Frederick Copleston

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Frederick Copleston

Frederick Copleston 1987.jpg
Frederick Copleston, 1987
Frederick Charles Copleston

(1907-04-10)10 April 1907
Taunton, England
Died3 February 1994(1994-02-03) (aged 86)
London, England
Alma materSt. John's College, Oxford
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolChristian philosophy
Main interests
History of philosophy

Frederick Charles Copleston CBE SJ (10 April 1907 – 3 February 1994) was an English Jesuit Catholic priest, philosopher, and historian of philosophy, best known for his influential multi-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–75).

Copleston achieved a degree of popularity in the media for debating the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in a celebrated 1948 BBC broadcast; the following year he debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with his friend the analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer.


Frederick Charles Copleston was born 10 April 1907 near Taunton, Somerset, England. He was raised an Anglican—his uncle, Reginald Stephen Copleston, was an Anglican bishop of Calcutta; another uncle, Ernest Copleston, was the Bishop of Colombo. Copleston was educated at Marlborough College from 1920 to 1925.[1] At the age of eighteen, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith, which caused a great deal of stress in his family.[1] His father, though opposed to his son's becoming a Catholic, helped him complete his education at St John's College, Oxford, where he studied from 1925 to 1929. He graduated from Oxford University in 1929 having managed a third in classical moderations and a good second at Greats.[1] After Oxford, Copleston entered St. Mary's College, Oscott as a seminarian for the diocese of Clifton, but realized the life was not for him.[2]

In 1930, he entered instead the Jesuits.[1] After completing the two-year Jesuit novitiate in Roehampton, he followed the traditional course of studies for the priesthood at the Jesuit house of studies in Heythrop, Oxfordshire and in 1937 he was ordained a Jesuit priest there. In 1938 he travelled to Germany to complete his training, returning to Britain just before the outbreak of war in 1939.[1] Copleston was originally destined to study for his doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, but the war now made that impossible. Instead, he accepted a posting that saw him return to Heythrop in Oxfordshire to teach the history of philosophy to the few Jesuits remaining there.[1]

From this time onwards, Copleston began writing his influential multi-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–75),[3] a textbook that presents clear accounts of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy.[4] Still highly respected, Copleston's history has been described as "a monumental achievement" that "stays true to the authors it discusses, being very much a work in exposition".[1]

Copleston achieved a degree of popularity in the media for debating the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in a celebrated 1948 BBC broadcast;[5] the following year he debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with his friend the analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer.[6]

Throughout the rest of his academic career, Copleston accepted a number of prestigious titles, including Visiting Professor at Rome's Gregorian University, where he spent six months each year lecturing from 1952 to 1968.[1] In 1970 the Jesuit Heythrop house of studies was relocated to London, where as Heythrop College it became a constituent part of the federal University of London. Copleston became the new college's respected Principal and gave undergraduate courses. His uncontestable mastery of his material immediately won the confidence and respect of the students, who were drawn from among younger Jesuits and junior religious from male and female religious orders, and some lay men and women. Moreover, his affable manner, dry humour and unfailing courtesy and made him popular. In that same year 1970, he was made Fellow of the British Academy (FBA), and in 1972 he was given a personal professorship by the University of London. In 1975, he was made an Honorary Fellow of St. John's College, Oxford.[1]

After officially retiring in 1974, he continued to lecture. From 1974 to 1982, Copleston was Visiting Professor at the University of Santa Clara, California, and from 1979 to 1981, he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, which were published as Religion and the One. These lectures attempted to "express themes perennial in his thinking and more personal than in his history".[1] Toward the end of his life, Copleston received honorary doctorates from a number of institutions, including Santa Clara University, California, Uppsala University, and the University of St Andrews.[1]

Copleston was offered memberships in the Royal Institute of Philosophy and in the Aristotelian Society.[7] In 1993 he was made CBE.[8] Father Frederick Copleston died on 3 February 1994 at St Thomas' Hospital in London, at the age of 86.[1]


In addition to his influential multi-volume History of Philosophy (1946–75),[3] one of Copleston's most significant contributions to modern philosophy was his work on the theories of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He attempted to clarify Aquinas's Five Ways (in the Summa Theologica) by making a distinction between in fieri causes and in esse causes. By doing so, Copleston makes clear that Aquinas wanted to put forth the concept of an omnipresent God rather than a being that could have disappeared after setting the chain of cause and effect into motion.[9][10]


Other select works

*For a more complete bibliography see The Heythrop Journal. 28 (4): 418–438. (1987).[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Cameron, Jon. "Frederick Charles Copleston". Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  2. ^ Gerard J. Hughes, Copleston, Frederick Charles, 1907-1994, British Academy memoir, p. 178.
  3. ^ a b c d "Frederick C. Copleston: An 80th Birthday Bibliography". The Heythrop Journal. 28 (4): 418–438. 1987. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.1987.tb00104.x. ISSN 1468-2265.
  4. ^ The original and DoubleDay editions of the History were published in 9 volumes. From 2003 (after the author's death) Continuum added two (previously published) other works by Copleston to the series to present it as a work of 11 volumes.
  5. ^ "A Debate on the Existence of God". YouTube. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  6. ^ Beeson, Trevor (2006). Priests and Prelates: The Daily Telegraph Clerical Obituaries. A&C Black. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-82648-100-9. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  7. ^ "Frederick Charles Copleston". Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  8. ^ "Obituary: The Rev Professor Frederick Copleston SJ". The Independent. London. 5 February 1994. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  9. ^ Hensel, Howard M. (2013). The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate Use of Military Force. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 9781409499510.
  10. ^ "The Cosmological Argument for The Existence of God" (PDF). Abingdon. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  11. ^ McNamara, Brian (1976). "Review of A History of Medieval Philosophy". Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. 65 (259): 265–266. ISSN 0039-3495. JSTOR 30089981.
  12. ^ Veatch, Henry (1957). "Review of Aquinas". Speculum. 32 (1): 152–154. doi:10.2307/2849260. ISSN 0038-7134. JSTOR 2849260.
  13. ^ Corbishley, T. (1957). "Review of Aquinas". Philosophy. 32 (120): 86–87. doi:10.1017/S0031819100029247. ISSN 0031-8191. JSTOR 3748547.
  14. ^ this 1972 edition was later sold as Volume 11 of the Continuum edition of Copleston's A History of Philosophy from 2003
  15. ^ Connellan, Colm (1976). "Review of Religion and Philosophy". Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review. 65 (259): 261–265. ISSN 0039-3495. JSTOR 30089980.
  16. ^ Vater, Michael (1983) Review of On the History of Philosophy and Other Essays by Frederick Copleston [published version in: The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 36, No. 3 (March 1983): 700-701]
  17. ^ "Religion & The One: Philosophies East and West". The Gifford Lectures. 19 January 2016. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  18. ^ later sold as Volume 10 of the Continuum edition of Copleston's A History of Philosophy from 2003

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