Obituary for Stanford Professor Emeritus David S. Nivison

06 March 2015

David Shepherd Nivison, emeritus professor of philosophy, religious studies, and Chinese language at Stanford University, passed away peacefully on October 16, 2014, aged 91. I am honored to have been one of his doctoral students.

Nivison had a career trajectory that would be almost impossible in the contemporary academic world, and a range of intellectual interests and talents that almost no one could match. He was studying classics at Harvard when WWII broke out. Like many people of his generation who went on to become Sinologists or Japanologists, he was drafted and assigned to learn Japanese and become a codebreaker. After the war, Nivison switched his major to Chinese, eventually receiving his doctorate from Harvard. He then came to work at Stanford, where he remained for the remainder of his career. Nivison was hired into what was then called the Oriental Languages Department (at a time when that was not a pejorative term). His first book, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng: 1738-1801 (published 1966), was an intellectual biography of an influential Chinese historian and philosopher of history, who has been compared to Hegel and Vico. The book was immediately recognized as a landmark contribution, and is still required reading for anyone seriously interested in the intellectual history of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

While working and teaching in the Oriental Studies Department, Nivison struck up a friendship with Professor Patrick Suppes of Stanford's Philosophy Department. One day Nivison noticed a book on Suppes’s desk and flipped through a few pages. Finding it interesting, Nivison asked to borrow it. The book was Methods of Logic by W.V.O. Quine (a Harvard professor who would go on to become one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century). When he returned the book, Nivison asked Suppes whether he could teach a course on logic in the Philosophy Department. Suppes agreed and thus began Nivison’s long and productive relationship with the Stanford Philosophy Department. Soon, Nivison was teaching courses on a variety of topics, including the Philosophy of History and Marxist Thought. Nivison’s engagement with the Philosophy Department would have a significant influence on the course of his research, which began to focus increasingly on the application of the techniques and issues of “analytic philosophy” to Chinese thought. This was almost unheard of, and started what became a revolution in comparative philosophy. Donald Davidson, a student of Quine’s, was now one of Nivison’s colleagues in the Philosophy Department, and the two of them had fruitful conversations about the problem of “weakness of will.” This is the problem of whether it is possible for a person to fail to do what she knows to be right (and, if so, how). Nivison recognized that this problem, which in the West goes back at least as far as Socrates, was also discussed in Chinese philosophy. Indeed, Nivison showed that the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Wang Yangming, gives a solution to this problem very similar to that of Socrates. Nivison’s contributions were appreciated by other members of the philosophical community. Donald Davidson thanked Nivison in the acknowledgments to his widely-cited anthology, Essays on Actions and Events, and Nivison was elected President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association.

By the end of his teaching career, Nivison was active in three departments (long before “multidisciplinary” was a buzzword): the (renamed) Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. He worked closely with undergraduate majors and graduate students in all three departments, and a number of them went on to become influential scholars in their own right, including Mark Csikszentmihalyi, of the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California at Berkeley, Philip J. Ivanhoe, of the City University of Hong Kong, Kwong-loi Shun, of the Philosophy Department at Berkeley, Paul Kjellberg of the Philosophy Department at Whittier College, and the author of this obituary, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Vassar College. Although he was very active as a scholar, many of Nivison’s most interesting essays were delivered as conference presentations and remained unpublished, circulated among a small but admiring group of other scholars as photocopies or even blue “ditto-sheet” copies. This situation was remedied with the publication of many of Nivison’s important philosophical essays in The Ways of Confucianism (published 1996). Through this anthology, later generations of specialists in comparative philosophy have come to know Nivison’s work. Particularly influential is Nivison’s discussion of how, according to Confucianism, we can be ethically required to cultivate certain feelings.

Near the end of his teaching career, Nivison came to be fascinated with the Bamboo Annals, a historical chronicle that most scholars regarded as unreliable.  Nivison argued that the text not only includes accurate historical material, but also can be used to date the founding of the Zhou dynasty. The founding of the Zhou is a seminal event in Chinese history, but one whose exact date Western and Chinese scholars had struggled to pin down. The date Nivison determined is now widely accepted by many Sinologists, and even those who disagree with Nivison acknowledge the original and provocative nature of his work. The final book that Nivison published in his lifetime, The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (2009), is concerned with this topic, and Nivison continued to work in this area after his retirement from Stanford.   (An earlier version of this obituary inaccurately attributed to Nivison the identification of a conjunction of the planets mentioned in the Bamboo Annals with the conjunction of 1059 BCE. This identification was actually made by a former student of Nivison’s, David Pankenier. I regret the misattribution. For Nivison’s views on this topic, see David S. Nivison and Kevin D. Pang, “Astronomical Evidence for the ‘Bamboo Annals’ Chronicle of Early Xia,” Early China 15 [1990]: 87-95, 97-196.)

The preceding sketch cannot do justice to the full range of Nivison’s interests, which included oracle bone inscriptions (the earliest surviving form of Chinese writing, and the hardest to interpret), the ethics of Chinese communism, and English-language poetry. He (along with Philip J. Ivanhoe) were also early pioneers in the development of computerized concordances for Chinese texts. As a person, Nivison was tall, reserved, and distinguished, a Western version of a Confucian gentleman. However, like Confucius himself, he could display a whimsical sense of humor or a willingness to violate convention when it seemed appropriate. When the great political philosopher John Rawls gave a lecture at Stanford to a standing-room-only auditorium, Nivison showed up right before the start of the talk, due to a previous commitment. Rather than inconvenience people standing tightly together by the doorway, Nivison climbed in through an open, ground-floor window, in order to take an unoccupied spot further in the room. Unforgettable as a person and having left an indelible influence in many intellectual disciplines, David will be missed.