The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 37)

The Songhak chipyo (Essentials of the Learning of Sagehood) is Yulgok’s most famous philosophical work that contains the fundamentals of Confucian metaphysics, ethics, self-cultivation, and statecraft. His other major philosophical works include the following: Insim tosim tool (Diagrammatic Treatise on the Human Mind and the Moral Mind), a short but sophisticated discussion of the Neo-Confucian philosophy of mind, human nature, and feelings; Yoksu chaek (Treatise on the Book of Changes), an interesting essay on explanation of Chu Hsi’s metaphysics especially in terms of i and ki; Songchaek (Treatise on Sincerity); Saja on song chaek (Treatise on Questions About the Statements on Sincerity); Saja on song chaek (Treatise on Questions About the Statements on Sincerity in the Four Books); and Sasaeng kwisin ow (Treatise on Life and Death, Ghosts and Spirits). Furthermore, among numerous philosophical letters are his famous Four-Seven letters.

In 1572 Yulgok, then thirty-six years old, began the Four-Seven debate with Song Hon (Ugye, 1535-1598) by exchanging up to ten letters on the subject that Toegye and Kobong had discussed a decade ago. In this debate, Yulgok gave a detailed and systematic interpretation of Cheng-Chu philosophy of mind, human nature, and feelings. As we shall see in his Four-Seven thesis, Yulgok criticised Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis, especially, he emphasises the status and role of ki with respect to both learning and self-cultivation. The basic content of his Neo-Confucianism has its metaphysical and ethical grounds in Cheng-Chu teachings. His Neo-Confucianism focuses on an empirical philosophy of ki that appears to be influenced by the early Ming Neo-Confucian Lo Chin-shun in particular. His philosophy of practical learning with strong emphasis on the unity of knowledge and action indicates some unmistakable imprints of Wang Yang-ming’s thought as well. Furthermore, Buddhism and Taoism, which he had studied in his early years, also had a strong impact on the development of his mature philosophy.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Yulgok’s Neo-Confucianism was maintained y his disciples Kim Chang-saeng (1548-1631), Chong Yop(1563-1625), Yi Kui (n.d.), and others, who referred to their tradition as the Kiho school (Kiho hakpa). Although Yulgok, in a strict sense, was not a philosopher she emphasised ki only, followers of the Yongnam school that was associated with Toegye’s “school of the primacy of principle” (Churipa) criticised Yulgok’s followers as “the school of the primacy of ki” (Chugipa). According to Toegye’s followers, Yulgok emphasised the priority of ki in metaphysics and ethics. On account of the Four-Seven controversy, then, two different schools of thought, the Churipa and Chugipa factions, emerged within the Korean Cheng-Chu school, each of which underwent further development for three more centuries in the hands of successive thinkers. I shall treat this topic further in the Epilogue. The next topic of our investigation deals with the question of why the Four-Seven controversy developed in Choson Korea.

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