The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 179)

By practical learning Chu Hsi meant that when one studies principles (i), one should do it with respect to concrete phenomena and their implications for daily matters. He rejected the mere practice of self-cultivation that ignores the objective investigation of principles, as well as any rational learning that does not apply concrete principles to self-cultivation and socio-political responsibilities. In other words, “the practicality of moral values” entails “both the experiential and empirical aspects of principles as seen in things and affairs.” Chu Hsi’s method of learning addresses intellectual, moral and spiritual growth at the same time. As Cheng Chung-ying points out, although it had “moral practicality” in terms of emphasising “morality,” “social interaction,” and “political activity,” it lacked “utilitarian practicality.” From a strict standpoint of contemporary thought, it offers no explicit set of pragmatic ideas, functional methods, and utilitarian concerns for promoting economy, science, or technology. this is partly why the advocates of the later Practical Learning school criticised it as a scholastic tradition of book learning with emphasis on textual study and theoretical knowledge. Nonetheless, we need to appreciate the flexible scope of Chu Hsi’s Neo-Confucianism; that is to say, it recognised practical learning not only in relation to the empirical study of concrete things and principles. but also in the original Confucian context of maintaining moral, social, and political orders.

How did Yulgok view Chu Hsi’s notion of practical learning? For Yulgok, it was too broad and diffuse. In other words, it lacked a clear-cut path needed for urgent economic, social, and political needs of Korean society. Yulgok realised that it did not single out direct political guidelines in terms of political systems and institutions. One may see his criterion for practical learning in terms of personal determination, pragmatic methods, and effective actions. On the basis of this criterion, he urged an effective way of learning and government administration. commenting on Yulgok’s metaphysics, Young-chan Ro points out that Yulgok emphasised harmony between theory and practice. Ro argues that its “pragmatic” theme gave rise to the sirhak school in Korea: “Yulgok’s view of sincere reality as natural and necessary outcome of the individual cultivation of sincerity led Yulgok to establish a type of pragmatism, the forerunner of what would later be called ‘practical learning’.” This is a worthwhile reading of Yulgok’s philosophy of sincerity in the Neo-Confucian sense of self-cultivation. But we need to articulate more clearly the interrelationship between Yulgok’s “pragmatism” and the Practical Learning school in Korea.

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