The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 68)

On the whole, Kobong’s vocabulary suggests what we may call a non-dualistic interpretation of the Four-Seven relationship. His four-seven thesis acknowledges the fundamental inseparability of i and ki. The Four and the Seven are not two separate kinds of feelings, rather they belong to one realm of all human feelings in the sense of maintaining their “subset-totality” relationship. It is in this context that we should qualify our use of the term non-dualistic. From a non dualistic epistemological and ethical perspective, Kobong definitely affirms the “harmony-disharmony” link between the Four and the Seven; that is to say, their fundamental difference is due only to the problem of whether feelings are harmonised by “attaining their due degree and measure.” This is, of course, a moral argument from a Confucian standpoint of self-cultivation. Embedded in this argument includes three points: first, good and evil can never be two separate realities each with its own ground according to Toegye’s dualistic system of i and ki; second, there is, therefore, neither the good-evil contrast nor the Four-Seven contrast; and finally, there must be a close link between the four and the Seven and between good and evil. Although avoiding any extreme form of dualism, Kobong means the relationship of continuum between the Four and the Seven in terms of what we may call a metaphysical i-ki complementary and an ethical good-evil link. For this reason, he criticises Toegye for maintaining a strict Four-Seven contrast in terms of i and ki. Hence, Toegye is, in his view, wrong for considering good feelings as the Four (“manifestations of i”) and evil feelings as the Seven (“manifestations of ki”).

The originality and depth of Kobong’s argumentation are grounded on selected elements of fundamental idea found in early Confucian texts and Cheng-Chu teachings. Out of his intellectual confidence and scholarly commitment, he formulated constructive meanings and implications of the Four-Seven controversy. Nevertheless, Kobong’s entire interpretation points to a philosophical and moral reasoning later had some impact on Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis.

How did Toegye respond to Kobong’s challenge? Toegye criticised such a tendency of Kobong’s Four-Seven thesis, arguing that Kobong failed to realise the fundamental “distinction” between the Four and the Seven and, in turn, that between i and ki.

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