowledge and situated know-how

One fascinating gradient is the one between universal and situated knowledge. Within science, "pure" 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 that lends itself to rendering in language.

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 can take the form of a text, but more typically it is a bit of reality that functions better.

For human progress, both types are needed. The first kind of knowledge often plays a crucial role in finding solutions for 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 because of that, they differ in the location they occupy in our subtle body. While abstract, theoretical knowledge tends to go with the highest two chakras and is impersonal, situated knowledge is more typically found "behind the heart" and has often a personal aspect. There is some more information on this in the description of the cakras.

Another interesting, and I'd say awe-inspiring, aspect of these two different types of knowledge is that while according to the mystics the explicit, symbolically formulated abstract knowledge pre-exists independently in a variety of inner, subtle planes, the implicit know-how type of knowledge is massively present throughout the manifest reality. After all, every being, every piece of matter, whether organic or inorganic, as tiny as an electron or as vast as a galaxy knows how to be and how to act, and it knows that perfectly. The one exception appears to be us, humans, but that is because we get distracted by the massive amounts of constructed pseudo-knowledge our brains produce.

Direct and representational knowledge

Of the four modes of knowing we discussed earlier, only the last two are representational and intentional in the sense of being ‘about something’. To realize that there are types of knowledge that are not representational, one need not rise to any extraordinary state of samādhi or to some otherwise non-egoïc consciousness. Even in perfectly ordinary states, when we feel happy to be alive, when we love the world, or just one special person in it, we know the state we are in, but the knowledge of this state is not representative, it is a knowledge embedded in our very being. We can subsequently take distance from that direct experience, look at it introspectively, and then describe what we then see in a third person, ‘objective’ format — the result is then representative knowledge of the introspective type, which is indeed intentional — but the original knowledge was not about something at all, it was simply itself.

Degrees of awareness and distinct territories within the subliminal

There are a few practical distinctions within the subconscious or subliminal. By itself, "subliminal" simply means "below the threshold", but in Infinity in a Drop we use the term more specifically for that part of human nature that "most people most of the time" are not aware of. This is of course rather vague, and I don't think either the content or the borders of this "subliminal" can be measured with any degree of precision. If we could measure it accurately, it would offer an interesting perspective on the level of awareness in different populations, which in turn would allow us to monitor how our collective awareness changes over time. But for now this seems not feasible, and we will have to accept a rather loose meaning for the term. Keeping that in mind, one could say that it is one of the aspirations of Infinity in a Drop, to help people make as much of the subliminal conscious as possible.

Things can be subliminal in different ways and for different reasons.

The preconscious consists of stuff that we are not aware of but that can enter into our awareness if we want. If human nature was a company, the preconscious would contain everything that is happening in a company of which the CEO is not immediately aware, but that he could, in principle, find out about by asking some member of his staff. Freud used the term in this sense and thought that everything in the preconscious could in principle be made conscious.

The word subconscious is used in two different ways. Sometimes it is used in a general sense as a synonym for "subliminal", that is, for everything in our nature that we are not aware of. At other times, it is used for a specific nether sub-region of the subliminal which is very close to the absolute nescient from which everything has arisen during the evolution. In this second sense it is also the region where we try to hide everything which we do not want to acknowledge in ourselves. In this last sense it has an overlap with what Freud called the "unconscious".

The superconscious contains everything that is too subtle, high or intense for the ordinary nature to handle. Sri Aurobindo uses the term again with two different meanings, simply for any consciousness which is above our ordinary waking consciousness and, more specifically, for that type of consciousness which is divine and entirely beyond dualities. Jung appears to have had some experience with the first kind of material. Freud seems to have been entirely unaware of its existence.

Most of the inner, subliminal being is however neither above nor below our waking consciousness but rather deeper and as such in possession of the beauty and intensity of the inner life. Sri Aurobindo writes:

The subliminal self has ... the same capacities as our waking being, a subtle sense and perception, a comprehensive extended memory and an intensive selecting intelligence, will, self-consciousness; but even though the same in kind, they are wider, more developed, more sovereign. And it has other capacities which exceed those of our mortal mind because of a power of direct awareness of the being, whether acting in itself or turned upon its object, which arrives more swiftly at knowledge, more swiftly at effectivity of will, more deeply at understanding and satisfaction of impulse. Our surface mind is hardly a true mentality, so involved, bound, hampered, conditioned is it by the body and bodily life and the limitations of the nerve-system and the physical organs. But the subliminal self has a true mentality superior to these limitations; it exceeds the physical mind and physical organs although it is aware of them and their works and is, indeed, in a large degree their cause or creator. It is only subconscious in the sense of not bringing all or most of itself to the surface, it works always behind the veil: it is rather a secret intraconscient and circumconscient than a subconscient; for it envelops quite as much as it supports the outer nature. This description is no doubt truest of the deeper parts of the subliminal; in other layers of it nearer to our surface there is a more ignorant action and those who, penetrating within, pause in the zones of lesser coherence or in the No-man’s-land between the subliminal and the surface, may fall into much delusion and confusion...
LD pp. 580

Stages of knowing

Finally, once again 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, 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.