The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 178)

The Chinese and Japanese Neo-Confucian notions of practical learning have been articulated elsewhere with more expertise than is necessary here. What we need to clarify, however, is its subtle meanings and implications. Etymologically speaking, sil mean “seed” and “fruition,” signifying the idea of a concrete phenomenon with respect to actual existence, concrete knowledge, and fruitful consequence. In both ordinary and philosophical languages, it means “truth,” “reality,” “substantiality,” or “practicality” (as a noun), and “true,” “real,” “substantial,” or “practical” (as an adjective). “Practicality” and “practical” are accepted as two standard renderings for it. Because the term ham means “learning,” the Neo-Confucian notion of sirhak refers to “practical learning,” “learning for practicality,” “substantial learning,” “real learning,” and so on. This points to the importance of inquiring concrete things and empirical principles; such a learning is intended for a goal of bringing about real and fruitful outcomes for the sake of both personal and communal progress. Regarding the ethical and psychological philosophy of the Cheng-Chu tradition, it also requires the practice of self-cultivation. In short, its flexible meanings and implications closely interrelate to each other, not only linguistically but also philosophically and ethically.

It was originally Sung Chinese Neo-Confucians who spoke of sirhak. As de Bary points out, Cheng I and Chu Hsi used the term sol to preach the “real,” “solid,” and “substantial” features of their systems of thought in reaction to the Han and Tang Confucian tradition of textual commentary, as well as in opposition to what they saw as the negativism and quietism of the Buddhists and Taoists. From the Confucian standpoint of moral values and socio-political responsibilities, they criticised especially Buddhism as an “impractical” or “empty” learning. Chu Hsi spoke of practical learning in the context of unifying the inner and outer dimensions of the world. He defended Neo-Confucianism as the most constructive way of learning, arguing that it assimilates philosophical ideas, moral values, and socio-political concerns. His Neo-Confucianism can be considered a practical learning in the sense of synthesising “broad learning, scholarly mastery of the classics and literature, a humanise concern for fellowman, and dedication to public service.”

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