Article abstract: As a critic and historian of the arts and society, Taine dominated much of the intellectual life in France in the last half of the nineteenth century. Influential in England and the United States, much of his history and literary theory has fallen into disrepute in this century. Yet his method and his appreciation of literary works continue to engage critics and historians.
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.
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,”...
(The entire section is 1829 words.)