The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 61)

The last characteristic feature of the Four-Seven controversy, especially that between Yulgok and Ugye, focused on Chu Hsi’s philosophy of the mind. The question was, If the mind is ontologically one, how can it be discussed in term of what Chu Hsi calls the moral mind (tosim) and the human mind (insim)? Does this not suggest that the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions can be interpreted according to these two aspects of the mind? In other words, this issue focused on any conceptual possibility of whether the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions belong to the “purely good” moral and the “precarious” human mind, respectively. How can there be two origins of feelings? In what sense, then, does such a hypothetical categorisation of the mind have practical implications for self-cultivation faced a good deal of criticism and reinterpretation. As Yulgok realised, How can there be two different kinds of the mind as two separate sources of goodness?

In short, the main intellectual reason for the rise of the Four-Seven debate in Korea pertains to most of these questions and issues, which saw very little discussion in China. To Toegye, Yulgok, and their debaters, the vital thrust of the whole debate was to clarify conscientiously the constructive meanings and implications of the Four-Seven link. They discussed them systematically and creatively according to the Four Books and the Neo-Confucian tradition of metaphysics and ethics. This was, indeed, necessary to provide a concrete way of understanding the moral-spiritual teachings of the former Confucian sages and worthies, especially in regard to the critical issue of the role of human feelings in self-cultivation. Both Toegye and Yulgok realised the crucial implications of the Four-Seven enterprise for self-cultivation, and offered a more adequate set of explanatory categories and practical guidelines in two unique directions. This, then, brings us to Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis.

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