The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 140)

In general, Toegye followed Chu Hsi to affirm the inseparability between i and ki in concrete things. However, he deliberately wanted to underscore much more the distinction of i and ki. In his debate with Kobong, he stated: “Know that i and ki are distinct… To distinguish them as two distinct entities does not cause any harm to their relationship of inseparability; to unite them into one still makes them distinct.” His Four-Seven thesis focused on his commitment to maintaining the ontological unmixability and conceptual distinction of i and ki. He warned Kobong not to misunderstand i and ki as one, for such a mistake is a dangerous tendency of “misidentifying” i as ki. To condemn Lo Chin-shun’s theory of the oneness of i and ki, he argued that Kobong, like Lo, is wrong in conceiving i and ki as one thing. As we have seen, the final version of his Four-Seven thesis was revised in a way to accommodate Kobong’s argument for the inseparability of i and ki; however, his theory of “the alternate manifestation of i and ki” and its “rider-horse” analogy certainly meant they Toegye maintained his dualistic Four-Seven position in terms of reference to the “distinction” and “separation” of i and ki.

More important, Toegye definitely affirmed i as an entry capable of manifesting itself in the process of cosmic transformation. This argument can be supported further by his other writings, in which principle is analysed in terms of “substance” (reality) and “function” (manifestation) as well. For example, in his Sim mu cheyong pyon (Critique on the Saying “the Mind Does Not Have Substance and Function”), Toegye argues that the actual manifesting power of i is “the active function of i,” whereas “i-in-itself is the tranquil substance of i.” He also sees i as a self-manifesting principle, capable of both “movement” and “tranquility.” In contrast to Shu Hsi, he certainly understood the dynamic, autonomous nature of i. Yu Chi-myong (Chong-jae, 1777-1861), one of the leading scholars of Toegye’s school in the nineteenth century, commented that Toegye’s entire philosophy is based on his belief that “i is the active entity.” On the whole, then, Toegye’s interpretation of principle is a substantial departure from Chu Hsi’s original philosophy. In Chu Hsi’s philosophy, it is true that i is not capable of moving or manifesting by itself. According to Yulgok, Toegye misunderstood and misinterpreted Chu Hsi’s concept of principle, giving a more confusing interpretation in the name of defending his textual authority. As we have observed, Yulgok criticised his theory of i dynamism for not realising that i, as the metaphysical principle for existence, can never be an acting agent that can manifest itself.

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