The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 138)

From an ontological standpoint of existence, principle “has neither form nor body,” and material force has form to nourish and transform them. And yet, if the concept of priory must be applied, principle is prior to material force. What Chu Hsi really meant was the priory of li in a logical sense. For example, it is reasonable to assume using an analogy that the principle of a boat that floats on water must first be there already to be realised before there can be any concrete existence of a boat as such. Li is “the principle of existence”; accordingly, it is not capable of manifesting itself in the factual and empirical sense. The general hallmark of Chu Hsi’s thinking is to take li as “the law of being” that underlies all concrete phenomena. Li is the ultimate reality, rather than the actual, phenomenal activity; ch’i is the actual, material agent of creation and transformation. In other words, li brings into existence Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things; it is the principle behind the manifestation of ki in all cosmic phenomena.

How did Toegye view Chu Hsi’s philosophy of principle? As we have seen in his Four-Seven thesis, Toegye generally followed it to support his arguments. But he preferred to emphasise the ontological and moral status of i in terms of the Four Beginnings and original human nature. Recent studies of his philosophy suggested that Toegye clarified to the satisfaction of his contemporary challengers and followers some of the ambiguous messages in Chu Hsi’s philosophy of principle and material force. For example, Tu Wei-ming argued that Toegye formulated a “creative interpretation” of Chu Hsi”s philosophy. But we need to note that, although Toegye seriously took Chu Hsi as his intellectual and spiritual guide, he tended to misinterpret the underlying content of Chu Hsi’s metaphysics to a considerable extent. Strictly speaking, his interpretation of principle, as presented in his Four-Seven thesis, was a contradictory system of thought, although it brought about a new understanding of Chu Hsi’s philosophy.

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