The French critic and historian Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828-1893) was one of the most prominent intellectual figures of his period in France. His emphasis on scientific methods in criticism formed the basis of contemporary critical techniques.
Hippolyte Taine was born in Vouziers in the Ardennes on April 21, 1828, into a family of civil servants. His childhood was spent in an enlightened cultural atmosphere in which earnest intellectual pursuits mingled with an early exposure to the arts and to nature. By the age of 14, when he moved to Paris with his widowed mother, he had developed an intense intellectuality matched only by his profound love of nature.
Taine's passion for knowledge and especially for philosophy made him highly receptive to the multitude of intellectual and scientific trends of his time. By the time he had completed his university studies at the École Normale Supérieure, he had investigated almost every philosophical and scientific concept known. Upon leaving the university he was prepared to formulate his own critical apparatus in order to investigate bodies of knowledge.
Taine's most productive years coincided with the reign of Napoleon III. The Second Empire, beneath its social glitter and economic growth, was highly oppressive to liberal intellectuals. Taine abandoned all hopes of a professorial career at the university. He withdrew from public life and devoted his energies to research in a large variety of fields. All of his studies centered on the problem of the human condition and were underlain by his naive but honest belief in the explicability of human nature by means of scientific inquiry.
The culmination of this belief found its expression in Taine's central work, De l'intelligence (1870). It summed up all his previous interests in psychology and philosophy and fused the converging lines of his critical thought. His works preceding De l'intelligence encompass a great variety of interests and touch on almost every phase of intellectual and artistic production. His dissertation on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, completed in 1853 and published in its final form in 1860 (La Fontaine et ses fables), was a presentation of Taine's concept of esthetics. It expressed in essence his doctrine of scientific determinism by attributing "racial" distinctions to climatic and geographical differences. His work on the French philosophers of the 19th century (Les Philosophes français du XIX siècle, 1857) was a critical evaluation of the major philosophical concepts of the century, and his essays on a wide variety of subjects represented a further elaboration of his critical system. These volumes included Essais de critique et d'histoire (1858), Nouveaux essais (1865), and Derniers essais (1894).
Taine formulated his critical system most clearly in the introduction to the five volumes of one of his major works, Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863). He stated that every reality, psychological, esthetic, or historical, can be reduced to a distinctly definable formula by discovering in each reality a single operative principle. This basic principle is governed by a system of laws that he reduced to his famous triad of race, environment, and time ("la race, le milieu, le moment"). Taine applied this critical system in all of his works, including his analyses of the development of the arts of Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands, presented in a series of lectures spanning more than 20 years at the École des Beaux-Arts and published in two volumes, Philosophie de l'art (1865-1869).
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 profoundly disturbed Taine. From then until his death, he applied himself to an analysis of French history in an attempt to uncover the causes of France's defeat and the Commune of 1871 (Les Origines de la France contemporaine, 1875-1893). He died in Paris on March 9, 1893.
There is no biography of Taine in English. Sholom J. Kahn, Science and Aesthetic Judgement: A Study in Taine's Critical Method (1953), analyzes Taine's esthetic theory. For an evaluation of his influence upon modern literary criticism see William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957). A cogent defense of the methodology of historical criticism is in Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers (1938).