Hippolyte Taine  

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"The second major assumption was nationalism. It is no accident that German philology and Germanic textual criticism coincided with the dynamic rise of the German national consciousness (and let us not forget that it was on the genius of the German scholars that the rest of Europe, England, and America drew so heavily). As Herder, the Grimm brothers, and the whole lineage of German literary teachers and critics were frank to proclaim, the study of one's own literary past played a vital part in affirming national identity. To this point of view Taine and the historical positivists added the theory that one gets to know the unique racial genius of a people, of one's own people, by studying its literature. Everywhere the history of modern literary studies shows the mark of this nationalist ideal of the mid-and late-nineteenth century." --"To Civilize Our Gentlemen" (1965) by George Steiner

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (April 21, 1828 - March 5, 1893) was a French critic and historian. He was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism, and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism. Literary historicism as a critical movement has been said to originate with him. Taine is particularly remembered for his three-pronged approach to the contextual study of a work of art, based on the aspects of what he called race, milieu, and moment.

Taine had a profound effect on French literature; the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica asserted that "the tone which pervades the works of Zola, Bourget and Maupassant can be immediately attributed to the influence we call Taine's."

Race, milieu and moment

Taine is best known now for his attempt at a scientific account of literature, based on the categories of race, milieu, and moment. Taine used these words in French (race, milieu et moment); the terms have become widespread in literary criticism in English, but are used in this context in senses closer to the French meanings of the words than the English meanings, which are, roughly, "nation", "environment" or "situation", and "time".

Taine argued that literature was largely the product of the author's environment, and that an analysis of that environment could yield a perfect understanding of the work of literature. In this sense he was a sociological positivist (see Auguste Comte), though with important differences. Taine did not mean race in the specific sense now common, but rather the collective cultural dispositions that govern everyone without their knowledge or consent. What differentiates individuals within this collective "race", for Taine, was milieu: the particular circumstances that distorted or developed the dispositions of a particular person. The "moment" is the accumulated experiences of that person, which Taine often expressed as momentum; to some later critics, however, Taine's conception of moment seemed to have more in common with Zeitgeist.

Though Taine coined and popularized the phrase "race, milieu, et moment," the theory itself has roots in earlier attempts to understand the aesthetic object as a social product rather than a spontaneous creation of genius. Taine seems to have drawn heavily on the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder's ideas of volk (people) and nation in his own concept of race; the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán has suggested that a crucial predecessor to Taine's idea was the work of Germaine de Staël on the relationship between art and society.

Major works

Taine's principal works, in chronological order, are:

  • De personis Platonicis. Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (1853)
  • Essai sur Tite-Live (1854)
  • Voyage aux eaux des Pyrénées (1855)
  • Les philosophes français du XIXe siècle (1856)
  • Essais de critique et d'histoire (1857)
  • La Fontaine et ses fables (1860)
  • Histoire de la littérature anglaise, 4 vol. L'idéalisme anglais, étude sur Carlyle. Le positivisme anglais, étude sur Stuart Mill (1864)
  • Les écrivains anglais contemporains. Nouveaux essais de critique et d'histoire. *Philosophie de l'art (1865)
  • Philosophie de l'art en Italie. Voyage en Italie (1866)
  • Notes sur Paris. L'idéal dans l'art (1867)
  • Philosophie de l'art dans les Pays-Bas (1868)
  • Philosophie de l'art en Grèce (1869)
  • De l'intelligence (2 vol., 1870)
  • Du suffrage universel et de la manière de voter. Un séjour en France de 1792 à 1795. Notes sur l'Angleterre (1871)
  • Origines de la France contemporaine (1876–1894):
    • Vol. I: L'ancien régime
    • Vols. II through IV: La Révolution
    • Vols. V and VI: Le Régime moderne
  • Derniers essais de critique et d'histoire (1894)

See also





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