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Professor Emeritus David Nivison, 1923-2014

Professor Nivison

Oct 23 2014

David Shepherd Nivison

With great sadness, the Philosophy Department notes the passing of our longtime colleague, David Shepherd Nivison, the Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor (emeritus), who died in his Los Altos home on October 16, 2014.  He was 91 years old.

Nivison came to Stanford in 1948 and taught here through his retirement in 1988.  He was a man of immense learning and catholic intellectual interests.  In our department, he taught a wide range of subjects from logic through ethics and Chinese philosophy.  But his capacious concerns could not be confined within philosophy alone, and he eventually joined both the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, as well.  He made major contributions to our understanding of classical Chinese thought and to difficult scholarly questions of dating and periodization in ancient Chinese history.  In addition, he was a keen reader and subtle appreciator of poetry.  He was always delighted to find new interlocutors about literary matters and new minds with whom to explore the contours of language.


Nivison’s degrees were from Harvard (AB 1946; PhD 1953).  His college years were interrupted by WWII, when he served in the Army Signal Corps as a translator of Japanese.  The Harvard dissertation explored the thought of Zhang Xuecheng, and it was eventually developed into the groundbreaking book, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (Stanford, 1966), which was awarded the 1967 Prix Stanislas-Julien.  He became one of the leading authorities on traditional Chinese thought seen from a modern philosophical point of view, and he arguably did more than anyone to train philosophically oriented scholars of Chinese thought and bring it into the mainstream of philosophical discussion in North America.  Under his leadership, Stanford became a leading center for that work.  Nivison maintained a keen interest in scholarly questions throughout his retirement, and in later years was especially engaged by technical scholarly issues surrounding the correct chronology for Chinese history.  Some of this work appeared in The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (2009).  He continued to work actively until shortly before his death. 

In addition to his prodigious scholarship and keen, but playful, mind, we will remember David for his quiet ways, his magnificent intellectual generosity, and his caring friendship, which continued to support members of our department long after his retirement from active teaching.

Nivison was born January 17, 1923 in Farmingdale, Maine.  In 1944 he married Cornelia (Green), who died in 2008.  He was a longtime resident of Los Altos (since 1952), and is survived by four children (Louise McCoy of Pettigrew, AR; Helen T. Nivison, of Ithaca, NY; David G. Nivison of Soquel, CA; and James N. Nivison of Los Altos), as well as six granddaughters and one great grandson.

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