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Confucian philosophy, Korean

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G202-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 25, 2019, from

Article Summary

Confucianism came to Korea in the late fourth century ad. While Buddhism, which had arrived at the same time, was for centuries the central spiritual and intellectual tradition of Korea, Confucianism was viewed as largely limited to the world of government functionaries. In China during the Song dynasty (979–1279) a creative Confucian movement revitalized and reshaped the tradition, giving rise to what Western Scholars call ‘neo-Confucianism’. By the end of the fourteenth century neo-Confucian learning had penetrated deeply among young scholar-officials in Korea, who used it as a lever against the deeply entrenched Buddhist establishment. In 1392, in history’s only neo-Confucian revolution, a new dynasty was founded in Korea. The Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910), ruling a country smaller in scale and more centrally unified than China, was to make Korea the most (neo-) Confucian of all East Asian societies.

The scale, control, and temper of Korean society had important consequences for the development of the neo-Confucian tradition. In China the Cheng–Zhu school of neo-Confucian thought held privileged status as the orthodox standard for the all-important civil service examinations. Zhu Xi (1130–1200) was the great creative synthesizer of this school and its foremost authority, but his synthesis drew especially upon the work of the Cheng brothers. The Cheng–Zhu school was rivalled and even eclipsed in popularity later by the school of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), whose more Zen-like approach also found great favour in Japan. Korea, in contrast to both China and Japan, remained almost exclusively devoted to the Cheng–Zhu school.

This exclusive and intensive development of the Cheng–Zhu school of neo-Confucian thought is the most generally distinctive characteristic of Korean neo-Confucianism. When the thinkers of a culture devote themselves for centuries to a single complex body of learning, as was the case for example with Aristotle and medieval Europe, the result is a mode of philosophical discourse described as ‘scholasticism’. Scholastic philosophy is renowned for the intricacy and closeness of its argumentation, though this may be an obstacle for the outsider for whom it is often difficult to recapture the intense and absorbing vision which inspired major controversy about seemingly minor differences. Korea, with its exclusive cultivation of Zhu Xi’s complex synthesis, produced the most scholastic version of neo-Confucian thought. The writings of scholars or scholar-officials of note were commonly collected and published after their death, so the centuries of ‘collected works’, written in literary Chinese, are a vast resource in which the twists and turns, the problems and potentials for development in the Cheng–Zhu school are examined with unequalled thoroughness.

To understand the particular contribution this Korean scholasticism made to neo-Confucian thought one must be aware of the scope and complexity of Zhu Xi’s synthesis. The intellectual culture within which the Confucian revivalists of the Song dynasty worked had for seven or eight centuries been predominantly shaped by Daoist and Buddhist influences, so the questions in their minds as they returned to the Confucian classics included dimensions neglected by more traditional Confucianism. Read with new eyes, an entirely new level of meaning was uncovered in the ancient texts: they discovered a Confucian foundation for the meditative cultivation of consciousness that had been a particular strength of the Buddhists, and to frame it and provide an account of sagehood equal to Buddhist talk of enlightenment, they found a complete metaphysical system, a Confucian version of the kind of thinking that had been elaborated mainly under Daoist auspices. Thus Zhu Xi’s synthesis knit together not just disparate thinkers of the Song dynasty, but contemporary questions with texts well over a thousand years old. It incorporated Daoist metaphysics with Buddhist meditative cultivation in a new structure with Confucian moral values and social concerns at that structure’s core. Implicit in this was the conflation of the distinctive world views of India, the origin of Buddhism, and China. This has important metaphysical consequences, for the central paradigm for Indian reflection on the nature of existence was consciousness, while for the Chinese it was the image of a single living physical body.

A synthesis of this scope cannot be a seamless whole, though the conceptual system with which Zhu Xi knit it together achieved a remarkable degree of verbal consistency. This, in fact, is where Korean neo-Confucian thought makes a special contribution. For it is at the seams, where differences and tensions inherent in a synthesis are conceptually masked, that the kind of problems occur that become the source of endless scholastic controversy. Korean neo-Confucianism contains two such controversies; each has occupied minds for centuries. Though the points being debated resist any ultimate solution, the disputes themselves disclose the creative tensions at the heart of Zhu Xi’s synthesis.

The first of these controversies arose in the middle of the sixteenth century and decisively shaped the intellectual agenda for the remainder of the Chosôn dynasty. The protagonists in the controversy, Yi Hwang and Yi I, are the two most famous names in Korean thought, and allegiance to each became the central dividing line of Korean neo-Confucianism. Known as the ‘Four–Seven Debate,’ this controversy is the most famous philosophical dispute in Korean history. On the surface it involves the question of feelings and how they arise. Some feelings, such as commiseration or shame at doing evil, seem spontaneously human and correct, while others, such as fear, anger, or pleasure, seem more questionable. Are there then two kinds of feelings that arise from different sources? The question is of great philosophical importance, because ultimately it discloses tensions at the heart of the dualistic monism/monistic dualism which is the fundamental structure of Zhu Xi’s metaphysical system.

The second great controversy arose among followers of Yi I in the early eighteenth century. Neo-Confucian metaphysics views the entire universe as possessing a single nature, which is manifested differently at different levels of existence due to the differing capacities of the concrete, psychophysical component of various sorts of creatures. The Horak controversy swirled about the question of whether the fundamental or ‘original’ nature of things is the same or different. The fundamental nature is normative, and it would be absurd to say the norm for a cow is the same as for a human; but the fundamental nature is fundamental and normative precisely because it is considered as anterior to the limitation/distortion of the imperfect psychophysical component. How then can it be considered as differentiated into cow and human? Pulling at these seemingly verbal loose ends leads again deep into Zhu Xi’s metaphysics, revealing between its Indian and Chinese (Buddhist and Daoist) motifs tensions which come to a focus more clearly here perhaps than anywhere else in neo-Confucian thought.

Citing this article:
Kalton, Michael C.. Confucian philosophy, Korean, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G202-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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