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Copleston, Frederick C.


Philosopher; b. near Taunton, Somerset, England, 1907; educated at Marlborough College (192025) and St. John's College, Oxford, graduating in classics and philosophy in 1929; became Catholic in 1925; entered the Society of Jesus in 1930; ordained priest in 1937; d. 1994.

Frederick Copleston was born into a very old West Country family with strong roots in the Indian Civil Service, in which his father was a senior judge, and in the Church of England, in which two of his ancestors had served as bishops. His move to the Roman Church led to his leaving school and to a certain amount of disapproval from his family.

Copleston's early years at Oxford, by his own account, were spent in acclimatizing himself to his new religious surroundings rather than in diligent study of the classics. His interest in philosophy was awakened, not by the modern developments in Oxford philosophy in the 1920s, but by those teachers who were still influenced by Hegel. Upon leaving Oxford, Copleston joined the Diocese of Clifton, in which Taunton lay, to study for the priesthood, but after a year in the seminary he decided to become a Jesuit.

He completed his studies for the priesthood without interruption at Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, which at that time was the main Jesuit house of studies in Britain. He abandoned plans to do a doctorate at the Gregorian University when war broke out in 1939. Instead, Copleston was appointed to lecture at Heythrop in the history of philosophy, which he continued to do until 1970. The college in Oxfordshire was closed then, and a new Heythrop College was founded by royal charter as a college of the University of London. Copleston became its first principal, a post which he held until his retirement in 1975. He continued to write and to lecture until within a year or two of his death.

His main achievement is his monumental History of Philosophy, whose nine volumes appeared between 1946 and 1975. A projected tenth volume on Russian philosophy was in fact published separately as Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev in 1986. The History was, at least at its inception, intended to be a three-volume work that would provide seminarians and especially his Jesuit students with a more accurate and broad-based view of the subject than was available in the rather impoverished and apologetically slanted manuals commonly in use at the time. However, the project grew in scope and in depth as it progressed. Copleston remained pleased with most of it, though in later years he considered the first volume "deplorable" and wished that he had time to rewrite it. Yet, the History as a whole is a model of clarity, objectivity, and scholarly accuracy, unsurpassed in its accessibility and balance. It has been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

Copleston's own philosophical interests are more readily found in the many other volumes that appeared over the 45 or so years of his teaching and writing career. His first books were monographs on Nietzsche (written to dissociate Nietzsche from the Nazis) and Schopenhauer; in 1956 he published a collection of essays, Contemporary Philosophy, in which he commented on various trends both in analytic and continental philosophy; A History of Medieval Philosophy (1972) functioned in part as a revision of volume 2 of the History, but it is evidence of his continuing interest, first avowed in his Oxford days, in metaphysics. Metaphysics received more direct and personal expression in his 1979 and 1980 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, published as Religion and the One. The other topic that fascinated him was the relationship between the activity of philosophizing and the cultures in which that activity was variously pursued. He would have liked to have done a full-length study along those lines, but he came to believe that it was simply too large, though some of his thoughts on the topic can be found in his Philosophy and Cultures, a set of lectures he gave in Oxford in 1978.

Copleston was much in demand as a lecturer and broadcaster. He had a famous, if inconclusive, radio debate on the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in 1948 and made several appearances on radio and television with A. J. Ayer, who became a good friend. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the radical difference in their philosophical views, they both took the greatest pleasure in sparring with one another. Copleston was influential in dispelling the widespread prejudice that Catholics, and especially Catholic priests, cannot be expected to engage in intellectually honest philosophical debate. In 1970 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

Bibliography: A full bibliography of all Copleston's books, articles, and reviews up to 1987 was compiled by Michael J. Walsh and published in the Heythrop Journal XXVIII (1987), 41838.

[g. j. hughes]

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