Hippolyte Taine Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
0111206108-Taine.jpg Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (tehn), born at Vouziers, France, on April 21, 1828, was educated at the Collège Bourbon and the Normal School in Paris. By 1848 he had two baccalaureate degrees, one in science and one in letters. After leaving school he became a teacher at Toulon, but because of his political views he was appointed to successively poorer posts until he left teaching entirely in 1852 and devoted his time to study and writing. In 1853 he completed his Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (essay on the fables of La Fontaine), written as the thesis for his doctorate at the Sorbonne. He immediately began an essay on Livy, which, entered in competition, won for him an award from the French Academy in 1855. Early in 1854, however, Taine had suffered a breakdown in health because of his arduous program of writing.

After a period of enforced rest he resumed his literary activities, contributing articles on various subjects to periodicals and entering literary society. One series of articles, published as Les Philosophes classiques du XIX siècle en France (the classic philosophers of the nineteenth century in France), first suggested Taine’s theory of the application of scientific methods to psychological and metaphysical research. The book attracted considerable interest and helped to spread the author’s critical fame. A revised version of his doctoral essay on La Fontaine was published in 1861.

In 1864 Taine received...

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Hippolyte Taine Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine was twelve years old when his father, an established attorney, died. Left with a modest inheritance and scholarly inclinations, the young man was sent to a boarding school in Paris. He loved learning and soon revealed a mind superior to both his fellow students and his teachers. Deeply influenced by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Taine had lost his religious faith by the age of fifteen. He took a naturalistic view of the world, in which the human intellect and nature are viewed as parts of a single process. History, if it was examined carefully, revealed a total structure that functioned on the same principles as nature. Consequently, societies grew and declined in an organic manner as did natural phenomena, and the historian or philosopher could find the laws of society, history, literature, or any human endeavor in the same way that scientists found such laws to operate in nature.

It was Taine’s devotion to Spinoza that led to his failing the agrégation (a series of examinations at the École Normale Supérieure) in 1851. His conservative examiners found his elucidation of Spinoza’s moral system to be “absurd.” In effect, Taine was flouting their most fundamental conceptions about free will and morality, for he argued that human beings were largely the products of their race, their time, and their environment. Taine seemed to attack the concept of individuality and of moral responsibility, apparently abandoning the notion that human beings created their own world in favor of a belief in determinism.

If Taine’s early academic career was hampered by his unorthodox views, his lectures on literature and art soon brought him attention both in France and abroad. He was the harbinger of the great naturalistic novelists of the nineteenth century such as Émile Zola, who took as their subject matter the way a culture shapes human character. Taine was one of the first men of letters to study science rigorously and to develop a human psychology based on his courses in physiology, botany, zoology, and anatomy. His work was greeted with enormous enthusiasm, since it promised to put the study of history, literature, and culture as a whole on an objective basis and free it from the arbitrary prejudices of the critic.

Hippolyte Taine Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

The publication of Taine’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863-1864; History of English Literature, 1871) solidified his reputation as the leading philosophical critic of his age. Rather than simply present summary descriptions of the great English authors’ lives and works, Taine propounded the notion that English literary history was not solely the record of individual achievements. Rather, it had a shape and a structure that could be elucidated, so that each author became a part of a tradition and could be seen as the product of his environment and his age. Literature was no more an accident, or merely the manifestation of an individual mind, than were the elements of nature.

In collections of essays and lectures in the next ten years and in his travels across Europe, Taine promoted a methodology based, he believed, on the rigor of scientific principles. In a lecture on the nature of art (first given in Paris in 1864 and published in English translation in 1875), Taine established the rules of his method. According to Taine, one must first study the artist’s body of work and become familiar with the artist’s characteristic themes and techniques. Then one must examine the artistic tradition out of which the artist develops, taking note of how his work is illustrative of that tradition. Finally, it is necessary to explore the social climate, the intellectual influences, the race, the language, and the customs of the world the artist inhabits. Taken in total, this method, in Taine’s view, yields a comprehensive, unbiased view of art.

Taine’s view of art is historical: “Arts appear and disappear along with certain accompanying social and intellectual conditions,” he asserts in his lecture on the nature of art. The implication of his argument is that artistic genius is an intensified example of environmental influences. The artist is the finest expression of the whole culture but not a creation unto himself. All that makes William Shakespeare distinctive can be found in his contemporaries, Taine argues, but only Shakespeare expresses the exquisite combination and...

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Hippolyte Taine Biography

(19th-Century Biographies)

Except for his literary essays, Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine is not read much today. His notions of science are outdated and suspect, and he is unable to see that the vaunted objectivity of his methodology is no such thing. When Taine’s history of France is examined, it is clear that it is as subjective and determined by his biases as any other history would be. Taine would not have been very surprised by this judgment, since he believed that human beings were the products of their times. Yet he did fail to see the contradictions in his own methodology, that his brand of conservatism was temperamental and could not be explained only in terms of his time, place, and tradition.

It has been noted that Taine’s reputation since his death has steadily declined. Yet subsequent critics and historians owe Taine an enormous debt. For example, Taine reversed the excesses of Romanticism, with its lionizing of the individual, and perceived important facts about the relationship between the individual and society that naturalistic novelists explored with considerable brilliance. Nearly every critic who has covered the subjects and the periods that were at Taine’s command has felt compelled to deal with his ideas—if only to refute them. Finally, Taine merits study as one of the last men of letters who tried to integrate his insights into many different fields of study: psychology, literary criticism, aesthetics, art, philosophy, and history. In an era of specialization, his work is still an admirable example of the effort to grasp intellectual life in its entirety.

Hippolyte Taine Bibliography

(19th-Century Biographies)

Eustis, Alvin Allen. Hippolyte Taine and the Classical Genius. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Focuses on Taine’s assessment of classical society and its artists, noting the importance the critic places on social conditions and on the production of high-quality art.

Gargan, Edward T., ed. Introduction to The Origins of Contemporary France, by Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Gargan’s long introduction provides important biographical information on Taine and a shrewd analysis of his position as a historian.

Goetz, Thomas H. Taine and the Fine Arts. Madrid: Playor, 1973. Extensive analysis of Taine’s writings on the fine arts, focusing particularly on those about sculpture and painting.

Gullace, Giovanni. Taine and Brunetiere on Criticism. Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado Press, 1982. Excellent analysis of Taine’s ideas about art in Philosophy of Art.

Kahn, Sholom Jacob. Science and Aesthetic Judgement: A Study in Taine’s Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. Extended scholarly examination of Taine’s writings on art, exploring ways he is able to balance the need for objective analysis with the more elusive art of judgment, especially value judgment.

Lombardo, Patrizia. “Hippolyte Taine Between Art and Science.” Yale French Studies 77 (1990). A worthwhile article.

Weinstein, Leo. Hippolyte Taine. Boston: Twayne, 1972. The only comprehensive introduction in English to Taine’s life and work. Chapters on his life, philosophy, method, and psychology, career as a literary and art critic, and role as a historian of France give a thorough summary and critique of Taine’s achievements and influence. Notes, an annotated bibliography, and an index make this an indispensable study.

Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950. Vol. 4. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. One of the most important sources for tracing the history of literary criticism and Taine’s place within it. Wellek discusses the significance of Taine’s History of English Literature and the way the critic deals with matters of style.