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Robert Adams, 86

Princeton Theological Seminary Trustee

September 8, 1937  -  April 16, 2024


Robert Adams

The Reverend Doctor Robert Merrihew Adams, 86, died peacefully in his home in Montgomery, NJ on April 16, 2024.


Bob was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Sept. 8, 1937 to Margaret Baker Adams and Reverend Doctor Arthur Merrihew Adams. As a child Bob exhibited remarkable curiosity and concentration. When he found a topic of interest, he explored it to its depth and shared his observances with whomever he could captivate – most frequently his sister Janet, who was his constant companion throughout childhood.


Bob was fascinated by the behavior of wild animals, in particular elephants and birds. He became a life-long “birder,” taking his binoculars whenever he travelled in hopes of adding to his life list.


In 1955 Bob graduated from East High School in Rochester, NY and as the top student in the state was named a Regents Scholar. He matriculated to Princeton University in the fall where he developed his interest in philosophy. His inspiration during this period included Hilary Putnam, a young assistant professor at the time.


After graduating in 1959, the next three years were devoted first to the study of theology, for two years at Oxford and then one year at Princeton Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1962. Bob then became pastor of a small Presbyterian church in Montauk at the eastern tip of Long Island, where he continued to study philosophy and theology.


In 1965 he entered the doctoral program in philosophy at Cornell University. There he met Marilyn McCord, and they were married in 1966, the beginning of more than 50 years of close companionship and mutual inspiration. At Cornell he wrote a doctoral dissertation on philosophy of religion that featured an interpretation of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. His advisors included Norman Malcolm and Nelson Pike.


In 1968, he and Marilyn took faculty positions in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After four formative years there, he and Marilyn joined the Department of Philosophy at UCLA in 1972. This was to be their longest academic appointment, more than 21 years.


At UCLA Bob developed his mature views in philosophy of religion, metaphysics, ethics, and history of modern philosophy. There he wrote his celebrated "Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist" (Oxford University Press,1994), and drafted much of his great work on theological ethics, "Finite and Infinite Goods" (Oxford University Press, 1999).


In 1993, Bob and Marilyn moved to Yale University, Bob as professor and chairman of the department of philosophy and Marilyn as professor of historical theology in the Yale Divinity School. Bob was instrumental in transforming a struggling department into one of the best 10 worldwide, where it remains today. At UCLA and Yale, Bob was an inspiring teacher for undergraduate and graduate students. He advised many doctoral dissertations, notably in history of modern philosophy.


In 2004 Bob and Marilyn moved to Oxford, where Marilyn took a position as Regius Professor of Divinity and as Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. Bob was officially retired, but continued his work on theological ethics, specifically on what was to be his third major book, "A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good" (Oxford University Press, 2008).


In 2009 Bob and Marilyn returned to the United States, taking a joint position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In 2013, they retired from that position and moved to Princeton, where they served as distinguished research professors at Rutgers University from 2013 to 2015. Marilyn died in 2017 of pancreatic cancer. Her loss was difficult for Bob in his remaining years. He brought to publication her final book "Housing the Powers: Medieval Debates about Dependence on God" (Oxford University Press, 2022), collaborating with Cecilia Trifogli on one of the chapters. In that same period Bob completed his fourth major book, in metaphysics: "What Is, and What Is in Itself: A Systematic Ontology" (Oxford University Press, 2022).


In addition to advancing the areas of philosophy that interested him, Bob was a long-time member of the Board of Trustees for the Newcombe Foundation and the Board of Trustees for Princeton Theological Seminary. He served on the seminary’s investment committee for over 30 years.


Bob devoted his life to the study and teaching of philosophy, and to a better understanding of God and being. He loved gathering with other philosophers and having robust discussions. He and Marilyn were devoted to their students. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends, fellow philosophers and theologians.


He is survived by his nephew Prof. James D. Fearon (Teal Derrer) and niece Mary Fearon Jack (Wellborn Jack, III) and great nieces and nephews, Sadie and Ben Fearon, and Sarah, Spencer, and William Jack. Bob was predeceased by his beloved wife of 51 years, the Reverend Doctor Marilyn McCord Adams.


A memorial service will be held 2 pm on Saturday, May 11, 2024 at the Princeton Theological Seminary 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, NJ 08542.

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