The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 23)

Yi Iljae on the Relationship of I and Ki

Yi Iljae emphasised the inseparability of i and ki. Following Chu His, he argued that, if viewed from the standpoint of unity, i and ki are one; if viewed from the duality, they are two. For him, then, although i and ki are ontologically and conceptually two, they are always one in concrete phenomena. In this regard, he was probably influenced by Lo Chin-shun, a Ming Chinese Neo-Confuncian of the Cheng-Chu school, who emphasised the insuperability of i and ki, as well as the dynamic and empirical role of ki in all phenomena. Apparently, Lo’s Kun-chih chi (knowledge painfully Acquired) was an influential text among Korean Neo-Confucians.

It is precisely for this reason that Toegye later criticised Yi Ilchae’s theory of the “oneness of i and ki” for being no different from Lo’s philosophy of ki. According to Toegye, such a theory is incorrect because it tends to affirm i as ki. As we will see in his Four-Seven thesis, this already indicates Toegye’s full commitment to formulating a theory, which comes from Chu J=Hsi himself, that i and ki are ontologically and conceptually distinct and never mixable in phenomena. This is the whole basis of Toegye’s metaphysics and ethics. In his Four-Seven debate, Yulgok compared Lo with two Korean thinkers, Hwadam and Toegye, arguing that Lo really understood the Neo-Confucian metaphysics of i and ki in terms of their inseparability in phenomena. Of course, Yulgok studied the Kun-chih chi and praised Lo as a great thinker of the Cheng-Chu school in China.

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