K-Phil MOOC: An Introduction to Korean Culture and Philosophy

Course: Introduction to Korean Philosophy and Culture
Length: approx. 12 hours total
School/platform: Sungkyunkwan University/Coursera
Instructor: So Jeong Park
This course will give you the cultural and historical background to begin your journey into Korean philosophy, and there is no prerequisite knowledge on philosophy required. Anybody who either has an interest in Korean culture, maybe through K-Dramas or K-pop, or an interest in philosophy from a cross-cultural perspective, are all welcome….
The Korean cultural, social, and political environment has informed and transformed the intellectual assets of China and the West. You’ll explore the creative tensions that Koreans have experienced, and broaden your worldview as you discover a new philosophical approach.

I know nothing about K-Pop except that it exists (it even shows up in some Duolingo Spanish dialogs) but apparently it’s hoped that some fans will use it as a springboard to study Korean philosophy. That’s cool. Me, I just like philosophy, so when I saw this course was available, I jumped at it.

I expected there would be some carryover from Chinese philosophy, and that was very much the case. The first couple of weeks dealt with how Korea both adapted Chinese ideas, and developed its own writing system rather than using Chinese characters, via mechanisms referred to in the course as adaptive and disruptive innovation. Since I have a longstanding interest in linguistics, I found the writing system’s use of not just familiar concepts of forward and backward placement and vocal mechanisms, but of aspects of Yin and Yang as well as the Five Elements found in East Asian cultures.

History also played a role. The name of the university offering the course became a lesson, as the word Sungkyun was a Chinese loanword that, while it lost most of its meaning in China, became an educational standard in Korea, with the extra twist that it was used for the University during the Yuan dynasty as an act of rebellion. For details, you’ll have to take the course; it’s worth it.

One of the central issues with Korean philosophy – with Chinese philosophy as well – is that of connection rather than opposition. This may start with Yin and Yang, which are not seen as opposites but as feeding into each other. The course focused on reason vs emotion, which in Western philosophy are seen as opposites in conflict with each other. Much of Korean philosophy observes how the two generate and moderate each other, more as a circular spectrum than as separate ideas. We spent some time listening to students discuss the term for mind-heart, Maum, 마음. The Four-Seven debate, concering the moral emotions and the everyday feelings, made up another major philosophic topic, as did the Horak debate about whether animals have morality and if anyone can achieve sagedom. The complexity of the term Uri, 우리, the first-person pronoun, was a major topic as well, as it is not quite I and not quite we but about seeing onesself in connection with others, yet distinct. All of these topics require further investigation; this was merely an overview to introduce the ideas.

The format was what I call “Youtube plus a quiz”: several lecture videos, and sometimes a student Q&A, made up each module, with an information-retrieval test of ten questions at the end. The graded final exam of 25 questions is paywalled; you can see the questions but not submit for grading (or find out if you got the questions right, which is a brilliant way of encouraging the competitive among us to shell out $49.00 for a certificate).

A four-week course can only cover so much, of course, but now that I’m reviewing the material to write this post, I’m surprised at how much was included. The course was designed for absolute beginners in both Korean culture and in philosophy in general, so there’s a lot of unexplored depth, but it still conveyed a substantial introduction. I was quite pleased.

3 responses to “K-Phil MOOC: An Introduction to Korean Culture and Philosophy

  1. Naturally, there’s a temptation for me to play know-it-all on a subject like this, but I have to confess that when subjects like “Korean philosophy” come up, I usually just abstain. It’s not that I doubt the scholarship, it’s that I don’t know what connection to make of it to the various cultural phenomena Korea presents us with today. (Would a course on Aristotle help a Chinese transfer understand Americans during his one-year assignment to a factory in Detroit? I don’t know.)

    That being said, I still have misgivings when I see courses like this. Such as:

    I have a book on my shelf by a real Ph.D. who claims that Korea doesn’t really have an organic concept of “evil.” I sort of feel like that’s bunk, because I can point to a lot of old words that pre-existed interaction with the West that show an understanding of the concept in a way that’s not too alien from our own. But maybe I am too influenced by my BTS and Gangnam Style knowledge of Korea to really give the argument the weight it deserves.

    I also think it’s possible to exoticize some concepts or to make them seem more alien than they are. 우리, which you mentioned, isn’t really all that difficult of a word. It can be the subject first-person plural, the object first-person plural, or the first-person plural possessive pronoun. You can use the word with just that understanding and use it right 99% of the time. The only time it gets weird is that sometimes, Koreans will say “our wife” or “our house” where we would say “my.” The explanation I’ve heard is that “my” sounds too brash to a Korean, and “our” softens it. Sort of like how some languages use second-person plural to be more respectful and formal.

    Your course is definitely right about there being verbs where it’s hard for a Westerner to figure out what the subject is, like the example “I’m excited” in your photo above.

    All this is just to say I think it’s cool you took this class, and even if the abstract explanations of Korean thinking don’t always match the Korea I know, which is heavily influenced by the West, you probably still learned a lot of things I don’t even know.

    • Hah, I was wondering if this would catch your eye or if you’d be too enmeshed in new-job-new-home. I thought about putting in a line about “my blogging buddy the Korean intelligence analyst” but figured that was just second-hand grandstanding. It did occur to me that you could easily read this and tell me it’s pure bullshit, because let’s face it, most academic stuff is pure bullshit to those who deal with day-to-day real life stuff.
      But I was more or less self-inoculated about all this. I have nothing to compare this course with, so for all I know, there’s another Korean philosophy course that would focus on completely different aspects. That’s the case with all these introductory courses, the choice of where to focus can vary. Until I’ve taken three or four different courses (or parts of courses) on a subject, I have no idea how to evaluate how “good” or accurate or important a course is. In this case, I found out more about how Chinese culture extended into Korea, than about Korea itself, because I’ve taken several courses on ancient and medieval China and how it related to other East Asian countries. Without a network of information, you really know little. Like Alexander Pope said about a little learning.
      But it was a place to start, and that’s definitely something. I found myself most interested in the language aspect, but every language has its quirks and nuances. The idea of Uri reminded me of the Spanish use of several gradations of here-there, aqui, alla, ahi, aca, depending on connection to personal space.
      I was wondering how it would play for you, so thanks for your comments! And, heads up, I’m also taking a course on translating, but it’s nowhere near as interesting, it’s mostly a “the exciting possibilities of a career as a translator” rather than actual translation. Both of these are coincidence; I’m not stalking you via moocs 😉

      • Exciting possibilities of a career as a translator? Yeah, my life is a non-stop thrill ride.

        If the course weren’t so long, I’d like to take it. It would be interesting to see if things I’ve always interpreted one way now make sense in a different way. Or if not, it would be interesting to see how Koreans explain their own thinking and how it seems different from how I would explain it.

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