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David Novitz Remembered
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David Novitz Remembered

David Novitz was born in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, on 4 March 1945. He studied at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and Linacre College in Oxford. He joined the Department of Philosophy of the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, in late 1971 and worked there until his death.

David was one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent philosophers. He was a long-standing member of the American Society for Aesthetics and contributed regularly to the society’s conferences. Though he focused on the philosophy of art, David was always interested in the connection between art and everyday life. He authored Pictures and their Use in Communication (1976), Knowledge, Fiction and Imagination (1987), and The Boundaries of Art (1992). Among his reprinted articles are: “Conventions and the Growth of Pictorial Style,” British Journal of Aesthetics (1976); “Fiction, Imagination and Emotion,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1980); “Towards a Robust Realism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1982); “Fiction and the Growth of Knowledge,” Grazer Philosophische Studien (1983); “Art, Narrative and Human Nature,” Philosophy and Literature (1989); “Ways of Artmaking: The High and the Popular in Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics (1989); “Messages ‘In’ and Messages ‘Through’ Art,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1995); “Forgiveness and Self-Respect,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1998). David worked actively on his research during his final illness and his most recent work has yet to appear in print.

David’s strong commitment to scholarship was matched by an equally strong concern for the welfare of his students, his colleagues, and the ideals of the university. He was a distinguished, successful, and well-liked teacher. He was also active both as an able administrator and as a staunch proponent of academic freedom and professionalism, as well as being outspoken in resisting government interference in the running of universities.

David was a passionate opponent of injustice and was always deeply engaged with issues of concern to the wider community. As a student in South Africa, he took personal risks while participating in a range of protests against the apartheid government. In New Zealand, he played a significant role in persuading both the public and the politicians of the need to stop the proposed 1973 Springbok rugby tour, he demonstrated against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand, and he continued to comment critically on South African politics until 1994. He demonstrated his interest in New Zealand political debate by editing, with Bill Willmott, two collections of social commentary, Culture and Identity in New Zealand (1989) and New Zealand in Crisis (1992).

David’s keen concern for justice and academic freedom was also demonstrated by his publicly championing a first-year Christchurch Polytech student, Anna Penn, who in 1993 ran into trouble when she refused to bow to politically correct demands in the Polytech nursing program. David’s stand in support of Ms. Penn was courageous in highlighting the academic victimization of a young, intelligent, independent spirit. She is now a successful registered nurse working in Australia. Anna Penn recently wrote, “New Zealand society has lost an individual thinker, a most remarkable achievement within today’s mental constraints. David was, and is, an inspiration to a new thinking generation.”

Away from academic life, David was an energetic tennis player and was fond of walking, the cinema, art galleries, fiction, and the theatre. He shared these interests, and much more, with his second wife, Clare. He had a wide circle of friends who appreciated his quick wit and engaging sense of humor. He was also devoted to his family, and in recent years loved to engage his son, Julian, in lively debate in literature and philosophy.

In May 1999, David learned that he had multiple myeloma-a form of cancer that affects the bone marrow. He fought against this disease for more than two years. Despite his illness, in August of this year he travelled to Greece for the wedding of his daughter, Tonia, and was seen dancing into the wee hours in the Melissihori village square. It was only in the last two weeks that he became aware that treatment was no longer an option. He died at home on December 8, 2001, with his family around him.

Stephen Davies and Dennis Dutton

I regret to have to pass on the news that David Novitz died yesterday, Saturday December 8, at home with his family. As you know, David had been ill for some time. He cut short a visit to Europe about six weeks ago to return home. Until a few weeks ago he remained active, working on several new papers about which we corresponded. I read one of these papers at the conference of the NZ Division of the AAP, dedicating it to him, on December 5th. David declined quickly over the last few weeks.

You will be familiar with David’s work as a philosopher of art with wide-ranging interests. You may not realise that he made a major contribution to social life here, not only by co-editing two collections of socio-political articles on New Zealand and its culture, but also by writing newspaper articles. He brought that same commitment and integrity, as well as a gentle nature and fine sense of humour, to all his personal relationships. He was a fine academic and colleague who contributed a great deal to the University of Canterbury and to the community of New Zealand philosophers over many years.

I have known David for exactly twenty years and have lost a close and good friend. He will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure to know him.

Stephen Davies

David was contributing an article to a forthcoming book of mine on the culture concept. When I received the draft of his paper, sometime this summer, I thought it was excellent, although I disagreed with him on one or two relatively small points. During our ensuing e-mail correspondence we managed to have one of the most enjoyable of all possible arguments, the scope of which widened steadily to reveal the depth and breadth of David’s understanding, his civility and compassion, and his genuine love of learning and intellectual exchange. To paraphrase Wordsworth, David really could see into the life of things. He will be sorely missed, and even though I met him in person only once I am deeply saddened by the news of his death.

Adam Muller

What I appreciated very much about David was his sense of fairness and generosity in debate. This was noticeable at the Summer Sounds Symposium,February 2000, where he was a keynote speaker,and more than held his own in debate.

This same willingness to engage was present in his newspaper columns, where he spoke out, and contributed to much-needed debate on the issues of the day. But he didn’t let the fact that others might have different views spoil his interaction with them. This is rarer than one might expect, even, or particularly, in academic circles. But David was special. He had a decidedly impish sense of humour, while remaining a very sweet man, with a smile that reflected this.

Agnes-Mary Brooke

I knew David because he was a regular visitor to Cape Town, where his mother lived, and where I taught philosophy in the University of Cape Town’s philosophy department. Because I shared his interest in aesthetics we became close friends. When our philosophy chair at UCT became vacant I tried hard to get David to apply, and eventually succeeded. All of us in the UCT philosophy department wanted him there. We badly needed someone like him. He had no time for the petty turf battles and internecine wrangles in which academics sometimes become entangled, and would have made a wonderful contribution to the academic leadership of the university. He was also by far the best-known and most productive South African-born philosopher of his or any subsequent generation. Above all, we liked him enormously, and knew that, as a head of department, he would be incapable of unfairness or dishonesty. Unfortunately for us, the process of filling the UCT chair was derailed and nothing came of David’s application. Our loss was New Zealand’s gain.

David grew up in the South African Karoo town of Outdshoorn. He was probably best known in his Outdshoorn schooldays as an excellent tennis player, but he went on to Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape where, under the influence of an inspirational philosophy professor, D C S Oosthuizen, he decided to become an academic philosopher. It was at Rhodes, in the late 1960s, that David also became an active opponent of the apartheid system.

After Oxford, where he graduated with a doctorate, David went directly to New Zealand, where he spent the rest of his academic career. As we all know, he lived and worked in Christ Church. It strikes me as I write that he may have started out at another New Zealand university – I’m not sure – but it was at the University of Canterbury that he worked and thrived for the main part of his prolific career. Nor did emigration in any way diminish his political involvement. Soon after he arrived in New Zealand he joined the local anti-apartheid movement that was campaigning to stop the whites-only Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. David knew better than any New Zealander how important that campaign was and for several weeks devoted himself to fighting the tour. Later he became equally involved in other campaigns for justice in New Zealand. He never lost his passionate hostility to racism or any kind of political injustice.

I visited him in Christ Church in 1991 and it was clear that he was very happy there and, as anyone who knew him would expect, was highly respected and greatly liked. It was typical of him that, though busy as always with his own projects, he was wonderfully hospitable and set aside several days to show me parts of the South Island and to read and comment on some of my own work.

My wife and I will miss him very badly.

Paul Taylor

I knew David only slightly, but he was a generous host to me when I visited the remarkable cadre of fine aestheticians in Christchurch in the mid-‘90’s. We had one memorable encounter at the ASA meeting in Santa Barabara. I was working on a review of a book of his for a journal. I happened to see him entering the cafeteria line at breakfast and went to some effort not to sit with him since I wasn’t sure what, if anything, to say about this. But he spotted me, came over, sat down and began the conversation by remarking that he was reviewing a book of mine for that very same journal! The two reviews later appeared side-by-side, and, though there was no collusion, it’s hard to imagine that they were not affected by our mutual awareness.

Gary Iseminger

David has been around in my philosophical universe since I began as a young lecturer twenty five years ago. When we met we usually argued and I would find myself defending a stupid position in which I had no confidence.This was not his fault. My dominant impression of him was a person of great integrity and generosity. Hewill be greatly missed by the aestheticians of New Zealand.

Ismay barwell

My main memories of David relate to the summer I spent in Christchurch, not long ago. It was July and August 1999, to be exact, and it was, of course, their winter. I was there on an Erskine Research Fellowship offered by the Philosophy Dept. David had recently learned of his myeloma at that point, and had already begun treatments, so I didn’t see as much of him as I otherwise might have, and actually covered some of his regular classes in Philosophy of Art during that period. When I did spend time with David I was always struck by his unfailing cheerfulness and politeness, and by his very distinctive variety of barbed flattery. (I’m not sure how else to put it, but maybe others will recognize the trait I am groping for.) David’s love--for philosophy, for art and literature, for his then fiancee, for his children, for justice, and for sport, among other things--was one of the most evident things about him. (We even made, and almost kept, a tennis date during that “summer”, in between chemotherapy treatments.) A last memory I have is reading and making marginal comments on David’s _Boundaries of Art_--an excellent and underrated book--on a train trip somewhere in New Zealand on an earlier visit, and so forming a positive impression of him through his thoughts and words before solidfying that through real contact with his impish person during that summer two and a half years ago. David will be missed.

Jerrold Levinson

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