The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 107)


Yulgok’s criticism of Toegye is not valid. Given that Ugye defended Toegye’s way of thinking and Yulgok was familiar with his senior’s Four-Seven philosophy, Yulgok must have read Toegye’s Four-Seven letters and perhaps his other major writings. In any case, Yulgok understands Toegye as implying that Four belong to the moral mind and the Seven belong to the human mind. Of course, Ugye himself would also be partly responsible, not only because he indicated that his Four-Seven thesis is based on Toegye’s, but also because he engendered Yulgok to interpret Toegye in such a way. What Yulgok presents is, however, a more positive view that basic human desires are a natural part of human nature and, therefore, can be controlled to become good feelings like the Four. In his view, Toegye over-emphasised one’s distinction of moral principles and human desires to the extent that Toegye saw the human mind only as the cause of selfish desires and evil.

On the whole, Yulgok refused to make any dualistic metaphysical or ethical contrast between the moral mind and the human mind that do not have two separate “origins.” His argument is based on “the oneness of the mind” in both metaphysical and ethical contexts. As Young-Chan Ro correctly points out, Yulgok affirms neither a separate existence nor a clear-cut division between the moral mind and the human mind are not two different minds; rather, they simply refer to two realms of one mind. The distinction between them should be conceived in such a way that they are two related phenomena of the mind. From Yulgok’s epistemological standpoint of “mutual relation,” there must be continuum between them. The reality of the mind is ontologically one, and there are only two conceptual terms according to two inter-related perspectives used in describing intellectual, moral, physical, and psychological dimensions of the mind as a whole. According to Neo-Confucian thought in general and Yulgok’s interpretation in particular, the mind participates in manifold realms including those of moral principles and virtues, intellectual rationality, psychological emotions and feelings, and physical desires. Surely, virtuous and ethical phenomena (pertaining to the moral mind) and physical and emotional phenomena (pertaining to the human mind) are different; however, this difference, Yulgok argues, is never the absolute factor for separating them into two different minds or feelings. Hence, the whole philosophical and ethical issue here deals with the two different yet whole philosophical and ethical issue here deals with the two different yet related tendencies of the mind. As Yulgok argues, this does not necessarily imply two separate sources of feelings; in other words, they are not two directly opposing entities and, therefore, cannot discussed in terms of the Four and the Seven, respectively. the relationship of the moral mind and the human mind should be understood with a correct understanding of the inseparability of not only i and ki but also feelings.

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