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For Hippolyte Taine, understanding literature has far more to do with the writer's environment than it does with his literary learning. As popularized in his "Histoire de la Litterature Anglaise," the key to understanding can be found in analysis using "race, milieu et moment" in their original context where race relates to a cultural connection within the community; milieu is the writer's own peculiarities within that "race" or community and moment is the accumulation of experiences which draw the writer's work together. This infers a scientific approach to understanding literature and art where the "milieu" becomes the standard by which to judge and creates a logical progression. Taine was criticized for leaving no scope for individual expression in his definitions and, especially in view of the erratic tendencies of many artists and writers, for overlooking or even ignoring an individual's temperament.
In defining race, Taine concentrates on inherited characteristics such as they identify a group or community and how those characteristics persist over generations and how an individual operates within those confines. It is important not to confuse it with a modern interpretation of race which otherwise overshadows Taine's intentions when read from a more modern angle .
Milieu, in its definition, explains how generalizations established in identifying "race" are effective and modified to suit and explain the behavior of the individual and his or her artistic expression. Milieu then is useful in explaining differences between those artists of the same "race" and why they exist.
There is an inferred momentum in Taine's moment where accumulated experiences account for the manner in which the individual ultimately conveys his message. The historical aspect should never be overlooked in attempting to understand any piece of literature.
According to Taine and in keeping with his positivist views, having established the factors that surround the artist and are responsible for his own vision, it is then possible to assess any work of art and draw accurate conclusions rather than a critic's own opinions. Although no longer a particularly popular method of assessment in the twenty-first century, Taine's methods shed a historical light on works of art and can, in his belief, lead towards real knowledge.
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