The Conceptual Intersection between the Old and the New and the Transformation of the Traditional Knowledge System

신구(新舊) 관념의 교차와 전통 지식 체계의 변용

  • Published : 2011.06.30


This essay reflects on the modernity of Korea by examining the transformation of the traditional knowledge system from a historico-semantic perspective with its focus on the opposition and collision of the old and the new conception occurred in the early period(1890~1910) of the acceptance of the Western modern civilization. With scientific success, trick of reason, Christianity and evolutionary view of history, the Western modernity regarded itself as a peak of civilization and forced the non-Western societies into the world system in which they came to be considered as 'barbarism(野蠻)' or 'half-enlightened(半開).' The East Asian civilization, which had its own history for several centuries, became degraded as kind of delusion and old-fashioned customs from which it ought to free itself. The Western civilization presented itself as exemplary future which East Asian people should achieve, while East Asian past traditions came to be conceived as just unnecessary vestiges which it was better to wipe out. It can be said that East Asian modernization was established through the propagation and acceptance of the modern products of the Western civilization rather than through the preservation of its past experience and pursuit of the new at the same time. Accordingly, it is difficult to apply directly to East Asian societies Koselleck's hypothesis; while mapping out his Basic Concept of History, he assumed that, in the so-called 'age of saddle,' semantic struggle over concepts becomes active between the past experience and the horizon of expectation on the future, and concepts undergoes 'temporalization', 'democratization', 'ideologization', 'politicization.'The struggle over the old and new conceptions in Korea was most noticeable in the opposition of the Neo-Confucian scholars of Hwangseongsinmun and the theorists of civilization of Doknipsinmun. The opposition and struggle demanded the change of understanding in every field, but there was difference of opinion over the conception of the past traditional knowledge system. For the theorists of civilization, 'the old(舊)' was not just 'past' and 'old-fashioned' things, but rather an obstacle to the building of new civilization. On the other hand, it contained the possibility of regeneration(新) for the Neo-Confucian scholars; that is, they suggested finding a guide into tomorrow by taking lessons from the past. The traditional knowledge system lost their holy status of learning(聖學) in the process of its change into a 'new learning(新學),' and religion and religious tradition also weakened. The traditional knowledge system could change itself into modern learning by accepting scientific methodology which pursues objectivity and rationality. This transformation of the traditional knowledge system and 'the formation of the new learning from the old learning' was accompanied by the intersection between the old and new conceptions. It is necessary to pay attention to the role played by the concept of Sil(hak)(實學) or Practical Learning in the intersection of the old and new conceptions. Various modern media published before and after the 20th century show clearly the multi-layered development of the old and new conceptions, and it is noticeable that 'Sil(hak)' as conceptual frame of reference contributed to the transformation of the traditional knowledge system into the new learning. Although Silhak often designated, or was even considered equivalent to, the Western learning, Neo-Confucian scholars reinterpreted the concept of 'Silhak' which the theorists of civilization had monopolized until then, and opened the way to change the traditional knowledge system into the new learning. They re-appropriated the concept of Silhak, and enabled it to be invested with values, which were losing their own status due to the overwhelming scientific technology. With Japanese occupation of Korea by force, the attempt to transform the traditional knowledge system independently was obliged to reach its own limit, but its theory of 'making new learning from old one' can be considered to get over both the contradiction of Dondoseogi(東道西器: principle of preserving Eastern philosophy while accepting Western technology) and the de-subjectivity of the theory of civilization. While developing its own logic, the theory of Dongdoseogi was compelled to bring in the contradiction of considering the indivisible(道and 器) as divisible, though it tried to cope with the reality where the principle of morality and that of competition were opposed each other and the ideologies of 'evolution' and 'progress' prevailed. On the other hand, the theory of civilization was not free from the criticism that it brought about a crack in subjectivity due to its internalization of the West, cutting itself off from the traditional knowledge system.