T. K. Seung

T. K. Seung

T. K. (Thomas Kaehao) Seung (originally romanized as "Swing") was born on September 20, 1930 near the city of Jungju in the Pyeonganbukdo province of Korea. He was the eldest of three children. He attended the famous Osan Middle School near Pyeongyang, where he was exposed to Western-style education. In 1947, he escaped from North Korea, crossing the 38th parallel with some friends. He settled in Seoul, South Korea, where he graduated from Seoul High School. He attended Yonsei University for only a few months before the Korean War broke out in June 1950. He fled south to Pusan ahead of the advancing North Korean army. There he enlisted in the ROK Army, and served throughout the war, eventually attaining the rank of captain. During that time he converted to the Roman Catholic faith.

After the end of the Korean War, Seung applied for admission to American colleges. With the offer of a full scholarship from Yale University in hand, he managed to obtain discharge from the army, and journeyed to New Haven to begin his undergraduate studies in 1954. As a student in the Directed Studies program, he learned about the history of Western culture. He was introduced to the latest schools of thought such as existentialism, the New Criticism, and so on. At Yale he was mentored by a number of famous professors, including Thomas Bergin, Charles Hendel, Brand Blanshard, and F.S.C. Northrop. He graduated summa cum laude in 1958 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He entered Yale Law School, but quit after one semester, deciding instead to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy. Around this time he wrote his first book, "The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan", which proposed a new, "trinitarian" interpretation of the Divine Comedy. His Ph.D. thesis was later published as a book, "Kant's Transcendental Logic". Also during these years, he edited a book of essays by Bergin with future Yale president and baseball commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti. ["Master Pieces from the Files of T.G.B.," ed. Thomas K. Swing and A. Bartlett Giamatti (Timothy Dwight College Press, 1964).]

In 1965, he received his Ph.D. degree, and also married Kwihwan Hahn. They have three children. After teaching for a year at Fordham University, he joined the philosophy department of the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he is presently the Jesse H. Jones Professor in Liberal Arts, Professor of Philosophy, Government, and Law. ["Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order" (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 327.]

The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan (1962)

Seung’s first book, "The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante’s Master Plan", is a highly original reading of Dante’s "Divine Comedy", which is crucial for understanding Seung’s development as a philosopher. The reason is that Seung’s method of reading Dante’s text is substantiated in his trilogy on the problems of textual interpretation, "Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos" (1976), "Structuralism and Hermeneutics" (1982), and "Semiotics and Thematic in Hermeneutics" (1982), and these three books contain Seung’s contribution to the revitalization of literary and philosophical hermeneutics and constitute the methodological groundwork for his study of Kant, Plato, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Goethe, Wagner, and normative political theory. "The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl" grew out of a term paper Seung wrote as a graduate student of philosophy at Yale University. The subject is one of the most central issues in Dante Studies: the problem of the poem’s thematic unity, which many Dante scholars still regard as either unsolved or unsolvable. For centuries, Dante readers have pondered about the relation between Dante’s construction of the three realms of the afterworld (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) and the action that takes place within Dante’s account of a journey through the three otherworldly realms. It is not easy to say what Dante’s main concern is – to describe a journey through the afterworld or to unfold a vision of the universal order? Yet, it is clear that journey and order are two interdependent themes in Dante’s poem. The account of the journey presupposes a cosmic order through which to travel, and the order can be conceived only through the account of a cosmic journey.

In The "Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl", Seung emphasizes that we know that the "Commedia" has three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), but we do not know how the three parts constitute one poem. We learn that the three parts describe three worlds, but we do not see how the three worlds are unified into one cosmos. We hear of many themes upon reading Dante’s narrative, but we do not understand how the many topics of discourse and scenes of action are woven into the central plot of Dante’s text ["The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan" (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962), p. 21.] In an article on “The Metaphysics of the Commedia,” published twenty five years after The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl, Seung points out that the problem consists in determining the relation between unity and division in Dante’s vision: “What is the principle of unity that holds together the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory, and the ten spheres of Paradise,” and “What is the principle that divides Hell into nine circles, Purgatory into seven circles, and Paradise into ten spheres?” ["The Metaphysics of the "Commedia" in "the Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences"," ed. G.C. Scipio and A. Scaglione (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1988), p. 181.]

According to Seung, the problem of the poem’s thematic unity can be solved if we systematically combine three principles essential to medieval Christian thinking. The first principle provides the framework for understanding the formal structures of the three realms. Seung argues that Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are structured in accordance with the medieval table of seven natural virtues and three supernatural virtues, which are implicitly celebrated in the ten spheres of Paradiso. The natural virtues are humility, mercy, meekness, fortitude, liberality, temperance, and chastity, and the supernatural virtues are three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The contraries to the natural virtues are the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, and they are condemned as sinful acts in the various sections of Inferno, and on the seven terraces of Purgatorio they appear as vicious dispositions being purged into their virtuous opposites. Moreover, in the beginning of Inferno the supernatural virtues are thematized as being absent; in the beginning of Purgatorio they appear as distorted; near the end of Purgatorio they are celebrated as regained; and finally in the last cantos of Paradiso they are presented in full display. Seung further argues the structures of the three realms are governed by two other principles: the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the three parts of the human soul (vegetative, sensitive, and spiritual) and their powers (concupiscible, irascible, and intellectual). The natural and supernatural virtues and their contraries reflect the powers of the tripartite soul in virtuous and vicious dispositions or in virtuous and sinful acts, and all of them are related to the triune God since human beings are created as the image of God. This is the bottom-up picture of Dante’s universal vision, according to Seung’s reading of the Commedia. Every human act is grounded in the human soul, which is the creation of God. In the top-down picture, God provides the soul with its powers, which human beings actualize in sinful or virtuous deeds or cultivate as vicious or virtuous dispositions. In Dante’s vision of world order, human beings are free creatures. They are free to choose between good and evil, but they are not sovereign individuals. They may try to act as sovereign individuals, but soon or later they will have to face God’s judgment.

Since the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity are the ultimate point of reference for every action of Dante’s narrative and every component of his universal vision, Seung argues that the central theme of the Commedia is not the account of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise with Dante as the main character. The central theme is the workings of the Holy Trinity throughout the entire universe and within every human soul. With his Trinitarian reading Seung also solves one of the most discussed issues in Dante studies – how are we to understand the allegorical meanings of Dante’s guides? Traditionally, Dante scholars have focused on two guides: Virgil leads Dante through Hell and Purgatory, and Beatrice appears in the Terrestrial Paradise near the end of Purgatorio, where she replaces Virgil and becomes Dante’s guide through the spheres of Paradiso. The former has commonly been interpreted as representing Reason and the latter as representing Faith. However, Seung argues that this interpretation neglects the role of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux near the end of Paradiso. Only through Saint Bernard’s prayer to Virgin Mary is Dante granted access to the ultimate heaven beyond time and space – the domicile of the Holy Trinity, the angels, and the blessed souls. According to Seung’s Trinitirian reading, Saint Bernard is Dante’s ultimate and third guide. On this ground, he argues that Dante is led by three guides associated with the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity: Vergil represents the Son, Beatrice represents the Holy Spirit, and Saint Bernard represents the Father.

Seung’s Dante theory is ultimately simple, but he admits that the Trinitarian meaning of the poem is not easily discovered. In order to discover it we should make a systematic parallel reading of the poem’s three parts. When we focus on an episode or segment of Inferno, we should try to relate its thematic content systematically to similar episodes and segments of Purgatorio and Paradiso. This method of reading can be defined as connectionist reading, and it stands in contrast to the prevalent method of reading in Dante studies, which commonly interpret the different episodes, segments, and parts of the poem as self-contained entities and not as thematic particulars of one cosmic theme.

Seung’s Dante reading occupies a unique position in Dante studies due to its simple principles of interpretation that lead to a comprehensive understanding of the poem’s thematic content. Few Dante scholars have proposed similar theories of how to attain such an understanding. In this regard, Seung’s reading is only rivalled by Marc Cogan’s The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning (1999), which also claims to have discovered the ordering principles of Dante’s universal vision. ["The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning" (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999)]

There has been increased recent interest in Seung's work on Dante. Jesper Hede (postdoctoral scholar of comparative literature and rhetoric at the University of Aarhus in Denmark) has published an extensive defense and elaboration of Seung's Dante interpretation in comparison with Cogan's interpretation and the prevalent methods of reading in Dante studies. ["Reading Dante: the Pursuit of Meaning" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).]

Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos (1976)

In "Cultural Thematics" Seung points out that his Trinitarian reading of the "Commedia" was originally inspired by two major tendencies in the humanities at the time. One was the formalistic program of New Criticism with its preference for close reading under the slogan “Back to the text,” and the other was European phenomenology with its motto “Let the object reveal itself instead of imposing one’s preconception upon it.” Though never abandoning the phenomenological motto, Seung came to have serious doubts about the formalistic approach to textual interpretation. The outcome of these misgivings is presented in his trilogy, "Cultural Thematics", "Structuralism and Hermeneutics", "and Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics". In the first book Seung constructively demonstrates the role of cultural context in the explication of textual meaning. In the second book he systematically examines the danger of misinterpretation inherent in the formalist and post-structuralist programs of textual interpretation, due to their disregard of contextual considerations. In the third book he takes into account the theoretical assumptions and methodological commitments that the first two books presuppose, and presents a fully elaborate theory of how to combine the phenomenological approach to textual meaning with the hermeneutic assertion that cultural contextualism is the prerequisite for adequate textual understanding and interpretation. ["Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. x-xi]

In "Cultural Thematics" Seung substantiates his Trinitarian reading of the "Commedia" with a cultural contextualist examination of the intellectual development of medieval thinkers and writers during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. He focuses on two pairs of triads in this development: on the one hand, the intellectual differences encountered in the works of the Franciscan Bonaventure, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, and the Franciscan Duns Scotus, and on the other hand, the literary differences displayed in the works of the three writers that constitute the Italian Trecento literature: Dante, Francesca Petrarca, and Giovanni Boccaccio. Seung argues that these two triads, though not entirely corresponding in time and place, unfold some of the crucial premises for understanding the emergence of the modern secular ethos during the late Middle Ages. Seung speaks of the formation of the Faustian ethos with reference to Oswald Spengler, who, in the "Decline of the West", speaks of the Faustian man as a medieval invention.

In demarcating the intellectual differences between the three philosophers and the three writers, Seung uses the term “sensibility.” The term is carefully chosen as an alternative to the term “idea,” which is often used in historicist studies of intellectual developments and changes. Sensibility refers to the way in which human beings conceive their being in the world without necessarily formulating a specific ideological system or a rigid pattern of ideas. In this regard, Seung’s theory of cultural contextualism has some affinity with Eric Voegelin’s approach to historical phenomena in that the latter came to regard the term “idea” as a misconception when we try to understand how human beings experience their being in the world and act out their experiential conceptions in their every day life as well as in political and judicial forums and social institutions.

Selected Works


"The Fragile Leaves of the Sibyl: Dante's Master Plan" (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962).

"Master Pieces from the Files of T.G.B.," ed. Thomas K. Swing and A. Bartlett Giamatti (Timothy Dwight College Press, 1964).

"Kant's Transcendental Logic" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969).

"Cultural Thematics: The Formation of the Faustian Ethos" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

"Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

"Structuralism and Hermeneutics" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

"Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

"Kant's Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy" (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

"Plato Rediscovered: Human Value and Social Order" (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 1996).

"Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005).

"Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: Their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).

"Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed" (London: Continuum, 2007).

"The Cultural Background of Western Philosophy" (Seoul: Korean Academic Research Council, 2007).


"Plural Values and Indeterminate Rankings," with Daniel Bonevac, in "Ethics" 799 (1992)

"Virtues and Values: A Platonic Account," in "Social Theory & Practice" 207 (1991)

"Kant's Conception of the Categories," in "Review of Metaphysics" 107 (1989)

"Conflict in Practical Reasoning," with Daniel Bonevac, "Philosophical Studies" 315: 53 (1988)

"Literary Function and Historical Context," in "Philosophy & Literature" 33: 4 (1980)

"Pragmatic Context and Textual Interpretation," in "Journal of Literary Semantics" 82: 9 (1980)

"Thematic Dialectic: A Revision of Hegelian Dialectic," in "International Philosophical Quarterly" 417: 20 (1980)

"Semantic Context and Textual Meaning," in "Journal of Literary Semantics" 81: 8 (1979)

"The Epic Character of the "Divina Commedia" and the Function of Dante's Three Guides," in "Italica" 352: 56 (1979)


"The Metaphysics of the "Commedia"," in "The Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences", edited by G. Di Scipio and A. Scaglione (Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1988)

"Kant," in "The Encyclopedia of Religion", edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Free Press, 1987)

"The Philosophical Tradition in Korea," in "Tae Kwon Do Free Fighting", edited by Gaeshik Kim (Seoul: Nanam Publications, 1985)

"Bonaventura's Figural Exemplarism in Dante," in "Italian Literature: Roots and Branches: Essays in honor of Thomas G. Bergin", edited by G. Rimanelli and K. Atchity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976)

External links

T.K. Seung's Homepage [http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/philosophy/faculty/profiles/Seung/T.%20K./]

Peter Bergmann review of Seung's "Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra" [http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11561]

Perry Myers review of Seung's "Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed" [http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=14456]


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