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 His notions of science are outdated and suspect, and he is unable to see that the vaunted objectivity of his methodology is no such thing.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.