The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 21)

Songnihak Before Toegye and Yulgok in Sixteenth-Century Korea

So Hwadam’s Philosophy of Ki

So Kyong-dok (Hwadam, 1489-1546), Toegye, and Yulgok are known as the “Three Masters” (samba) of Korean Neo-Confucianism, who determined the unique patterns of its songnihak. After turning his back on the political world of the Choson dynasty, Hwadam dedicated himself to the study of Sung Neo-Confucianism and became the first Korean Neo-Confucian to have formulated a philosophy of material force (kihak). His well-known works include the Won iki (Principle and Material Force as the Origin of Things), Iki sol (Principle and Material Force Explained), and Taehosol (Great Vacuity Explained). In these short philosophical treatises, he presented his own metaphysics, especially in terms of the working of ki in the process of all cosmic y=transformation.

Following especially Chang Tsai (1020-1077), Sung Neo-Confucian who based his whole philosophy on the dynamic role of ki, Hwadam identified the “Great Vacuity” (taeho/tai-hsu) with ki, the creative and transformative source of the universe: “The Great Void is empty and yet not empty. The void is identical with material force. The void is inexhaustible and all-embracing; material force is likewise inexhaustible and all-embracing. If it is called the void, how can it be called material force? When the void is in repose, it is the substance of material force. Coagulation and disintegration are its function.” In the Won iki, Hwadam also asserted that ki is the “fundamental substance” of the universe, and everything in it is “pure and void.” He considered ki as the formless and unlimited force that creates and transforms all phenomena. By contrast, principle is only an element inside of ki. In the Iki sol, he argued that “there is no i outside of ki.” For Hwadam, then, i by itself has no ontological status and no creative or transformative power. Life and death are the fusing and intermingling activities of ki, and the operation of everything is founded on the dynamic activity of ki, not i. Ki is the actual energy and creative entity, where i plays only the supportive role of ki; i is taken as nothing but the ground for the activity of ki. In genera, Hwadam’s emphasis on ki tends to underestimate Chu Hsi’s philosophy of i. It took an objective and empirical view of Neo-Confucian epistemology that what governs the material world and what becomes manifest in it are ki, not i.

Hwadam’s philosophy of ki was carried on by his disciples such as Yi Ku (d. 1573), Pak Sun (n.d.), Ho Yob (n.d), and Min Sun (n.d.) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his Four-Seven debate with Ki Tae Sung (Kobong, 1529-1592), Toegye later criticised Hwadam for misinterpreting Chu Hsi’s metaphysics of i and ki; in Toegye’s view, he saw the essence of ki as i. However, in his Four-Seven debate with Song Ugye (1535-1598), Yulgok praised Hwadam’s originality. Yulgok pointed out that, although Hwadam’s interpretation of i and ki is incomplete, he clearly saw the inseparability of i and ki and that his thinking is quite independent compared to Toegye’s.

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