Sri Aurobindo's four types of knowledge and their use in Psychology
Towards rigorous subjectivity

Matthijs Cornelissen

Within science, the discipline of psychology is in a class of its own. While all other disciplines have some aspect of the outer reality as their field, the natural focus of psychology is located inside our own self. Psychology is first about mind, consciousness, experience, 'things' that are not part of the objective reality outside of us, but that in some way are happening inside ourselves. This is a serious problem for psychology because the other sciences have made their phenomenal progress by perfecting objective knowledge, and how can we have objective knowledge about what is quintessentially subjective?

Mainstream psychology has attempted two radically different ways to deal with this issue: In the beginning of the 20th century, positivism still held sway and psychology simply redefined itself as the science of objectively observable behaviour. This had the tremendous advantage that it turned psychology into an objective science like all others. The disadvantages were, however, far more serious than the early 'behaviourists' realised. To prove its credentials as a purely objective science, psychology had to treat the mind as a black box and to limit itself to the objectively measurable 'stimuli' and 'responses' of classical behaviourism. When it became clear to what extent this trivialised our human existence, the definition of behaviour was gradually expanded till it included everything human beings do, including our most recondite cognitive processes. This made psychology more human again, but it reintroduced the subjectivity which the original behaviourists had so ardently tried to avoid. An almost opposite solution became popular in the second half of the 20th century in the form of social constructionism. By this time the philosophy of positivism had been discredited, and on the ground that in the end all human knowledge is to some extent constructed, the very possibility of objectivity was called into question: All we can do is to acknowledge our limitations, preconceived ideas and prejudices. While most psychological research is still based on a positivist philosophy of science, the various forms of constructionism have made major inroads and they play a major role in qualitative research.

What is remarkable is that in the midst of these enormous epistemological and methodological changes, mainstream psychology remained thoroughly third-person. Even the massive Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin and Lincoln 2000) has amongst its 75 chapters only one that is in first-person, and this is a rather freewheeling and journalistic item. Though constructionism introduced some level of self-reflexivity, mainstream psychology is still fully a science of others. The unfortunate result of this is that psychology is the only science where data gathering is left to members of the lay public. This may seem untrue since, in a purely formal sense, psychology does not take as its data the movements of mind and consciousness that its subjects experience, but the self-reports which these subjects produce. But, these self-reports are not the stuff which we set out to study or in which we are actually interested: the primary data are the original mental processes, and these have been assessed by lay human subjects. One could argue that what psychology does is the same as what the hard sciences do when they take instrument readings as their data, but there is one crucial difference. The instruments used by the hard sciences are, at least in their basic principles, straightforward; they are fully understood and they have an exact and easily quantifiable reliability and precision, while the human instruments on which psychology depends are nothing of the sort.

Science does not only progress by doing experiments and checking results but also by perfecting its instruments of observation, and psychology has neglected its most obvious 'instrument of choice' — our own human nature. My suggestion here is that the most effective way forward in psychology might well be an increasing effort to hone our own inner nature as a kind of psychological observatory, a perfected inner 'instrument of knowledge' or antahkarana . In other words, if psychology wants to progress beyond the level it has reached so far, it will need to perfect the human instruments that do the original data gathering and develop what we could call 'rigorous subjectivity' (Cornelissen 2007). Fortunately, to do so we need not start from scratch. Excellent, well worked-out theoretical frameworks and effective practical methods are already available within the Indian tradition, and for the rest of this article, I'll base myself on the work Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) has done in this direction.

Sri Aurobindo's Four Types of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo (2005: 54372) makes a distinction between four different types of knowledge that all occur in our surface awareness.

(a) The first, and original one, is hardly used in ordinary life, and almost forgotten in modern philosophy of science, even though the case for its existence is easy to make (Cornelissen 2006). Sri Aurobindo calls it 'knowledge by identity', and it is the knowledge inherent in being. All we know of it in our naïve surface awareness is the simple fact of our own existence. Besides this, it is supposed to be the ultimate origin of the intuitive knowledge we have about the fundamental rules of logic and reasoning.
(b) The second type is 'knowledge by intimate direct contact'. In our ordinary waking consciousness, it comes to the fore primarily in direct, pre-reflexive experiential knowing, as in our awareness of our own feelings and sensations. But as will see later, there are many other uses for it.
(c) The third is used in introspection, where one looks at oneself in a semi-objective fashion. Sri Aurobindo calls it 'separative direct knowledge': 'separative' because one distances one's self from what one observes, and 'direct' because it does not need the outer, physical senses. The difference between the second and the third type is that in the second type one says, 'What a great day', while in the third type one says, 'I seem to be happy today'. In other words, in the second type one knows one is happy without any need for reflection, while in the third one looks at oneself as if one looks at another person and one comments on what one sees.
(d) The fourth is our ordinary sense-based knowledge of the physical world, fully 'separative and indirect': here one experiences oneself as entirely separate from what one observes and one knows indirectly by means of the physical senses.

For our ordinary surface life the division may not be so interesting as these four modes of knowing generally occur together, but for the development of psychology the distinction between them is crucial. The reason for this is that science has mastered type four, 'objective knowledge', with stunning success but has failed completely to move ahead with the other three. Early attempts to use type three in introspection failed as it turned out to be too difficult to make introspection reliable. As far as type two is used (in therapy and skill-training), it is limited to its most simple and superficial manifestations. Of type one, we have only used one derivation successfully and that is mathematics and the basic intuitive insight that underlies much of scientific development. Yet it is type three, type two, and a more complete version of type one that we need if we want to take psychology ahead. The Indian tradition has put a tremendous effort into perfecting all three, and it is this that makes it so valuable for the further development of psychology.

The Role of Yoga in Perfecting Inner Knowledge

Science has perfected Sri Aurobindo's type four, separative indirect knowledge, to a remarkable degree. To understand the Indian attempts at perfecting the other three types of knowledge, we need to understand the role of yoga in the Indian tradition. (1) The important point to note here is that yoga is not only an effort to overcome suffering and reach a permanent state of happiness but also, and perhaps even primarily, an effort to overcome ignorance and attain true knowledge. An extremely simplified form of the first of these two efforts, the pursuit of happiness, is already used extensively in applied psychology as 'mindfulness'. What we suggest here is that we should also use the second half, the pursuit of knowledge, this time for the development of the theoretical foundation of psychology.

The processes and 'inner gestures' (Petitmengin-Peugeot 1999) yoga uses are complex and immensely varied in their appearance, but there is one essential movement which permeates all the different forms yoga can take, and that is that yoga advocates for both happiness and reliable knowledge a peculiar type of inner detachment, a standing back from our habitual involvement in the workings of our mind, and with this, a release from our ego. Within the more limited context of knowledge gathering in the field of psychology, one could say that as long as we are obsessed with the defence of our existence as one small creature in a large and dangerous world, we have vested interests and so we cannot judge freely. Interestingly, mainstream science has accepted this in the study of physical nature as the need for objectivity, for 'a view from nowhere', but it has not pursued it sufficiently for subjective, inner enquiry where one has to take one further step backwards. For the physical sciences it is sufficient to draw back from one's first impressions and habitual thoughts into an area of purer, more disciplined thinking. For psychology one has to draw back further, stand back from one's own thinking, feeling and sensing altogether, and watch one's own inner movements from an entirely pure, uninvolved consciousness. It appears that this possibility has simply not arisen in the Western mind, or to the extent that it has, in phenomenology for example, it has not led to the same level of philosophical sophistication and detailed technical know-how as in the Indian tradition. One finds in Western thought a widespread tendency to conflate consciousness with its content, and this failure to distinguish consciousness from the mental processes that are taking place within it has hampered the effective development of psychology. The Indian thinkers found that it is possible, though not necessarily easy, to separate the two and to fix one's consciousness in a position from where it can observe the workings of one's mind with complete impartiality. They realised that to increase one's psychological insight, it is not sufficient to get rid of one's preoccupation with self-assertion and self-defence, but that one should also withdraw one's consciousness from its involvement in one's thoughts, feelings and sensations. They developed an extensive inner 'technology of consciousness' to achieve this split and found that one's consciousness does not diminish in the process, but actually increases in clarity, intensity, sharpness, happiness, and even power.(2) In other words, they found that from that completely detached, silent and inherently safe inner position, one can study one's own inner movements with far higher levels of precision and detail than is possible through ordinary introspection, and that one can learn to modify the workings of one's mind and heart in ways that are completely inconceivable from the ordinary waking states of consciousness.

Some Conceptual Clarifications about Consciousness

As may be clear, there are at this point several complications, side-tracks and implications one could and probably should get into. We are talking after all about a whole science which developed over thousands of years, and which in all its subtleties and ramifications is perhaps not less complicated and extensive than modern physics. To do so is however not the intent of this article, but there are a few points about consciousness that deserve mention even in this short outline.

Consciousness and Mind: The first source of confusion is that the words 'consciousness' and 'mind' are used in such entirely different ways. In mainstream psychological thought, the word 'mind' tends to be used for virtually everything that happens in the human psyche, not only thoughts but also feelings, sensations, intentions, etc. The word consciousness, on the other hand, tends to be used only for the subjective awareness of these mental processes. As we are normally aware of only a small fragment of 'everything that goes on inside our head', consciousness covers a much smaller set of phenomena than mind. In Indian thought it is the other way around, and consciousness is by far the wider term of the two. Though different Indian philosophers have conceptualised things in different, even diametrically opposite ways, the Indian tradition as a whole has as its starting point that in the end everything in existence (sat) is in some way or another the manifestation of consciousness (chit), of something (tat) or someone (purushottama, Brahma, etc.) that is in a completely absolute sense conscious and the expression of delight (ananda). Mind (manas) is in the Indian tradition just one 'type of consciousness' or in another way of conceptualising things, one peculiar working of universal nature (prakriti) which occurs in man and which lends itself to consciousness. Either way, mind is thus a much smaller term than consciousness.

Consciousness and the Brain : The second point, related to the first, is that in mainstream psychology it is taken for granted that consciousness is produced, or, as it is said, 'emerges' from the workings of the brain. The justification given for this belief is that if the brain gets disturbed, whether chemically or mechanically, consciousness seems to change or even disappear. The Indian tradition has, however, a very different explanation for this observation. It holds that our consciousness is in itself eternal and incorruptible, and that the only thing that happens when the brain gets disturbed or damaged is that our consciousness can no longer express itself through this brain in its habitual manner; and that, if the damage is too much it completely withdraws. The difference between these two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world is not small, and it is definitely not a simple matter of chicken and egg. If matter comes first, then consciousness is a 'hard' to explain 'epiphenomenon' and all the deeper, inner experiences people have had over the ages should be considered subjective illusions. If, on the other hand, consciousness comes first, then one can still explain the physical world as a niche within the wider framework of conscious existence and one can understand and develop a wide range of psychological phenomena, powers and possibilities that are presently considered 'anomalous' and outside the ambit of science.

Perfecting Sri Aurobindo's Four Types of Knowledge

The four types of knowledge we started with are in our unregenerate common nature far from perfect, but they can be perfected and the result can then be summarised as in Table 1.

  Type of knowledge Naïve mode Rigorous, expert mode
4 Separative indirect knowledge Ordinary, sense-based
knowledge of physical world
3 Separative direct knowledge Introspection Pure witness consciousness (sakshi);
purusha-based self-observation
2 Knowledge by intimate direct contact Superficial experiential knowledge Pure consciousness directly touching
other consciousness
1 Knowledge by identity Superficial awareness of own existence True intuition (3a)

Table 1. Four types of knowledge: naive and perfected forms

Separative Indirect Knowledge

The expert mode of the fourth type of knowledge is science, and modernity is making stunning progress in this area. As separative indirect knowledge is the sense-based knowledge of the world outside of us, it is eminently suitable for studying the physical world but it is not the best way to study psychological phenomena.

Separative Direct Knowledge

In the third type, mainstream psychology failed badly because the introspection-based schools tried to improve introspection without standing back far enough: the observing consciousness did not stand back from the processes it tried to study, but remained involved in them. In other words, in ordinary introspection one part of the mind watches other parts of the mind and as a result the problems of bias, vested interest and infinite regress remain unresolved. The Indian solution is more radical. It suggests withdrawing the consciousness entirely from its involvement in mental processes and watching what happens in one's mind from a completely detached 'witness' consciousness. The details of this process are obviously complex, both theoretically and practically, and they deserve more extensive treatment than can be given here, but there is one easy to notice difference between the two approaches to self-observation that deserves to be mentioned: In ordinary introspection, there is almost always a part of the mind that provides a running commentary, judging, approving, disapproving, comparing, associating, what not. In detached self-observation, there is nothing of the sort; there is only a completely silent, non-judgmental, completely relaxed yet sharply focused attention. It is, as the old texts say, the difference between a windswept muddy stream, in which one can see nothing, and a silent crystal clear pond, in which one can not only see the reflection of the individual leaves of the trees on the other side but also the pebbles on the bottom.

Knowledge by Intimate Direct Contact

Interestingly, this detached observation seems to allow not only thorough knowledge of type three, unbiased access to one's own mind, but also, through type two, to what happens in others and even in things. The logic behind this is that consciousness is ultimately one and that the world is not only interconnected in the outer physical world, but even more so inwardly on the more subtle inner planes of thoughts and feelings. In our ordinary waking state our consciousness is entirely wrapped up in the working of our own nervous system, but once it is freed from there it can in principle contact anything it concentrates upon. This opens a door to the whole complex world of parapsychological phenomena, which present day Western science has to label 'anomalous' because they do not fit in its far too narrow, physicalist world view. If we accept the Indian consciousness-based means of developing psychological knowledge, an enormous world of 'paranormal' psychological capacities and powers might open up to us.

Knowledge by Identity

In principle, a further inner clarity should also open up a way to develop the first type of knowledge, knowledge by identity, which should enable a much more extensive use of intuition. The idea behind this even bolder claim is that the world is a manifestation of consciousness; that the original consciousness that manifested the world out of itself did so according to fundamental real-ideas (from the world of ritam chit); and that as we free our consciousness from its involvement in the small creature we think we are, it can identify itself instead with that original creative consciousness and thus know everything the way the Divine knows it from the inside. We can leave most of this safely for a remote future though one could look at the stunning progress humanity has made in recent years in the physical sciences, with a sudden influx of knowledge of the first type into our collective mind.

The 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 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 we use the word 'yoga' in this broad and general sense (without implying in any way that it would not be possible to explore these two realms through other methods). Table 2 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 forms of knowing that can be used to explore eight different aspects of reality.


Knowledge Realm

Known Reality

Knowledge Type
(acc. to usage)

Knowledge Type
(acc. to Sri Aurobindo)


Objective knowledge

Physical world

A. objective science

expert separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4)


B. ordinary, sense-based knowing

naïve separative, indirect knowledge
(type 4)

Subjective knowledge

outer nature

C. introspection

naïve separative, direct knowledge
(type 3)

D. superficial experience

naïve knowledge by intimate, direct contact
(type 2)

surface self

E. superficial awareness of own existence

naïve knowledge by identity
(type 1)

Inner knowledge

inner nature

F. purusha-based witness consciousness (sakshibhava)

expert separative, direct knowledge
(type 3)


G. consciousness directly touching other consciousness

expert knowledge by intimate, direct contact
(type 2)

Self- knowledge

Real-Ideas; Self

H. gnosis, truth-consciousness

expert knowledge by identity
(type 1)

Table 2. Four knowledge realms


The four 'knowledge realms' indicated in table 2 can be described as follows:

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 is simply whatever ordinary people know about the world outside of themselves. The expert variety is science. These two don't differ in principle, but they differ considerably in their actual processes and results. Science is more rigorous, specialised and cumulative; the senses are extended by instruments that have been constructed with the help of knowledge of this same type; the reason is extended in the form of mathematics. Modernity is the scene of an almost incredible collective growth of this type of knowledge.

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: (i) introspection, which is a naïve attempt at being 'objective' about oneself (knowledge of type three); (ii) experiential knowledge, which deals with processes we intimately identify with (knowledge of type two); (iii) a basic awareness of our own self-existence. All three are limited in scope and 'subjective knowledge' has access only to a very small part of all that happens inside us.

Inner Knowledge

This consists of the sophisticated, expert variety of the first two types of knowledge of which subjective knowledge uses the naïve variety. Expert knowledge of Sri Aurobindo's type three is the pure detached witness consciousness that allows genuinely 'objective' knowledge of whatever happens in one's own inner nature. The expert variety of type two, knowledge by intimate direct contact, allows one's consciousness to touch directly the consciousness in others and even in things so that one can know these by an intimate unmediated direct contact.


This is the expert variety of knowledge by identity (type one), and it leads us directly to who we are in the very essence of our being. The little of real self-knowledge that reaches our surface consciousness may never attain that level of perfection, but according to the Indian tradition this type of knowledge is in itself intrinsically true and perfect: it is the secret origin of whatever there is of real truth in all other types of knowledge. As there is ultimately only one Self, a perfect knowledge of oneself is also supposed to make perfect knowledge of everything else possible. (3b)

As mentioned before, the realms of objective and subjective knowledge (as defined here) are the only ones that can be accessed fully in the ordinary waking consciousness (or OWC). Because we have made such tremendous progress with the expert variety of objective knowledge (at least in the physical domain), we tend to rely on it almost exclusively for our public affairs. Only where this type of knowledge can clearly not provide the answers, for example on issues that demand a value judgment, we respect subjective knowledge. The mainstream culture tends to doubt and distrust all forms of inner knowledge and what we have here called 'self-knowledge', deriding them as 'essentialist'. The reason for this seems to be that the little we know about these inner realms tends to be encrusted in religious rituals and dogmas and in all kind of non-self-critical experiments and beliefs at the margin of the global civilisation. As a result of all this, the little we know from here impresses the scientific mind as an intractable mixture of partial truths and total confusion that should perhaps be tolerated in people's private lives, but that has no place in public life or the hallowed halls of science. To get high quality inner knowledge and self-knowledge, full inner control over a whole range of different types of consciousness and a considerable amount of inner discipline are required and for this the West has no established method. Mystics and other exceptional individuals have of course managed this in all times and cultures, but it is the Indian tradition that has specialised in it and in the process has developed an enormous amount of detailed know-how. I contend that a serious practice of some form of jnana-yoga (yoga of knowledge) is likely to offer one of the most efficient ways to develop a more comprehensive psychological understanding.


According to Sri Aurobindo's synthesis of the various schools of yoga found in the Indian tradition, the most effective and comprehensive way towards freedom, happiness and deeper psychological knowledge needs two elements: the first is relocating the centre of one's consciousness by lifting it out of its entanglement in the activities of the ego, and moving it into some more eternal, equal, immutable state. The second part is changing one's nature by looking at it as an instrument for the soul to do its work in the world. There is a tendency to start with the second part, and one generally has to do a bit of it to enable the first step, but it is safer and easier to concentrate first on the first step as the second is only fully possible once a sufficient level of detachment and inner freedom has been achieved. Interestingly, this gradual finding of one's own highest Self tends to go together with an increasing familiarity, knowledge of, and love for others and even for whatever one wants to call the Self of the universe. Connecting one's own consciousness with the highest consciousness one can conceive is then not only the most direct way to personal happiness and social transformation but also the most powerful method to increase our individual and collective psychological knowledge and mastery.


1    In the West, and even in Urban India, the word 'yoga' is now widely understood as indicating an effective technique to achieve physical fitness and mental relaxation. This is a caricature of what it meant originally. The Sanskrit word 'yoga' is from the same root as the English 'yoke' and it is used mainly for the path that leads towards re-union with the Divine and the unalloyed delight, immortality and true knowledge which this is known to give.

2    It is commonly held that in Indian thought, consciousness is intrinsically passive, pure and bereft of power. The view is frequently found amongst Advaita Vedantins and Harold Coward's (1990) excellent elucidation of the concept of 'pure consciousness' in Advaita Vedanta seems to have contributed to its acceptance amongst Western scholars. As a generalisation, however, it does not do justice to the complexity and sophistication of the Indian tradition as a whole, which is built around the idea of an indivisible unity of chit-tapas (consciousness-force) as the original cause of all manifestation. One finds references to it throughout the Upanishads, and it was stressed in Kashmiri Shaivism. In modern times, it is especially Sri Aurobindo (2005) who has argued for the creative force inherent in consciousness.

3a,3b  Mainstream psychology takes it for granted that all knowledge has to be constructed. Accordingly, it explains intuition as 'expert knowledge': the outcome of a mental process that is too complex to be presented in its entirety to the surface consciousness. The idea is that in this case the underlying processes take place subconsciously, while at the end only an 'executive summary' is presented to the conscious mind. As the outcome is of high quality and pops up as if it comes ready-made out of nowhere, it looks like intuition. From an Indian psychology standpoint, this phenomenon does exist but should be called pseudo-intuition. For a more extensive explanation of the reasons why genuine intuition might also exist, see Cornelissen (2006/2011).


Aurobindo, Sri. 1940/2005. The Life Divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Cornelissen, R. M. M. 2007. 'In Defence of Rigorous Subjectivity', Transpersonal Psychology Review , 11(1): 8–18.

Cornelissen, R. M. M. 2006/2011. 'What is Knowledge? — Reflections based on the work of Sri Aurobindo', in Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs, Girishwar Misra and Suneet Varma (eds), (2014), Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology , pp. 98–118. New Delhi: Pearson.

Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. 2000. Handbook of Qualitative Research . California: Sage Publications.

Petitmengin-Peugeot, Claire. 1999. 'The Intuitive Experience', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(2–3): 43–77.