Work far from over for 93-year-old philosopher

By Korea Herald

Revered thinker, writer urges the discipline to engage more people, address everyday concerns

  • Published : Sept 4, 2013 - 20:55
  • Updated : Sept 4, 2013 - 20:55

With his deep insight into life and praise of love and freedom, Kim Hyung-suk, a philosopher and essayist, consoled and inspired many Koreans for decades while the nation rushed to industrialization and fought for democracy.

As a leading thinker, writer and public speaker, he used to be the star in philosophy from the 1960s to the ’80s, making a great contribution to popularizing the discipline with his simple and elegant style of writing.

The turbulent times have passed and Kim, 93, has been retired for more than 20 years. But he still feels that as a philosopher he has much to do.

Affluence and development has fermented materialistic fetishism. Philosophy, increasingly abstruse and ignoring everyday issues, is failing to address emotional trauma and a lost sense of belonging among troubled souls in the country with the highest suicide rate among industrialized nations.

Philosophy education is increasingly important for young people who lack respect for themselves and others, Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Kim Hyung-suk, professor emeritus of philosophy at Yonsei University (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“We need to change our school curriculum, putting the sense of human dignity and respect for life in school textbooks from primary to the secondary level,” the professor emeritus of Yonsei University said.

Kim noted that philosophy is not merely academic or theoretical knowledge but the realization of oneself and a broad understanding of one’s life. He believes that an introduction of philosophy in general education at the secondary and post-secondary level for all students would be a great step forward for the nation to tackle ethical decadence, violence and the high suicide rates.

“One good way to teach self-respect is to have children read stories of historical heroes and classic books.”

Also, all secondary students should be advised to do volunteer work. Once one learns how to serve others, one will never cause harm to others.

Kim was born in 1920 in Pyongyang. He studied philosophy at Sophia University in Tokyo. After the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), he taught at Joongang Middle and High School in Seoul, before joining Yonsei University in 1954.

Three years after he started teaching at the university, he received a letter from one of his high school pupils which described how great an influence Kim’s lectures had on his life.

“I was touched and I felt guilty at the same time, because I somehow abandoned the young students (to teach at university),” he recalled.

“So I started wondering how I should give something to young students.”

That’s why he began writing essays to explain academic philosophy in a delicate and approachable way so that they could be enjoyed by many people regardless of age, gender and educational level.

He soon became a best-selling writer. His book “Solitude” (1960) sold more than 1 million copies. “The Discourse between Eternity and Love” (1961) was especially beloved by 20- and 30-somethings who went through Korea’s tumultuous transition from military rule to democracy.

Since then, he has devoted almost his entire life to popularizing sophisticated and difficult philosophy to the public. He has published more than 60 books, written in newspapers and magazines, and made numerous public speeches.

“People jokingly say philosophy is to speak of things you don’t understand to complicate others. It’s partly true because many professors teach Hegel’s and Kant’s philosophies without understanding what they really mean.”

He pointed out that philosophers today only exist in academia.

“One reason why people think philosophy is a difficult subject is because professors teach without their own philosophy,” he said.

If philosophers really want pass along their views adequately to the public, it is important that they have a general understanding of society.

“We cannot have knowledge of ourselves except in the context of the society of which we are a part,” he said.

Since March this year, Kim has been hosting a monthly series of lectures at an exhibition center in Yanggu, Gangwon Province.

The exhibition center was opened last year by the Yanggu County in honor of Sister Claudia Lee Hae-in, Kim and another leading philosopher Ahn Byung-wook.

Yanggu is the hometown of the 68-year-old Catholic nun and poet Lee. Kim and Ahn, both hailing from provinces now in North Korea, were offered to join as the county wanted to make the exhibition center a sort of literature hall of fame, he explained.

He said he still goes for a 50-minute walk every morning and swims three times a week. But the real secret to his good health, he says, is that he still has work to do.

“I want to work as long as I can. And it’s my pleasure to be of some help to others. So I want to use the last of my strength to carry on writing essays and lecturing,” he said.

Kim Hyung-suk

● Kim is professor emeritus of Yonsei University. He taught philosophy at the university from 1954-1985. He served as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard University.

● He graduated from Sophia University in Japan with a doctorate degree in philosophy.

● Kim has published more than 65 books over his distinguished career and was awarded the national Moran Medal of the Order of Civil Merit in 1985.

By Oh Kyu-wook (