Professor Victor Preller, philosopher of religion, dies at 69

Preller, a teacher and scholar noted for his knowledge of St. Thomas Aquinas and Ludwig Wittgenstein, died of pneumonia Friday, Jan. 19, at the Medical Center at Princeton. He was 69.

Professor Preller taught philosophy of religion in Princeton's Department of Religion for more than 30 years, until his retirement in 1995. He served as master of the Graduate College from 1985 to 1990, and was noted for fostering a high level of intellectual discourse and a genuine sense of community there. Many graduate alumni remember him as someone who fought tirelessly to protect their interests.

In the academic world, Professor Preller is best known for his controversial but increasingly influential interpretation of Aquinas, "Divine Science and the Science of God," published by Princeton University Press in 1967. One of the book's central claims is that Aquinas did not intend his "proofs" for the existence of God to be taken in the way almost all modern philosophers and theologians have taken them, namely, as positive contributions to our knowledge of God. Professor Preller's work has had important implications for ecumenical dialogue among Christian theologians.

In seminars he taught over the last 15 years of his career, Professor Preller attacked the traditional scholastic assumption that the central concept in Aquinas' ethics is that of natural law. His former students, Daniel Nelson *86, John Bowlin *93, and Eugene Rogers '84, have argued in recent books that Professor Preller was right in regarding concepts of virtue as more important. In his last years, he argued for the indispensability to ethics of the love of friendship.

In other courses Professor Preller developed a novel account of religious language and its interpretation, drawing heavily on the work of philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Born in Philadelphia on Sept. 25, 1931, Professor Preller grew up in Merchantville, N.J. He received both his bachelor's degree and his Ph.D. from Princeton.

After completing his senior thesis on the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, Professor Preller graduated from Princeton with a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1953. He then attended Keble College at Oxford University, earning a diploma in theology in 1954. He studied theology at General Theological Seminary in New York and received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree in 1956. He began teaching at Princeton in 1960, and four years later was awarded a doctorate, with distinction, for his dissertation on Aquinas.

For two years Professor Preller pursued post-doctoral research in Munich, Germany, before returning to Princeton as associate professor of religion in 1968. He served as director of the University Scholar Program in 1968-69.

Professor Preller was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey in 1956. He left the church in the late 1960s and returned to it in the 1980s. Until his death, he was active as a priest at All Saints' Church in Princeton, where he dedicated himself to the service of others. He was a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd and an active supporter of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. His religious and academic vocations came together in his 1999 Mascall Lecture in London.

Surviving members of his family include his brother, Robert Preller; his sister-in-law, Anne Preller; and his nephew, Victor Stephen Preller II, his nephew's wife, Gabrielle, and their daughters Elizabeth and Katy.

The Burial Office and a Requiem Eucharist were celebrated Feb. 3 at All Saints' Church in Princeton.

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601