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Resistance to Dichotomy in the Korean Language

In the video, I introduced the idea of the subject-object dichotomy. Koreans rejected many ideas of dichotomy even in the use of their language.
Koreans in conversation.
© Sungkyunkwan University

In the video in 4.1, I introduced the idea of the reason-emotion binary, or dichotomy, where reason operates in conflict with emotion.

Interestingly, this concept of dichotomy permeates Western philosophies. For example, the subject-object dichotomy is also deeply rooted in philosophy and language. Put simply, this dichotomy separates the world into entities, or “objects”, and the observers, the “subjects”. It also allows us to separate experiences into the actors and the ‘acted’.

The subject-object dichotomy is very clearly seen in the English language itself, especially when talking about emotional experience. It puts your emotional change (experience) in a passive position: there is an actor and you are acted upon. When you say “I am excited,” this sentence implies that “something excites you (and as a result you are excited).” In other words, you passively feel such emotions. There are many other examples: “I am pleased,” “I am frustrated,” “I am exhausted” etc.

As we have learnt, Koreans rejected many ideas of dichotomy, and we can see this through the language too. In the Korean language, your emotions are your own, and you express emotion intransitively (i.e. without mover-moved dichotomy) 신나다, “I am excited”; 감동하다, “I am moved”. It doesn’t mean that the Korean language lacks active and passive expression, however. You can express the emotions in active or passive voice when you want to specify the actor that caused the emotion, if present. This resistance to binary confrontations may be common to other Asian philosophies as well.

It is important to observe this link between linguistics and philosophy, as the language of a people directly influences how they perceive the world around them. This perception of the world would therefore affect the way they make sense of the world, and when this perception is systematically organized and studied, it becomes a philosophy. Through this, we can perhaps see why cultures with languages born from the same parent language have similarities in their ways of thought.

Further reading: If you want to read more about the subject-object dichotomy in the Western philosophy, visit this link.

© Sungkyunkwan University
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Introduction to Korean Philosophy

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