Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions. Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty - James B. Palais

(Darren Dugan) #1

promise with current reality pose a far more complex problem than Kim was
willing to allow.^6

Igi Debate and Sirhak: Idealism and Materialism

Some scholars have attempted to connect the writers of the sirhak group with
one of the two bipolar alternatives in the philosophical debate over the primacy
of either principle or material force (igi) in the composition of the cosmos and
the human mind. Principle was defined in the Neo-Confucian lexicon as the
"ought" as well as the "is" of existence, why things are both what they are and
what they ought to be.^7 Material force represented the material component of
all objects, but since the mind had no observable materiality, it could not have
been matter in the common sense of the term. For that reason Hoyt Tillman
employed "psycho-physical energy" and Wing-tsit Chan used "material force"
to represent it.^8
Although principle and psycho-physical energy (igi) were supposed to be insep-
arable parts of a duality according to Chu Hsi's formulation, Korean scholars
in the sixteenth century debated whether abstract and ideal principles or the mate-
riality of objects and the human mind really governed the operation of the human
psyche and human behavior. Although almost all the sixteenth-century partici-
pants in the debate agreed on the notion that principle and psycho-physical energy
were mixed together or intertwined, their disciples and descendants began to
create a polarity in the debate and take sides, unfortunately mostly (but not exclu-
sively) along the lines of the political factions that formed after 1575. For that
matter, preference for psycho-physical energy had already occurred in the writ-
ings of Chang Tsai in the Sung dynasty, which was picked up by So Kyongdok
(pen name, H wadam, 1489-1546) and N a Hiinsin (pen name, Chong'am, 1465-
1547) in Korea in the previous century.
In any case, it was not the divergent interpretations of principle and psycho-
physical energy of the two most illustrious scholar-officials of the sixteenth cen-
tury -Yi Hwang (pen name, T'oegye) and Yi I (pen name, Yulgok) - who triggered
the rivalry, but the followers (emphasis mine) and intellectual heirs of those men.
The disciples of T'oegye were generally known as advocates of the primacy of
principle, and those of Yulgok as proponents of psycho-physical energy. The
attempt by some twentieth-century scholars to link these two alternatives to the
Western dichotomy between idealism and materialism and then identify state-
craft writers with material-force monism and Western materialism has not proved
convincing. Yu himself was certainly no materialist, and to the end of his life
he became an advocate of the supremacy of principle.
The summary of his ideas about principle and psycho-physical energy in the
brief biography written by An Chongbok of the late eighteenth century indi-
cates that Yu insisted strongly on the monism of fundamental cosmic and meta-
physical reality and claimed that principle and psycho-physical energy were never
separated from each other despite arguments of other philosophers to the con-

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