David Shepherd Nivison

David Shepherd Nivison

Fellow: Awarded 1973
Field of Study: Philosophy

Competition: US & Canada

Education: Stanford University

David Shepherd Nivison (b. 1923, Maine; at Stanford University beginning 1948; retired 1988 as Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor of Oriental Philosophies, Religions and Ethics)

I received a Guggenheim fellowship for the academic year 1973-74, for study of the problem of weakness of will in philosophy, Western and Chinese. I spent the autumn term in Oxford and traveled again to England in late spring. Results are seen in my book The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy (Open Court, 1996), a collection of papers (edited by Brian Van Norden), including my presidential address for the American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division, 1980, “Two Roots or One?” and my earlier (1976) invited APA address, “Motivation and Moral Action in Mencius.”

During my working life of six decades, I have pursued three objectives. The first was to knit together two seemingly incompatible previous approaches to the study of China—the focus of many scholars on the thought and culture of the ancient past, and the work of others on modern China and its response to the West. My strategy was a thorough study of an eighteenth century intellectual—Zhang Xuecheng, a philosopher of history—who could only be understood in terms of his cultural roots, but whose ideas are at issue in much modern thinking. This took shape in a well-received book, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsueh-ch’eng (1966) and in related articles, such as “The Problem of ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Action’ in Chinese Thought since Wang Yang-ming” (1953), and “Protest against Conventions and Conventions of Protest” (on philosophical criticisms of the Chinese examination system as it changed over centuries, 1960). In all of this my thinking owes much to work with like-minded scholars of the “Committee on Chinese Thought” (A. F. Wright, J. K. Fairbank, J. R. Levenson, W. T. de Bary, and others).

My second objective was finding a common language of discussion that could effectively engage professional philosophers, especially in ethics, with specialists in Chinese intellectual history (such as I had been myself). My attempts are displayed in The Ways of Confucianism. It was this focus that moved me to seek a Guggenheim fellowship. This program has been successful: The 2009 meeting of the APA Pacific Division, in Vancouver, B.C., ended with a two-day “mini-conference” on Chinese moral philosophy, with fine papers by my students and their students, with other philosophers participating.

My third focus: I have been a teacher of old Chinese, as well as of philosophy. Unsolved grammatical puzzles led me back into the language of the earliest inscriptions, such as the Shang “shell and bone” inscriptions of -12th century diviners, and ritual bronze texts of Western Zhou, in the -11th century and later. In 1979 I discovered that an old chronicle called the “Bamboo Annals” could be used to solve problems in dating this material. But all “respectable” scholarship during the past 100 years has dismissed this chronicle as a fake. Proving that it is authentic, and showing how to exploit it to recover accurate historical information (especially exact dates back to the third millennium BCE—which are systematically distorted in the “Annals”) has taken me much of the past three decades. This has forced me to become a major critic of recent research funded by the government of the Peoples’ Republic of China, in its “Three Dynasties Chronology Project” active 1996-2000: it had ignored the “Annals.” The task led me to publish several monographs, culminating in a book, The Riddle of the Bamboo Annals (Taipei: Airiti, 2009).


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