The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 2)

This book examines the Korean Neo-Confucianism of Toegye and Yulgok with special focus on the so-called Four-Seven thesis (sachillon) and its implications for self-cultivation. As a common intellectual, moral, and spiritual discourse, the topic itself is significant for not only Confucian/Neo-Confucian studies, but also Korean philosophy, religion and intellectual history. In general, it constitutes the metaphysical and ethical essentials of each Korean thinker’s thought; in particular, it is a sophisticated and fascinating Neo-Confucian controversy for understanding the status of human nature and the role of the mind and feelings. This volume deals with such a topic by addressing the major philosophical and moral questions and issues, as well as their practical implications for self-cultivation, the central and vital theme of Neo-Confucianism.

Special mention must be made of the Four-Seven debate (sachilnonpyon), one of the historically most important and philosophically most challenging debates in the whole history of East Asian Neo-Confucianism. It was initiated by Toegye in 1559, and Yulgok took it over thirteen years later. The term four-seven refers to the focus of the debate in terms of “Four Beginnings” (of virtue) and “Seven Emotions,” two of the most important concepts in the entire Confucian tradition of metaphysics and ethics. Indeed, the Four-Seven debate determined a common set of philosophical, moral and psychological issues for many more generations to come in Choson Korea. Lasting for three more centuries, it engendered a profound intellectual and political controversy among many Korean Neo-Confucians. It was probably the most significant event in the history of Korean thought, one that divided the whole Korean intellectual world into the two main streams of the Chu His school in Choson Korea. Unfortunately, however, it has long been characterised as basically a textual and theoretical debate on Neo-Confucianism. We have yet to understand the moral and spiritual dimensions of Toegye’s and Yulgok’s Four-Seven philosophies.

There are many important questions about the subject matter, but all of them cannot be stated here. Some of the major ones include the following. First, was the debate itself merely textual and theoretical or was it rather the apparent result of philosophical and moral reasoning from Toegye’s and Yulgok’s own experiences and insights? Second, how does it relate to each thinker’s Neo-Confucianism? Third, what is historically important about the Four-Seven debate, and why did it continue for three centres after Toegye and Yulgok? Fourth, what motivated Toegye and Yulgok to inquire into the fundamental problems of the relationship between human nature and feeling? Fifth, what practical implication do these problems have for the Confucian way of life? Sixth, in what sense, and to what extent, do Toegye and Yulgok differ from each other? Finally, how does the Four-Seven thesis relate to our own understandings of the role of feelings in the practice of moral cultivation?

The consideration of these and related issues accords with my reasons for choosing the Four-Seven thesis and its practical implications as the focus of the present volume. As far as I know, modes studies of Toegye and Yulgok, which are available in Korean, Japanese, and even English, do not treat the Four-Seven controversy carefully enough, and there is, as yet, no comprehensive and systematic work on this fascinating topic. My approach differs from that used in contemporary Korean and other works, which tend to see it as little more than a textual legacy that maintained and promoted the orthodox ChengChu school of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Choson Korea. This has- been the most conventional treatment of the Four-Seven thesis, one that need not be rehearsed here; as a result, the common understanding of it has been a theoretical or sketchy on especially among contemporary Korean scholars, who did not inquire deeply into its subtle meanings and its practical implications. Cautioning against such narrow or shallow view, I discuss Toegye and Yulgok as thinkers, moralists, and educators whose insights and experiences provide us with an interesting and practical philosophy of life. I also argue that the Four-Seven debates significantly affected the ways in which they offer two unique guides to the Neo-Confucian way of learning and self-cultivation.

On the whole, I consider my task to be that of a textual analysis. As an interpreter of words, phrases, sentences, and their meanings, which are clear in some cases or often subtle in other cases, I present a philosophically comprehensive and systematic inquiry into the subject matter. The literary genres, philosophical concepts, and moral meanings and implications contained in the primary sources, such as Toegye chonso (Complete Works of Toegye) and Yulgok chonso (Complete Works of Yulgok), led me to such an approach. Given the ambiguity and difficulty of Cheng-Chu teachings, both Toegye and Yulgok cited many original texts to enable their challengers and readers to go beyond their philosophical speculations on Neo-Confucian metaphysics and its moral and psychological philosophy of human nature and feelings. Because the Neo-Confucian vocabulary presented in this
book is essential to Toegye’s and Yulgok’s philosophy, this approach allows the readers to generate certain reflections in their own ways of reading and philosophising. For this reason, I present a great deal of translation and analyse the theoretical meanings and practical implications of the relevant words and texts. This then becomes the first objective of my approach. The ways in which Toegye and Yulgok presented the Four-Seven thesis often reveal their own experiences, concerns and hermeneutical categories. It is, therefore, necessary to look at previously untranslated materials, including not only their :Four-Seven letters,” but also their philosophical discourses, political treatises, biographical accounts, and other philosophical letters. This will facilitate us in following a textual analysis essential to any careful understanding of Neo-Confucianism in general and the Korean Four-Seven thesis in particular.

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