T'oegye and Hope in the 21st Century


Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Keynote address

Confucian Culture Festival, Andong, Korea, October 2001


It is a pleasure and an honor to have this opportunity to talk with you today. The last time I was able to participate in a T'oegyehak conference was back in 1998. Three years between visits is too long. My excuse is the most common excuse in the world nowadays: I have been  too busy. In fact we are all too busy, moving too fast and working too hard to bring about our dream of "living well." But we should never be moving too fast to meet together with friends and colleagues to share conversation about the important things in life. I am sorry  my conversation with my friends and colleagues in T'oegyehak has been interrupted for three years.  It's time for me to slow down!

When I was here in 1998 I talked about a new sŏngnihak. A new sŏngnihak, I said, would draw on the wisdom and understanding of the old sŏngnihak of men such as Chu Hsi and T'oegye. But it would speak in terms and concepts that belong to the 21st century. And even more important, it would address the problems and concerns of the 21st century.

First let's talk about the problems, and then consider what a new sŏngnihak might be able to contribute.  I believe the central problem of the 21st century is the meeting of our two great systems. The first great system is what people now call the environment. The old sŏngnihak spoke of it in terms of Heaven and Earth, and the Mind of Heaven and Earth to endlessly produce and give life (saeng-saeng) to all creatures. The second great system is our wonderful capitalist system which promises to endlessly produce and give wealth, which is life for human beings.

The governments of the whole world are now enthusiastic about the second great system. We hear endlessly about globalization and free markets. The problem is that this man-made system for producing human well-being is draining the life from the system of Heaven and Earth. Experts estimate that about one species per hour becomes forever extinct as we transform the globe to produce ever more human wealth and well-being. Extinction has a natural place in the continual process of transforming life. But the rate of extinction that has arisen with our modern drive to achieve human well-being is now estimated to be 1000 times greater than the natural rate. If an average human life of 70 years was shortened by 1000 times,  we would each live for only 25 days. This is  the proportion by which our human economic system is at present blocking up the life-giving force (saeng-saeng) of Heaven and Earth.

This problem has begun to attract wide popular attention. The WTO is now the main symbol of capitalist globalization. And now, wherever the WTO meets, there are riots in the streets. Still, many of us are too busy working for a better life; we do not see, or do not have time to think about this problem. But as surely as global warming will transform our climates, as surely as coal-burning in China will fall as acid rain on Korea and Japan, as surely as Chinese soil is blowing in dust clouds that reach San Francisco, this problem of our economy and the environment will surely be recognized as the central problem of the 21st century.

This problem has already changed politically correct language. Twenty years ago our national leaders all talked about development. Now they talk about "sustainable" development. The change is important.  We are now aware that what we have been doing is not sustainable. We know that eventually it will so transform the system of Heaven and Earth that even our own life support will be endangered. Everyone knows we must change, and we  already know what changes would help. But capitalist theory has told us that when we each pursue our personal profit maximally, that will benefit the whole system. The invisible hand of the free market will make everything work out for the common good. Under this system, self-interest is approved as the force that makes everything run. We come to think of self-interest as the deepest, most natural force in human nature. Now our huge, self-interested economic institutions find it very difficult to change, at least until their own self-interest is clearly threatened. And by that time it will be too late.

So the question of the 21st century now has three levels. The first is practical: what must we do to have a sustainable way of life? We already have many, many answers to that question. The second level is political and social: how can we actually make the changes we need to make. On that level we still seem pretty blocked up. And that gives rise to the third level of question: will we be able to change in time? Is there real hope for humanity, or will we blindly pursue self-interest until the life of Heaven and Earth will no longer flow through our system?

What does a new sŏngnihak have to say about these problems?  For over ten years these have been the main questions I think about and teach about, and I have found that my sŏngnihak studies have been a tremendous help. I have used sŏngnihak ways of thought and analysis continually. But mostly this is invisible, except when I teach explicitly about East Asia. Invisible in the sense that no one listening to me or reading my work would be thinking, "Ah! This is ancient Confucian wisdom." They just hear me discussing urgent problems, sometimes with a surprising or new perspective. Doing new sŏngnihak without traditional sŏngnihak terminology and concepts has not been a problem. The familiar modern terminology of systems theory, information, and evolution has been quite sufficient. Until now.

Now, I find I wish I could use the terminology of i and ki, of  original nature (ponsŏng) and physical nature (kijil ji sŏng), of human mind (insim) and and tao mind (tosim). And especially, I would like to be able to talk about the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings.  I have said that a new sŏngnihak would  use contemporary terms and concepts. Now I have hit an area of thought and analysis where, for the first time, I find the traditional sŏngnihak terminology provides much sharper and more powerful tools than any on the contemporary scene.

What has made me wish to use the old concept system? I  am now working on  the third level of the 21st century problem: Is there real hope for humanity, or will we blindly pursue self-interest until the life of Heaven and Earth  no longer flows through our system? It is an important question. I often hear it from students who are looking for some basis for hope. If they have hope, they  may work for a good future. Without hope, they do the easiest thing, which is just going along with the flow of consumer society. So the third level in some ways is the most theoretical: it is a question that can have no clear, definite answer. But it is also the most practical level, because without hope, without a reason to think maybe we can do this, we certainly will not succeed. 

Will we be able to change  our ways before our drive to live well chokes off the deep ecological sources of our life? There is now almost a library of books and articles that explain how we could do this. But the question is really not about technology or strategies. It is a question about the human mind-heart (sim). Environmentalism is most effective nowadays when it can make its argument in terms of human self-interest. But that is just playing the same self-centered game that is part of the problem. Altruism, loving living beings for their own sake, is pictured as hopelessly romantic. Such people are called "tree-huggers" and "eco-extremists." Yet their numbers are growing. Academics call this new kind of altruism "bio-centrism." Bio-centrism means making the center of one's concern the whole community of life, not just the human community.

The numbers of people who have a bio-centric orientation are growing. But they are often depressed and saddened at the enormity of the challenge and the slow change of people's attitudes and values. Some among them place their main hope for the future in the idea that human consciousness is evolving to a new stage of bio-centric awareness. But if you ask them why they expect such an evolution to happen, answers are vague. Mostly they turn back to the urgency of our environmental situation and argue that unless humans begin to think and live in a bio-centric way we will collapse the ecosystem. I agree with this. But just because analysis makes it clear we need to develop such a mind-heart (sim), that does not explain how it can happen, nor offer much hope that it will happen. 

So we find that the most important question of our times is a question about the scope and force of the feelings of the human mind-heart. Realistically, is there any reason to hope we can move beyond the feelings that motivate a self-absorbed life as consumers in an economic system aimed only at the growth of consumption?  We know bio-centric feelings are possible, because we see some people who are motivated by such feelings. But is there any hope such feelings could become common enough to be a social force with strength sufficient to modify our present self-interest driven system?

Now we can see a connection with questions familiar to the Confucian tradition. What is the nature of the feelings that move in the depth of our mind-heart? How do they originate, and what is their relative strength and independence?  From the time of Mencius Confucians were engaged with such questions, and sŏngnihak made them its special focus. Korean sŏngnihak, in the Four-Seven debate, investitigated them with unmatched intensity and depth. My study of the Four-Seven debate has recently been a great help as I try to more carefully examine the present situation and our future prospects.  I must also add that the reverse is true. Thinking of it in terms of our present situation has led me to see the Four-Seven debate in a new way. Let me explain.

At first I thought about the two groups of feelings, the Four Beginnings and the Seven Feelings. T'oegye thought they were really different sorts of feelings; they originated in different ways. Yulgok argued they are just different names; there is only one way feelings originate. I thought about T'oegye's approach. In what way might the Four Beginnings be different from the other feelings? Mencius originated his notion of the Four Beginnings with a consideration of the feeling of commiseration, which arises from the life-giving instinct of humanity (in) deep in the nature of our mind-heart.1 Chu Hsi   in his Explanation of Humanity (Jen-shuo, Insŏl) explains that the force of this feeling in our mind-heart is our human manifestation of the fundamental character (taedŏk) of Heaven and Earth to produce and sustain life (saeng-saeng).2 Following Han dynasty Confucians, he said that this life-giving force of Humanity runs through all the Four Beginnings just as the life-giving force of spring runs through all the seasons.

What a wonderful description of how the flow of life through the ecosystem is manifested in the dynamic life and feelings of our mind-heart! In his Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning (Sŏnghak sipto) T'oegye placed Chu Hsi's Explanation of Humanity immediately after the chapter in which he presents his own understanding of the Four-Seven question.3 What Chu Hsi explained in his Explanation of Humanity   was undoubtedly the way T'oegye thought about the Four Beginnings in his Four-Seven argument. That is, like Chu Hsi, T'oegye  saw the Four Beginnings as originating in the life flow of the entire system, Heaven and Earth, to which we belong. A dynamic life-giving instinct is embedded in the base of  our mind-heart because it is the nature of Heaven and Earth to give life.

How then are the Four Beginnings different from the Seven Feelings? T'oegye saw the Seven Feelings4 as more related to our individuality. We are alive as physical individuals, and we need feelings that will lead us to appropriately defend and take care of our individual lives.  It is easy to see how such feelings can be perfectly good, and also to see how they can easily go astray in an excessively self-centered direction.

So the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings represent two basic aspects of existence. We exist interdependently with other creatures as members of a great system of life. We also exist as physical individuals. Both of these facts are always true and always present in every situation. The Four-Seven debate explores what this means for the kinds of feelings that flow in our mind-hearts. T'oegye's position holds that the Four Beginnings originate in the connected life we share in the system, and they promote that life. In modern terms we would say that they are inherently bio-centric feelings. We can see here how T'oegye's position helps explain and support the view of those who hope we will evolve a truly bio-centric form of consciousness. Such a characteristic is already there: it just needs a chance to grow.

It is inspiring that Chu Hsi and T'oegye say the life of the bio-sphere runs in the life force of our mind-hearts and manifests as a concern to support the life of all things. But does this make a real contribution? It sounds poetic, and maybe a little romantic and optimistic. It has about the same intellectual weight as the popular hope that we are evolving to a new stage of consciousness. But sŏngnihak says much more about all this, and T'oegye's analysis of the situation is much more subtle than popular contemporary vocabulary can easily express. This is where I regret the modern loss of sŏngnihak concepts.

Today I have the rare privilege of talking with an audience that does understand i and ki. So I would like to take the opportunity to discuss how i and ki can go where modern terminology has difficulty following. The aspects of reality sŏngnihak discussed in terms of i are what we now speak of in terms of systems, systemic connections,  or relationships. The aspect sŏngnihak expressed in terms of ki we now speak of as energy and as concrete, physical individuals. For hundreds of years western thought has assumed that concrete individuals exercise the only real causal agency. We have a habit of looking at the ki side of things as what is really real, so for real explanations that is where we look. If something happens, it is because of some concrete, individual physical cause.

Recently developments in physics, ecology, and computers have caused us to become much more aware of systems and systemic connections as something that cannot be simply reduced to individuals. But physical causality is easy to understand. The causality that goes with systems and relationships is still vague and hard to explain.

Our thoughts about relating systems to individuals are not well developed, and we are still inclined to feel the individuals are what is really real. That is why, to modern ears, it sounds like romantic poetry when I say our connection with the whole system of life is manifested as a deep concern not only for ourselves, but for all creatures.

Sŏngnihakthinkers had powerful images to describe our systemic interconnectedness. Chang Tsai said Heaven and Earth are the source, the parents of all creatures, so we are all related like members of a single family.5 Ch'eng Hao said the universe is like a single body, and lack of humanity is like paralysis, when responsive life no longer reaches part of the body.6 Chu Hsi said it is like the flow of life through a single circulatory system of veins, and self-centeredness blocks up the natural flow of life-givingness through the whole.7  Sŏngnihak thinkers could carefully analyze, discuss, and argue about  these matters using a rich conceptual vocabulary built around i and ki.  The images of Chang Tsai, Ch'eng Hao, and Chu Hsi are the products of deep and careful philosophic analysis, not  the products of poetic imagination.

The most fundamental advantage of i ki thought is that the systemic dimension and concrete individuality are treated as equally real, always present in every moment, interdependent but different. In the traditional sŏngnihak phrase, they are "inseparable but not  mixed."  Western thought is all too inclined to look only at the physical individual aspect as really real. The sŏngnihak framework insists that the systemic dimension and the individual dimension be recognized as always present. There is no real system without individuals, no i without ki. And there are no individuals who are not enmeshed with and produced in terms of a real system, no ki without i. Because of this clear awareness,  sŏngnihak developed rich conceptual tools to examine the difficult questions surrounding the relationship of the systematic and concrete individual aspects of existence.

A system is a unity, a whole. The unity is manifest as the interrelated function of many diverse parts. Unity and diversity are the most basic elements of a system, and the most challenging to understand. Contemporary environmental thinking is challenging us to understand systemic unity, but holistic thought is new to western science. Sŏngnihak introduced the concept of the Supreme Ultimate to express systemic unity. As Chou Tun-i put it in his famous Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, "Everything has its own nature, and everything is the one Supreme Ultimate."8 No matter how much diversity emerges within a unified system, it is diversity within the one system and happens always in terms of the system. Nothing is truly self-enclosed; everything exists in relation to everything else, and so everything is what it is in relation to what everything around it is.  "I is one but manifested diversely."9 And the unity of the diverse manifestations is manifest in their interdependent relationships. Ecologists tell us foxes exist in terms of rabbits, rabbits in terms of foxes and also grass, and grass gets to be what it is in terms of foxes that eat rabbits before rabbits eat all of the grass. In a system, everything has reference to everything else. We are just learning about that, but the Neo-Confucians already understood such systems.

At the same time, every blade of grass, every rabbit, every fox and every human being is a distinct physical individual. On one level, the life of the system runs through the individuals, but on another level each individual has its own life and death. Among beings with consciousness, strong feelings are connected with individual life and death, and they are different from the feelings that arise from our systemic unity and connectedness to other persons and creatures. Here is where the systemic, interconnected i side of life often comes into conflict with the physically separated individuality that is the ki side of life. 

Sŏngnihak  developed a conceptual vocabulary for thinking about this tension between the systemic, community side of existence (i)and its individual side (ki). Original nature (ponsŏng) and the Tao Mind (tosim) became ways to think about how systemic relationships are always present in the depths of our mind-heart. Because we embody the system (each embodies Supreme Ultimate, i is one and manifested diversely) we are structured in our systemic nature (ponsŏng) to respond appropriately to everything. The physical nature (kijil chi sŏng) and the Human Mind (insim) were ways of conceptualizing the individual (ki) dimension. Individuality is necessary and good, but the powerful feelings associated with nurturing one's personal life and avoiding death could easily block and distort feelings oriented to the shared, systemic level of our existence. "The Tao Mind is subtle; the Human Mind is perilous."10 Relationships may seem less real than personal satisfaction, and that easily gets us in trouble.

Concepts such as original nature and physical nature were tools to analyze the consequences of this two-sided, systemic-individual existence as forces or tendencies in human mind-hearts. Confucians were above all interested in human conduct, and for serious cultivation of the mind-heart they needed such understanding. Original nature and physical nature, Tao Mind and Human Mind, are ways of thinking about how both aspects are indivisibly present in the reality of every mind-heart. "Indivisibly" is an important word here. Sŏngnihak thinkers state repeatedly that this language points to two aspects of a single reality. We have only one nature, one mind-heart.

Korean sŏngnihak pushed this analysis a further step.  We have only one nature, one mind-heart, but there are these two aspects. Feelings are the active life of the mind-heart. They are critically important because they play a major role in forming the way we relate to and respond to the world around us. Granted that i and ki, system and individual concreteness, are not separate things, do these factors  always relate in the same way in the actual psycho-physical process through which feelings arise? T'oegye and Ki Kobong,   in their famous Four-Seven debate, launched a prolonged and exacting Korean inquiry into  this question.

At this point, before we discuss the Four-Seven debate, I would like call attention to two things. First, the importance of the sŏngnihak system of i ki philosophy should now be clear.   Sŏngnihak insisted on the unified systemic and diverse individual reality of each and every existence, and developed philosophical tools to examine it deeply. This background enabled T'oegye and Kobong to ask their question about the orgination of feelings and to pursue the question with a deep and probing discussion.

Second, it should also be clear that the Four-Seven question does not depend on sŏngnihakSŏngnihak furnishes wonderful conceptual tools to think about the question, but the question is there with or without sŏngnihak. We do exist always and only as members of a larger system of life. And we are physically distinct individuals. Feelings are not just arbitrary mental weather. They are our first level of conscious response and   lead to the way we deal with life. So, how then, are the two aspects of reality involved in the sorts of feelings we have? This is a question of major importance. Sŏngnihak simply provides an exceptionally strong framework for asking and investigating the question.

T'oegye and Kobong  use i and ki and related conceptual tools to deeply probe this question. They shared a common framework of sŏngnihak teachings. We know how physical agents make things happen. But how does a system, or community, or relationship make anything happen? This is hard to understand. Sŏngnihak thinkers agreed, "i does not move." That is, it does not act and cause things to happen like a physical agent. All such activity happens only through concrete individuals, that is through the ki side of things. But the physical energy of individuals moves as it moves precisely because of who and what we are in the related reality of every situation, so    systemic i is critically important in the shaping of every activity.  Clearly then i and ki together are involved in every sort of activity, and the concrete energy of action is on the side of ki. Actual feelings, then, originate only in the indivisible combination of i and ki, system and concrete individuality.

The system, then, acts only in and through the individual creatures that comprise the concrete, real existence of the system, and individual action is always enmeshed in the system. But the Four-Seven question pushed this understanding further. Take the case Mencius spoke of, the feeling of alarm and the impulse to save a baby that is in danger.11 Is that the same as our feeling of alarm and impulse to save ourselves when we are in danger?  Sŏngnihak already had the vocabulary of original nature and Tao Mind, and of physical nature and Human Mind to speak about our tendency to be concerned with others versus our concern for ourselves. But does that mean such tendencies, as actual feelings moving in our mind-hearts, originate differently, or is it just that they are provoked by different stimuli? 

That is the question pursued first by T'oegye and Kobong and then by Yulgok and Ugye in the Four-Seven debate. There are good reasons on both sides. On the side of Kobong and Yulgok, it is hard to imagine how the systemic i aspect of existence can sometimes function one way, sometimes another in the origination of our feelings. The way individuals embody the system does not change from moment to moment.  Our nature just is what it is. On the other hand, maybe our real systemic existence does exercise some sort of dynamic force of its own.  Indeed, we often experience a conflict and forceful pull in opposite directions as our urge to take care of ourselves works in tension with our urge to take care of others. T'oegye was not satisfied to leave such profound differences unexplained. He sought an explanation for the difference in the way these feelings originate. 

We experience feelings as an active force in our mind-hearts.  T'oegye used an active verb, "launch" (bal) to describe their origination. We are all familiar with the famous formula he came up with to describe the difference between the kinds of feeling. For the systemic, relational feelings that foster the life of all things, he said "I launches  them and ki follows." For the instinctive feelings that take care of our personal survival, he said "Ki launches them and i mounts it."12

"Launching" sounds suspiciously active. T'oegye indeed went out on a limb and said that in some sense i, the systemic relational side of existence, exercises some sort of force. I moves. Not, to be sure, like a concrete thing--the kind of movement or causality ascribed to ki. But nonetheless, it has some kind of power that moves our feelings, just as the individual separateness of our existence exercises a moving power in defense of our existence.

It is difficult to speak of either the system or of individuality as doing anything. Nowadays this would be called "the error of misplaced concreteness," and sŏngnihak thinkers agreed that neither i nor ki has any separate activity. Only concrete individuals do anything. But even if it is difficult to conceptualize such causality, the  question cannot be so easily dismissed,. Our concrete reality actually is both systemic and individual. The careful, analytic philosophy of i and ki makes it possible to investigate and talk about really different forces operating in the life of the mind-heart. Using it, T'oegye could conceive and express a way that our systemic interconnectedness with other creatures becomes a real force in the life of our feelings. We would be wise to understand what he was trying to explain, and to find in the language of our own day a way to communicate his insight.

Which brings us back to what I above described as the most important question of our times.  Realistically, is there any reason to hope we can move beyond the feelings that motivate a self-absorbed life as consumers?  Bio-centric feelings on some level already exist, because we see some people who are motivated by such feelings. But  is there any hope such feelings could motivate us strongly enough to modify our present self-interest driven system?

Sŏngnihak phrased such questions in terms of Human Mind and Tao Mind, Original nature and physical nature, and aimed the question at each individual person. What kind of person are your going to become? What sort of values will be the guiding force in your conduct? Now we ask the question to an entire world culture. The dynamics of sŏngnihak's Human Mind are embodied in our modern consumer culture. And the dynamics of the Tao Mind move through the ecosystem and become manifest in mind-hearts that respond with commiseration at the sight of so many lives being threatened. The Four-Seven question has not disappeared: it has simply become larger.

T'oegye's i bal analysis did not mean that he expected the conflict between such feelings or values would easily be resolved on the side of maximizing the flow of life through our common body. His position is no different from Kobong's or Yulgok's in that regard.  But he explains better than they how the shared common system of life is present in us in a way that can power and motivate feelings with a vitality that is not totally subject to the source that powers and energizes our self-interest. For those of us who might feel overwhelmed by the power and self-centered focus of our present economic system, this offers hope. There is a source within us of feeling and motivation that is not captured by that system.

As we reach new heights in our drive to live well, the spectacle of endangered life presses itself more and more on our awareness. If T'oegye is right, maybe we can be moved by a source unrecognized by those who think self-interest is the last word about human beings. Perhaps the one system of life, i, in which we are all connected, will manifest in our mind-hearts as feelings of care and concern strong enough to move us to modify a system held in place by stubborn self-interest.  Signs of such feelings being moved are becoming more and more common. Our children and grandchildren, if not we ourselves, will see the outcome, whatever it is.

I am grateful that sŏngnihak, and especially Yi T'oegye, have given me tools to analyze our situation. And I am especially grateful that they give me hope that we can indeed find the resources in our mind-heart to meet the present crisis of life on the earth.







1Mencius, 6A, 6.


Cf. T'oegye's Sŏnghak sip to, chapter 7. English translation in M. Kalton, To Become a Sage (NY: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 143-50.


Ibid., chapters 6 and 7.


The Seven Feelings are desire, hate, love, fear, grief, anger, and joy. This classical list of feelings comes from the Book of Rites, chapter 9. The Doctrine of the Mean (Chungyong) in chapter 1 mentions pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy. This is also considered a reference to the Seven Feelings, and the passage was a major factor in the sŏngnihak interpretation of these feelings.


Cf. his famous essay, "The Western Inscription," (Sŏmyŏng), in Songhak sip to, chapter 2, Kalton, pp. 51 & ff.



I-shu, 2A, 2a.


Yü-lei, 95.8b-9a.


Cf. Sŏnghak sip to, chapter 1, Kalton, pp. 37-38.


A dictum that originated with Ch'eng I and subsequently became a commonplace in Ch'eng-Chu sŏngnihak.


Book of Documents, pt. 2, 2.15.


Mencius, 2A, 6.


T'oegye chŏnsŏ, A, 16.32a, p 417, Letter to Ki Myŏngŏn.