Stanford Professor Emeritus David Nivison dies at 91

A pioneer in the field of Chinese philosophy, Stanford Professor David Nivison bridged the gap between Western philosophical inquiry and traditional Chinese thought.

Chuck Painter David Nivison

David Nivison, a Stanford professor emeritus of philosophy, explored ancient Chinese history and moral thought.

Stanford philosophy Professor Emeritus David Nivison died at age 91 on Oct. 16 at his home in Los Altos.

Nivison taught at Stanford from 1948 to 1988, dividing his time among the departments of Philosophy, East Asian Languages and Cultures and Religious Studies. A true interdisciplinary scholar, Nivison focused his primary interests in ancient Chinese philosophical and moral thought and on establishing the earliest chronology of ancient Chinese history.

Nivison was the Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor in Oriental Philosophies, Religions and Ethics, Emeritus, at Stanford.

Stanford Philosophy Department Chair Lanier Anderson said of Nivison, "He arguably did more than anyone to train philosophically oriented scholars of Chinese thought and bring that perspective into the mainstream of philosophical discussion in North America."

Under Nivison's leadership, Anderson noted, Stanford became a leading center in the convergence of Chinese and Western philosophy.

Nivison earned numerous awards during his long academic career, including a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He won the Prix Stanislas Julien for his groundbreaking book, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng (1738-1801). This study of the 18th-century literary scholar was the first to acknowledge Hsüeh-ch'eng's important contributions to the history of Chinese philosophy.

Nivison's other books include The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy (Open Court, 1996) and The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (Airiti Press, 2009).

Nivison's former student Kwong-loi Shun, now a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged Nivison for bridging cultures and thought systems.

"He helped pioneer this new direction of inquiry through his philosophical work on Confucian thought, and many of us who work in this area have been inspired by his writings," Shun said. "Though this field is still evolving, were it not for David's pioneering work, it would have taken many more years for this area of inquiry to reach the state it currently is in."

Nivison was born on Jan. 17, 1923, in Farmingdale, Maine. In 1944, he married Cornelia Green, and they had four children. She died in 2008.

His undergraduate years at Harvard were interrupted by World War II; he served as a Japanese translator in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Nivison graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1946 with a BA in Far Eastern languages. He went on to earn an MA and PhD in Far Eastern languages from Harvard in 1953.

Shun recalled, "One of David's qualities that has been most inspiring for his students is his serious passion for learning."

He described Nivison as the kind of scholar who "whenever he took up a subject of inquiry, he would be totally immersed in it, not stopping and not willing to commit to publication till he was confident that he had done his very best with the subject matter at hand."

Another former student, Bryan Van Norden, now a philosophy professor at Vassar College, remembered him as an influential teacher who sparked a revolution in comparative philosophy: "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."

After he retired from Stanford, Nivison remained actively engaged in Sinology. His book The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals addressed the issues that plague the exact chronology of ancient Chinese history. He was working on the final details of a Chinese translation of this book at the time of his death.

Nivison lived in Los Altos for 62 years. His neighbors had recently named him the "Mayor of Russell Avenue," in recognition of his long-time residence on that street.

Nivison's other passions included classical music, garden design, improvements to a summer cottage in Maine, canoeing and camping, and world politics. He also took a keen interest in modern American poetry. He and his brother, Bill, would entertain the family by reading poems by their great-uncle, E. A. Robinson.

Shun said, "He had a profound sense of the vastness of the world of learning open to him, and was constantly moving forward, trying to explore as much of this fascinating world as his time allowed.'"

Lee H. Yearley, the Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor of Oriental Philosophies, Religions, and Ethics at Stanford, said that Nivison's scholarship "displayed a stunning, and virtually unique, combination of talents – philosophical subtlety; philological acumen; historical sensitivity; and a continuing concern with the human meaning of the materials with which he worked."

Nivison is survived by two daughters, Louise McCoy of Pettigrew, Ark., and Helen T. Nivison, of Ithaca, N.Y.; and two sons, David G. Nivison of Soquel and James N. Nivison of Los Altos; six granddaughters, Joanna, Marina, Audrey, Camilla, Chelsea and Maya; and a great-grandson, Noah.

Nivison's ashes will be interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., next to those of his wife. A graveside ceremony will take place mid-summer 2015.

A memorial service at Stanford is being planned for January 2015.