Scholars hold diverse opinions on the identity and origin of Korean philosophy. Although some trace the origin back to antiquity when the mythical figure Dangun supposedly founded the country in 2333 BCE, there is little historical evidence to support it. It is more plausible to estimate that philosophy began in Korea during the Three Kingdom era (second century CE) when people unfettered themselves from myths, legends, and shamanist beliefs of the tribes, and began to think in more general and philosophical terms. During this period Buddhism, a systematic and conceptually advanced religion, was introduced into the Three Kingdoms (Shilla, Baekje, and Koguryo), all of which embraced it to serve as a social and spiritual foundation for a trans-tribal ethical system. After its introduction, Korean Buddhism went through diverse phases of changes and developments, sometimes as a result of adaptations to changing social and political environments and sometimes as a result of theoretical debates. Neo-Confucianism and Western thought that were later introduced to Korea underwent similar turns and twists.
Korean philosophy, largely formed on the basis of external thought and influences, is notable not for the uniqueness of thoughts per se, but for the special manner in which it internalized the established and widely disseminated thought systems of Asia and the West and developed them into identifiably Korean forms. Korea's geographical and historical circumstances exposed the country to sudden and often torrential influxes of mature and powerful foreign culture and thought systems. Thus, the development of Korean philosophy has consisted in selecting an appropriate trend of thought carefully and reinterpreting it to meet the challenges of the society.
Because Korean philosophy had to concentrate on the selected trend, its characteristic is fundamentalist in that there was a tendency to select a specific trend or interpretation and adhere to it as the only source of truth to the exclusion of other trends. Because Korean philosophy attempted to synthesize diverse thought within the selected trend in order to meet the challenges of the society, the ability to weave divergent thoughts into a coherent whole was crucial. Even today when Western philosophy prevails, the two characteristics of fundamentalism and integrationism are still valid as a description of Korean Philosophy.
The Beginning of Philosophical Thinking—the Introduction of Buddhism and the Development of Korean Buddhist Philosophy
As the Three Kingdoms expanded to constitute sovereign states, politics began to separate from religion. Tribal federations were gradually transformed into monarchies, and the mythologies of clans and the associated religious rituals that had so far dominated the spiritual world of people were no longer adequate to serve as the basis of a state. This created a need for a unified belief system that would reconcile diverse native religious thought and practice, and provide a political rationale for the monarch-centered sovereign state. Such an ideology was also needed to counteract the aristocrats who resented the increasing concentration of political power in the monarch. The introduction of Buddhism from China at this time filled just this need, and it was welcomed by the royal authority.
From its inception Buddhism was allied with the royal authority, so it was advocated not only as a higher, more sophisticated religion, but also as a theoretical ground for strengthening the sovereignty. For example, the Buddhist notion of cause and effect, together with its karmic associations, were helpful in promoting the belief that their king was not a ruler arbitrarily chosen by Heaven, and that his status was a necessary consequence of the good deeds done in his past lives. Buddhist doctrines were also invoked to justify the authority and legitimacy of the royal rule. For that reason the Three Kingdoms endorsed at first the School of Precepts (the Vinaya School), which stressed the importance of rule abidance, in order to solidify the ethical norms and regulations of the newly established nations. As the number of Buddhist monks increased, their mission extended beyond the performance of ceremonies and rituals; they started to study the Buddhist doctrines and texts from a scholarly point of view.
Koguryo, in the north of the Korean peninsula, adopted a branch of Buddhism that interpreted Buddhism in terms of the Daoist concept of nothingness, a concept that was familiar in the local shamanist beliefs. It was succeeded by the Three Treatise School (the Madhyamika School), which upheld the doctrine of emptiness (Sunyata ) with the motto "What can be said, cannot be real." Whereas Buddhism, with an emphasis on nothingness or emptiness, was popular in Koguryo, a different perspective on Buddhism was embraced in Shilla. It was called the Consciousness-Only School (the Yogacara School). As the name suggests, their main claim was that the external world is nothing more than the objectification of inner cognitive activities and that only consciousness and cognition exist. It was popularized by Shilla monk Woncheuk (613–696), who studied and practiced his theory in China. His theory was influential not only within Shilla, but also in Tibet.
After the seventh century, more monks returned after studying abroad and brought with them Buddhist doctrines of numerous schools, adding diversity to the early Korean Buddhism. It also improved the quality of Buddhist studies, but at the same time it caused deep confusion. All the teachings were from one Buddha. So how could one make sense of all these diverse interpretations, some of them in conflict with others? The perplexity was especially acute in Shilla, which had an alliance with Tang China and sent many monks there to study Buddhist doctrines. This created fierce debates and disputes among the monks, each group arguing that what it had learned was the exclusive truth. Through this process, conflicting theoretical stances adjusted themselves to accommodate each other, which led to the unique characteristic of Korean Buddhism called integrationism.
Shilla monk Wonhyo (617–686) was the first Buddhist scholar who established his own unique theory. He meticulously analyzed three core concepts of Buddhism—mind (citra ), enlightenment (bodhi ), and ignorance (avidyā )—and attempted to illuminate their mutual relationship. According to Wonhyo, Buddha's mind and people's minds are one and the same and people born with the mind of Buddha lost track of the true facet of human existence because they are blinded by ignorance (i.e., self-centeredness and greed). Thus, being in the state of Buddha's mind (enlightenment) is nothing above and beyond being in the state of freedom from ignorance and thus returning to the original state of the human mind. On this basis, he argued that the Three Treatise School's method that tried to reach Buddha's mind by removing ignorance and the Consciousness-Only School's converse method of removing ignorance by reaching Buddha's mind were just two different paths to the same goal. This illustrates the way in which Wonhyo attempted to harmonize doctrinal differences among diverse schools. Because of Wonhyo's influence, the Buddhist schools in Korea henceforth sought in a single-minded way to reach an all-encompassing interpretation of Buddhism.
Whereas Wonhyo laid the philosophical foundation of Korean Buddhism, Uisang (625–702) focused his work on unifying numerous Buddhist schools active in all parts of the nation. Upon his return from Tang China shortly after Shilla absorbed and consolidated the other two kingdoms into the United Shilla (676), Uisang reorganized the Buddhist temples with divergent doctrinal allegiances by embracing the Flower Garland School (the Avatamsaka School). On the basis of the claim that particulars and universals, many and the one, were all different aspects of dharma (the principle, law, or a universal norm that orders both the natural world and human conduct), he advocated the holistic view that all things in the universe, causally interconnected under dharma, represented the same supreme mind. This holistic doctrine of the Flower Garland School provided a spiritual background for the harmony that must exist between individuals and the state, and between individuals and the universe. Thus it helped support the political consolidation of the Unified Shilla dynasty.
The Acceptance of Zen Buddhism and its Development
In the eighth century the Unified Shilla made great strides in doctrinal studies, particularly in the areas of the Flower Garland and Consciousness-Only Schools. During the latter half of the eighth century, however, the role of king shrank to that of a protector of his own clan, and powerful clans in the provinces rose to supersede the royal authority. Accordingly, the Flower Garland School that provided the spiritual basis for unification was succeeded by Zen Buddhism backed by regional aristocrats. Zen Buddhism emphasized that enlightenment was attained not through laborious doctrinal studies, but through discovering the Buddha mind within oneself. Even though Korean Zen Buddhism prospered as diverse branches of Chinese Zen Buddhism were introduced, the philosophical message was no different from what had been taught by Flower Garland School or Wonhyo—that ignorance is the beginning of enlightment and that everything is dependent on one's mind. It should be noted, however, that practice-oriented characteristics of Zen Buddhism paved the way for Korean Buddhism to become a popular religion without being trapped in theoretical intricacies.
In 936 the Koryo dynasty emerged, leaving behind the chaotic ruins of the Shilla dynasty. While the Koryo dynasty was developing into a state, it exploited Confucianism for practical purposes. Confucianism was introduced into Korea around the second century BCE and Koreans were familiar with its major teachings for more than 1,000 years. Although Confucian education was gradually strengthened mainly for the purpose of building a bureaucratic system, Koryo Confucianism at this time had yet to reach a level of philosophical significance. Spiritually, the primary concern of Koryo was integrating diversified schools of thought, and it was still Buddhism that undertook the role. Thus, one can witness the strong integrationist tendency in Buddhism throughout the Koryo dynasty.
Chinul (1158–1210) invigorated and established Zen Buddhism as a strong tradition in Koryo by providing it a firm philosophical basis. Thinking that Zen Buddhism of his time had dwindled in popularity mainly because of its inherent subjectivity and excessive aversion to doctrinal studies, he argued that both the doctrinal component and the meditative component must be incorporated into a correct version of Buddhism. This led to the creation of his own unique program of "sudden awakening and gradual cultivation." According to this program, one can clear oneself of secular concerns and arrive at Buddha's mind only if one comes to be enlightened by meditative insights and at the same time carries out self-cultivation to verify whether what one has understood by enlightenment corresponds to the general truth of Buddhism. This unique theory within the meditation camp became one of the most representative views of Korean Buddhism, influential up to the early twenty-first century.
After Chinul, there emerged a variety of Buddhist philosophies such as purely meditative Buddhism, a Confucian Buddhism, and so on. Still the unique characteristic of Korean Buddhism lies in the fact that it has constantly sought a synthesis of two major traditions of Buddhism, doctrinal tradition and Zen tradition, and it is often argued that Korean Buddhism has been most successful at that. With the formation of the Chosun dynasty, however, Buddhism came to be regarded as something to be overcome and was by and large excluded from ideological pursuits.
The Acceptance of Neo-Confucianism
Although it is hard to trace exactly when Confucianism was first introduced to Korea, it is estimated that its introduction accompanied the import of the Chinese writing system roughly around the second century BCE. Koreans began to accept Confucianism as the Three Kingdoms transformed themselves into ancient states and this created a need for Confucian bureaucrats who were versed in the Chinese writing system well enough to fulfill practical purposes of composing diplomatic documents. Each of the Three Kingdoms had Confucian educational institutions, which produced Confucian scholars and students. From the fact that Confucian virtues such as loyalty and filial piety were prized in the Three Kingdoms, it can be inferred that Confucianism was held in high esteem, even though the scholarship was not up to the level of philosophical analysis.
Confucianism during the Koryo period, as in the Shilla period, was chiefly used as a useful political and practical complement to Buddhism. After the eleventh century, however, as the sovereignty and its administrative structure became stabilized, Confucianism began to distinguish itself from Buddhism. Confucianism that had been only an object of a practical interest began to be the object of serious theoretical research as well. Koryo's Confucian scholars, represented by Choi Chung (984–1068) and his twelve disciples, considerably advanced the level of Confucian studies as they participated in public administration from the time of King Seong (who ruled from 981 to 997) to King Mun (1046–1083). The private Confucian educational institution Choi founded taught major Confucian Classics. Still, because the program of study was largely oriented toward preparing students for national examinations, it seems that more time was spent on literary exercises than on philosophical investigations.
The later Koryo period was an important time for Confucianism in Korea: This was when Korean Confucian scholars started distancing themselves from Buddhism. Scholars returning from Yuan China brought home with them the Confucianism that was already Yuan's political ideology, and this transformed Koryo's Confucianism in a novel way. The Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi's writings were introduced in 1289 and numerous Confucian scholars from then on gradually extended the understanding of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. A truly novel phenomenon occurring was that these scholars began to mount an attack on Buddhism with philosophical arguments. Yi Saek (1328–1396), one of the last scholars to return from Yuan China, exerted an extensive influence on later Korean Confucians. Even though his own understanding of Neo-Confucianism remained still at a comparatively naive stage in that it simple-mindedly identified Confucian benevolence with Buddhist compassion, and Confucian repose with Buddhist calmness, Yi Saek produced prominent and influential disciples.
They were trained at the national Confucian educational institution, called Sungkeunguan, which was founded by the government in 1289. They became major figures during the transition period from Koryo to Chosun, which succeeded the Koryo dynasty in 1392. With philosophical explanations of why Buddhism was fundamentally a heresy, they decisively broke with the previous generations of scholars who were largely tolerant of Buddhism. They also played a crucial role in constructing, for the new state, an ideological framework based on Confucianism.
The Chosun dynasty, which replaced the Buddhist Koryo dynasty, adopted Confucian ideology, custom, and order as the political and social foundation of the new state. Those who framed the political philosophical framework for the new dynasty were a group of scholars led by Chung Dojeon. Chung had a leading role in laying the foundation of Chosun's Neo-Confucianism and enabled Confucian ideology to prevail. Because his interpretation of Neo-Confucianism was constructed with a deliberate intention to buttress the new society with a philosophical basis, his philosophy went beyond the personal realm of self-cultivation and moral improvement.
What Chung stressed the most as he propounded Neo-Confucianism was the criticism of Buddhism. He methodically compared the Buddhist worldview with that of Neo-Confucianism, arguing that whereas the basis of the Buddhist worldview was nihilism based on emptiness (Sunyata ), a robust realism based on li and qi was the foundation of Neo-Confucianism. Li and qi are the two most important concepts in Neo-Confucianism. In Zhu Xi's philosophical system, li, which is similar to the Platonic idea or the Aristotelian notion of form, is an abstract being. Li, like the Buddhist dharma, is often appealed to in the explanation of universal truths governing the natural world and human conduct. Qi, on the other hand, corresponds roughly to matter in Western philosophy and it is often invoked to explain the changes in spatiotemporal objects including human bodies and minds. However, qi differs from matter as conceived in the West in two important respects. First, Neo-Confucianism locates mind in the domain of qi, whereas the Western tradition has tended to regard mind to be distinct from matter. Second, qi was construed to be animate, whereas matter is usually construed to be inert and inanimate.
Chung, following the Neo-Confucian tradition, explained the generation and decay of man and nature in terms of qi and, on its basis, attacked the Buddhist theory that argued for the illusory nature of the world, the unreality of things, and the transmigration and eternity of the soul. He also attacked the Buddhist doctrine of Karma by claiming that people's differences were not because of what they had done in the past, but because of the qi that each person possessed from birth. Chung distinguished Neo-Confucianism from Buddhism in the domain of morality as well. He contended that although the Buddhist notion of compassion had some similarities with the Confucian notion of benevolence, they fundamentally differed in that compassion required treating all beings with indiscriminate equality, whereas benevolence allowed for unequal treatments based on the type of relationship between the benefactor and the recipient. Confucian benevolence, thus construed, served as the fundamental value to sustain the order of the new hierarchical society. Chung's denunciation of Buddhism as a heresy successfully derailed the attempts to revive Buddhism during the early Chosun period and paved the way for other scholars of the upcoming generations to develop and systematize Korean Neo-Confucianism.
The groundwork laid by Chung, however, did not lead immediately to fruitful Confucian research. During the first years of Chosun, a period marked by intense conflicts among the major political factions, Neo-Confucianism as a national ideology lost its initial momentum and was bogged down in exegetical studies. It was during the years of King Sung (1457–1494) that Neo-Confucian scholars returned to hold positions of great influence in the government. Neo-Confucianism began to serve as a practical guide to governance, going beyond its role as a mere ideology. Cho Kwangjo (1482–1519) was the scholar who was most influential in this transition. He claimed that the ruler's moral cultivation was especially important because his moral commitments would exert great influence on the whole nation. Cho urged the view that an ideal Confucian state could be realized through the internalization of Confucian moral values on a national scale and he subsequently led a movement to actualize the view. Views like these were commonly held by the Confucian literati of the time, and it led Neo-Confucians to delve into the nature of human mind and explore the ground and the method of moral practice.
The Theoretical Development of Neo-Confucianism
Although Neo-Confucianism during the early Chosun period put more emphasis on the practical side, the theoretical side was not completely ignored. For example, the concept of qi was exploited to explicate problems such as man and nature, life and death, and the existence of souls and spirits. The scholar who added depth to the philosophy of qi was Seo Kyeongdeok (1489–1546). Seo, classified as a qi -philosopher during the early to middle Chosun period, constructed a highly complex and sophisticated theory of cosmology and human nature on the basis of qi.
Drawing on the views of Chinese qi philosophers during the Song dynasty, in particular Zhang Hengqi and Shao Kangjie, Seo attempted to explain the macroscopic movements and changes in nature in terms of the diverse phases of qi and transitions between them. For example, he discriminated between qi as a root of everything (pre-celestial qi ) and qi as a changing phenomenon (post-celestial qi ). Pre-celestial qi is the ultimate basis of existing entities, whose movement and change determine variance in post-celestial phenomena. The phenomenal world, which is generated through qi 's movements and changes, disappears as qi disperses, yet the dispersed qi returns again to the pre-celestial realm, which in turn becomes a causal basis of the regeneration of another phenomenal world. Seo associated this cosmology with the principle of Great Change as manifested in the Book of Changes, and applied his theory to the problems of life and death, and even to the question of life after death. His theory of qi enabled people to overcome the Daoist concept of nothingness and the Buddhist notion of eternity of the soul; most importantly, it helped the Neo-Confucianism of the Chosun dynasty to gain a unique perspective on man and nature.
The philosophers who completed the framework of Neo-Confucian moral philosophy were Yi Hwang (1501–1570) and Yi I (1536–1584). Yi Hwang, better known by his pen name Toegye, researched in depth the Chinese Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi, whom he regarded as the ultimate source and authority for Neo-Confucianism. In contrast to Seo before him, he argued that li was the ultimate and essential being that determined the movement of qi. What particularly concerned Toegye, however, was not the ontology of li and qi per se, but their roles in grounding morality. He believed that if li did not act upon the external world, there would be no ontological ground for morality. In other words, he thought that moral intuition or wisdom would be useless if all human emotions are vulnerable to physical intemperance and overindulgence. It seemed obvious to Toegye, however, that humans had an intellectual control over the mind. From this, he concluded that there must be a domain of emotions that are distinctively moral, and that these must be distinguished from mundane nonmoral emotions. He went on to construct the unique view that everyday nonmoral emotions were manifestations of qi, whereas moral emotions were manifestations of li. In placing morality within the domain of emotions, Toegye put a greater emphasis on the cultivation of the emotions rather than on purely rational and intellectual training.
Another philosopher who elevated the Chosun dynasty's Neo-Confucianism to another level of sophistication was Yi I (1536–1584), better known by his pen name Yulgok. While revering Toegye's scholarship, he thought that Toegye's dualistic interpretation of Zhu Xi's philosophy had a fundamental problem. Placing a higher value on the aforementioned metaphysical system devised by Seo, Yulgok claimed that although li and qi were differentiated conceptually, they were not two independent beings. Applying this view to morality, Yulgok maintained that there was no separate source or domain of moral emotions; everyday emotions that conformed to the moral standard were themselves moral emotions. All the emotions including moral emotions were manifestations of qi, but they were regulated by li. A moral action was not a natural emanation from a separate moral emotion, but the outcome of the recognition of the universal norms and a personal decision to make that recognition bear on the mundane emotions. Because Yulgok considered reason, rather than emotion, to play a central role in living a moral life, he concluded that the enhancement of our rational capacity for right judgments should be emphasized over emotional enrichment.
Weighing between emotion and reason, and between qi and li, the philosophies of Toegye and Yulgok manifested subtle but significant differences in all respects, leading to two lineages of Neo-Confucianism during the Chosun period. One was li -centered and the other qi -centered. As the two schools contended for the title of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, the Chosun dynasty's Neo-Confucianism became increasingly more dogmatic and doctrinaire, leading scholars to the rigid position that all social and individual conduct should conform to the Confucian code of behavior. Leaving behind the metaphysical basis of a moral mind, the debate now moved to another issue over how to apply abstract morality to the real world. Thus, the theory of rites and rituals came to replace the theory of mind, and formed the mainstream philosophy of the seventeenth-century Chosun dynasty.
As the Chosun dynasty's Neo-Confucianism became increasingly more doctrinaire and ritualistic, the chasm between theory and reality, and between philosophy and social development, widened. Scholars, convinced that a blind adherence to Zhu Xi's texts had led them into a dead end, began to search for a breakthrough outside Zhu Xi. Two trends are notable as consequences of this movement; one was the acceptance of the Chinese Yangming philosophy that recognized the significance of the individual will and freedom. The other was the emergence of exegetical studies that focused on a positivistic interpretation of Confucian Classics free from political ideologies. Scholars involved in these studies hoped to overcome Zhu Xi's philosophy by an appeal to a superior authority (i.e., revered ancient Confucian Classics). The rejection of Zhu Xi's philosophy was significant and it exerted a strong influence on later philosophers, particularly on those belonging to the Practical Study School.
Meanwhile, the scholars from the Yulgok's lineage went on to articulate their philosophical system. In their attempt to refine Yulgok's philosophy, a discordance within his system was discovered, which led to the biggest philosophical debate of the eighteenth century and subsequently caused a split of the school into the Ho line and the Rak line (Ho and Rak are names of the regions where their advocates resided). The Ho -Rak debate was over the question whether there existed a nature common to both humans and other creatures in the world. The debate that initially started between two scholars gradually widened and came to involve almost all the scholars of the Yulgok school. The debate evolved to cover a wide range of topics such as the relationship between mind and nature, the distinction between the sage and the commoner, and the sameness or difference between human nature and animal nature. In debating over whether there was a general nature common to all things in nature, they came to address the relationship between li and qi and consequently it provided an opportunity to rethink the status and meaning of li. This in turn gave rise to a wide spectrum of thoughts such as the qi -only theory and the li -only theory.
The Rise of Modern Thought—the Introduction and Reception of Western Thought and Practical Study
As Korea opened its door to Western thought in the eighteenth century, a notable change in the trend of Korean philosophy took place, and this was the emergence of the Practical Study School. From the early eighteenth century on, the inadequacy of Neo-Confucianism as a political ideology became increasingly more evident. In order to go beyond the limit of Neo-Confucianism and to go along with new social environments, a group of scholars turned their attention from morality and self-cultivation to more practical questions such as economy and the land system. This trend came to be called Practical Study. Scholars belonging to this movement tried to attain new philosophical insights by blending traditional Neo-Confucianism with newly introduced Western thought, especially Catholicism and Western sciences.
Yi Ik (1681–1763), deeply impressed by the astronomy and the solar calendar brought to Korea by the Christian missionaries, took an active part in introducing Western thought to Korea. He created an atmosphere that enabled his disciples to play leading roles in spreading and promoting Western thought. On the issue of accepting the Catholic doctrine, however, they diverged into a receptive group called the Accept-West Party and a critical group called the Reject-West Party. The latter criticized the fundamental premises of Catholicism including the theory of anima from a Neo-Confucian perspective on the nature of mind. They claimed that Catholicism and Confucianism differed in fundamental assumptions and could not be harmonized with each other.
The Accept-West Party maintained a more open attitude toward Western thought. Among the more influential members of this group was Chong Yakyong (1762–1836), better known by the pen name Dasan, who constructed a comprehensive and influential theory of the Practical Study School, incorporating Catholic theories in his philosophical system. Through a novel reinterpretation of Confucian Classics, not only did he attempt to recover the practical spirit of early Confucianism, but he also tried to synthesize Confucianism and Catholicism. For example, he argued that God in Christianity and Heaven in ancient Confucianism were one and the same; according to him, Heaven in the Confucian tradition was essentially a subject with volitions, desires, and perceptions, and also an agent who used those faculties to rule the universe. Thus, the Confucian Heaven was not to be explicated in terms of metaphysical and abstract principles such as li or yin and yang. According to him, then, the term high-emperor as employed by ancient Confucians portrayed the meaning of Heaven in the most adequate way, and Heaven, thus construed, was no different from the Christian God.
Dasan also drew on Christian ideas in his explications of morality. Criticizing the Neo-Confucian view that morality was a part of inherent human nature, he maintained that human nature was so constituted as to follow self-regarding desires and preferences and thus it was fundamentally egotistic and hedonistic. He advocated, on this basis, the Christian idea that moral perfection was possible only through recognizing God's will and acting accordingly. Then he attempted to graft Confucianism onto Christianity by adopting the Confucian theory of cultivation as a way of internalizing God's orders. However, such attempts by Dasan and other Accept-West Party scholars caused, among the mainstream scholars who were still committed to Neo-Confucianism as their philosophical idea, a deep sense of insecurity. This played a part in bringing about an official oppression of the Catholic church later, which started in 1785 and lasted on and off for eighty years.
Unlike Yi Ik's disciples who attempted to overcome the limits of Neo-Confucianism by adopting Catholicism, other mainstream scholars in powerful positions embraced Western sciences to improve their Neo-Confucian system. They were called Study-North Scholars, and Hong Daeyong (1731–1783) and Choi Hangi (1803–1877) were the leading figures. Hong, keenly interested in Western sciences, turned his attention from a value-laden Confucian worldview to a morally neutral, positivistic, and scientific worldview. Believing that human existence was on the same level as the existence of any other natural beings, he attempted to explicate everything in terms of qi 's movement. Hong's notion of qi was similar to today's concept of matter, more so than that of any other qi -scholars. Qi was, for Hong, a concept suited to cosmology and useful in explaining natural phenomena; he explained the rotation of the earth, tides, and climatic changes by using the concepts such as shrouding qi, flowing qi, and great qi. Thus, in Hong's theory, the dynamic transformations of qi were more salient than the ultimate nature of qi itself. The significance of Hong's philosophy of qi was that it went beyond the Confucian moralist view of the natural world and gave Korean philosophy a modern naturalistic outlook by combining traditional philosophy with the newly introduced Western sciences.
In the case of Choi Hangi, the influence of Western science is even more evident. In Choi's theory, the traditional concept of qi played a critical mediating role in assimilating Western scientific theories into his own system. Choi believed that human conduct and natural phenomena were all manifestations of qi, and therefore that both Confucian ethics and Western science could be proven to be truths on the same level. Rejecting the Neo-Confucian perspective on morality, he claimed that ethical norms were based on, and derivable from, laws of nature. His qi -centered theory not only encompassed existing Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, but could also be harmonized with Western scientific theories.
Two main characteristics of qi in Choi's theory were quantifiability and perceivability. Because everything was a manifestation of qi and qi was perceivable, one could accumulate knowledge only through empirical investigations. According to Choi, the knowledge thus obtained should be able to reach, through verifications and repeated corrections, a level where the fundamental principles common to humans and the natural world could be discovered and natural phenomena scientifically understood. He was also convinced that qi could be quantified by numbers. Because the numerical system could reveal changes of qi in an objective and general way, scientific studies such as menology (calendar studies), calculus, and physics could reveal the nature of the world most accurately. He even thought that the movement of qi could be proven mathematically. What is especially notable in Choi's theory is that Choi had unfettered himself completely from the value-centered, intuition-dependent philosophy of Neo-Confucianism and paved a way to a modern naturalistic way of thinking.
Dasan's Catholic Confucianism, Hong Daeyong's scientific Neo-Confucianism, and Choi Hangi's empirical epistemology were just a few representative attempts, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to embrace the newly introduced Western thought within traditional philosophy. They had the potential for launching a vital and original philosophical movement. With the fall of the Chosun dynasty, however, these philosophical endeavors did not lead to the formation of modern Korean philosophy. They remained only as one dead-end strand in the history of Korean philosophy.
Modern Korean Philosophy
The period from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century was a critical turning point for Korea and for Korean philosophy. The Japanese colonialism backed by Western culture and technology began to encroach on Korea. Korea was forced to sign an unequal treaty with Japan in 1876. That provoked other imperialistic countries to coerce similar forms of agreements with Korea. As a result, Korea was defenseless against the tidal influx of Western culture, new languages, and new modes of thinking. Although Korean intellectuals at the time attempted to save Korea from colonization by westernizing Korea itself, it was too little and too late as Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910.
A notable phenomenon that followed was the shift of Korea's and Japan's roles in the transfer of cultures. Traditionally China was the dominant cultural force in the region, and Korea used to import Chinese culture and incorporate it into its own, and then export the outcome to Japan. By the turn of the century, this pattern of cultural exchanges underwent a dramatic change; the West replaced China and Japan became the conduit of the Western culture to Korea. Even though Korea had earlier contact with Western religion and science, it was only after the Japanese colonization that Korea made its first encounter with Western philosophy. The word chulhak was also first introduced to Korea. The word, made up of two Chinese characters, was coined in Japan as a translation of the term philosophy, and it is now the standard term for philosophy in the Asian countries in which Chinese characters are used for academic purposes, including China, Korea, and Japan.
That Western philosophy was introduced to Korea through Japanese colonialism, combined with the prevalent picture of Western power and wealth, defined the early perception of Western philosophy in Korea. Philosophy was regarded as something indigenous to the West and completely alien to Korea, having nothing in common with the traditional thought of Korea. In the minds of Korean intellectuals at the turn of the century, the historical dominance of Confucianism was the main reason for Korea's falling behind in the process of modernization. Traditional ways of thinking and Confucianism, in particular, were what had to be overcome, whereas Western culture and philosophy were to be welcomed and assimilated. The introduction of a neologism, chulhak, to signify Western philosophy might have reinforced this frame of mind. For example, Philosophy, the first academic journal of philosophy published in 1933, contained no article on traditional Korean thought. It took many years to recognize the common features between Western philosophy and Asian thought and to apply the term chulhak to both.
Western philosophy was mostly German philosophy. Japan and Germany were allies and the Western philosophy in Japan was for the most part German philosophy. In consequence, Western philosophy introduced to Korea via Japan was also mostly German. Even though Bertrand Russell and John Dewey visited China and Japan respectively in 1910 and 1919 and that these visits aroused the interest of philosophers in Korea, their impact was limited. The dominance of German philosophy in Korea lasted for some time even after Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, and this continued during the post-World War II years when the influence of German philosophy was diminishing in the rest of the world. Scholars specializing in German philosophy filled the philosophy faculties of the major universities, and they determined the overall shape and course of the profession until philosophers of a new generation began replacing them.
Writings of Korean philosophers in the early twentieth century were oriented toward practice. Korean philosophers, like any other Korean intellectual at the time, thought of themselves as pioneers of modernization and westernization. Philosophy was supposed to enlighten people and build a new way of thinking. The tendency to highlight the importance of doing philosophy with practical minds, rather than to introduce Western philosophy for its own sake, was manifest in the first issue of the above-mentioned journal, Philosophy. The articles published in the first issue included One Question concerning the Starting Point of Philosophizing, What Is Philosophy?: On the Eternity of Philosophy, The Idea of an Ethical Evaluation, and The Structure of Concrete Existence. In these articles, the nature of philosophy was defined with an emphasis on its relevance to practice. However, as the Japanese control over academia became ever more strict and rigid, emphases on practice grew weaker.
Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945. However, the country was divided into two Koreas with conflicting ideologies. This led, in 1950, to a calamitous national tragedy, the Korean War (1950–1953). This series of major events left significant marks on the contour of philosophy in Korea. Marxism, which was experimented with and advocated by a scant few philosophers during the Japanese colonial period, blossomed in the midst of the ideological conflicts that followed the liberation. Even though Marxism was soon officially suppressed in South Korea and many influential Marxist philosophers fled to the more hospitable North, Marxism left an indelible impression. Along with Marxism, existentialism emerged as a major player in Korean philosophy. This was mainly due to the Korean War; in particular, French existentialism, born in the ruins and despair of World War II (1939–1945), strongly resonated with Koreans with similar experiences during the Korean war.
A long-standing bias toward German philosophy began to change in the early 1950s. The Korean Philosophical Association was formed in 1953, and its official journal was founded. More important was that Korea started having direct contacts with Western philosophies. Philosophers came to visit Korea from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Students went to various parts of the world for studies. By having direct contacts, Korean philosophers gained firsthand access to Western philosophy, helping them to overcome the distortions inflicted by Japanese translations and interpretations. Another outcome of this direct and broad exposure to Western philosophy has been the revival of interest in traditional philosophy. Ever-expanding contacts with diverse cultures and philosophies made Korean philosophers rethink the roots and identity of Korean thought. Traditional Korean philosophy, which had been ignored as useless and retrogressive during the Japanese colonial period, began to receive fresh scrutiny and assessment. In the late 1950s, Korean traditional thought came to be accommodated under the umbrella of philosophy.
As a result of interaction with diverse parts of the world, different trends of philosophy are evenly reflected in Korean philosophy today. Anglo-American analytic philosophy is one of the strongest trends. German philosophy is still going strong even though it is not as prominent as it once was. Many philosophers in Korea specialize in traditional Korean philosophy and other Asian philosophies. The world of philosophy in Korea is a melting pot. A large variety of traditions and trends are actively and vigorously represented—from phenomenology and existentialism to analytic philosophy, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Now philosophers pursuing diverse perspectives are starting to hold dialogues with each other. It is exciting to wait and see whether and how the world of philosophy in Korea will continue its tradition of integrationism and what the outcome will be.
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Lancaster, Lewis. Buddhism in Chosŏn. Berkeley, CA.: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1996.
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Namjin Huh and
Kihyeon Kim (2005)
"Korean Philosophy." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/korean-philosophy
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