The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 3)

The fundamental argument that I present in this book is this: for Toegye and Yulgok, the significance of the Four-Seven debate is its compelling implications for the practice of moral/spiritual cultivation and its related matters. And this is still relevant to the role and problem of feelings Four-Seven thesis is a highly sophisticated system of metaphysics and ethics at the same time. Toegye’s and Yulgok’s words and sentences often reveal psychological issues. Accordingly, our main concern is systematic and interpretative, rather than exegetic and apologetic. I have used “hermeneutical” analyses that are, in my view, reflective, suggestive, and sometimes interesting because they help the readers to acquire their own ideas about the underlying meanings and implications of the subject matters. The extent to which I present them make up the six main chapters of this book, representing the spirit of the whole Four-Seven legacy.

Given the fact that Toegye and Yulgok each had a debate with another scholar on the Four-Seven problem and developed their own views and insights, my methods is philosophically a dialectic one to provide a way of analysis, comparison, criticism, and interpretation. The uniqueness of Korean Neo-Confucianism is its strong commitment to Cheng-Chu orthodoxy; this is especially true of both Toegye and Yulgok, the two leading thinkers of the Cheng-Chu tradition, who formulated new meanings of the old vocabulary. Therefore, it would ne approbate for me to do a comparative study of Toegye and Yulgok. The last three chapters of the book, especially the concluding chapter, indicate similarities and differences in their views and insights. This comparative analysis can also clarify the fundamental patterns of continuity, change, and synthesis between Chu His, Toegye, and Yulgok. The question is, To what extent, and in what sense, did Toegye and Yulgok tend to depart from the general norms of Chu Hsi’s philosophy, each in his own way? This os another objective of my study.

To accomplish such a task, I have used early Chinese works, including the Four Books and the standard Neo-Confucian texts of the Cheng-Chu tradition. The latter include especially Chu Tzu yu-lei (Classified Conversations of Mster Chu) and Chu Tzu wen-chi (Collected Literary Works by Master Chu) by Chu His, Erh-Cheng churn-shu (Complete Works of the Two Chengs) by Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng I, and Chang Tzu churn-shu (Complete Works of Master Chang) by Chang Tsai (1020-1077). When a primary reference is cited, I assist the reader by considering both the efficiency and the reliability of the East Asian reference libraries. As a guiding principle, my first choice is to cite the Ssu-pu pei-yao (abbreviated as SPPY throughout). If the quoted passage is already available in English and if it is translated properly, I adopt it and indicate its source (e.g. Wing-tsit Chan, D. C. Lau, etc) in the Notes. Otherwise, I use my own translation. Furthermore, when it is approbate, I cite a few prominent secondary sources written by contemporary Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scholars.

The historical context of Korean Neo-Confucianism is important, especially for each Korean thinker’s philosophy in general and his Four-Seven thesis in particular. Given the available historical information, it would be possible to present an interpretation consistent with it. Hence, this book begins with a survey of the historical background of Korean Confucianism prior to and including Toegye’s and Yulgok’s lifetimes, that is, up to the late sixteenth century. Most readers will find that understanding the unfolding of Korean Confucianism, both historically and philosophically, assist them in becoming aware of the intellectual setting within which the Four-Seven debates took place in Choson Korea. In addition, the Epilogue presents a brief study of the later philosophical development of Toegye’s school and Yulgok’s school, with special reference to the Four-Seven controversy. This was necessary because several works available in English lack sufficient information about a few relevant historical facts.

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