The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 137)


Principle and Self-Cultivation

One of the common terms of Neo-Confucianism is i/li. This book has translated it as “principle,” “reason,” “the ground of being,” “the principle of existence,” and so on. It represents one of the most important Neo-Confucian concepts, especially in the Cheng-Chu “school of human nature and principle.” In Chu Hsi’s philosophy, its fundamental characteristic is that, as distinguished from concrete things and phenomena existing “within physical form” (hying i ha), li is the metaphysical principle that must exist “without physical form” (hying i sang). His theory that “fundamentally there is only one Great Ultimate, yet each of the myriad things is endowed with it and each in itself possesses the Great Ultimate in its entirety” implies the ontological omnipresence of principle. Although the particularisation of principle takes myriad variations, principle in itself is always good, unchanging, and universal. Ontologically speaking, principle is unitary and transcendent; phenomenalistically speaking, however, its particularisations are many and different in concrete phenomena. this corresponds to the Cheng-Chu theory that “principle is one, but its particularisations are diverse (ill puns).” In relation to the moral and psychological philosophy of the Cheng-Chu school, it is identified also as human nature (song) and, thus, thought to the full of goodness and moral principles.

Chu Hsi’s philosophy of principle and material force has been researched and interpreted by modern scholars. Obviously, there is a remarkable convergence of opinion on the general theme of his metaphysics. For Chu Hsi, principle and material force (ki) are conceptually “distinct,” but they are “inseparable” in concrete things. Speaking from the standpoint of physical things, he said: “Li and chi must come together.” Logically speaking, however, they are distinct: “The two entities are each other.” Logically speaking, however, they are distinct: “The two entities are each and entity in itself.” But they are never separated from each other in the phenomenal world. If viewed from the standpoint of unity, li and chi are one; if viewed from the standpoint of separability, they are two. According to Chu Hsi’s thinking, then, unity implies duality, and duality implies unity.

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