Hippolyte Taine

Hippolyte Taine

Portrait of Hippolyte Taine by Léon Bonnat.
Born Hippolyte Adolphe Taine
(1828-04-21)April 21, 1828
Vouziers, France
Died March 5, 1893(1893-03-05) (aged 64)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure


Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (21 April 1828 – 5 March 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.[1] 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 Encyclopædia 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."[2]

The tomb of Hippolyte Taine is in Roc de Chère National Nature Reserve, in Talloires, near the Lake Annecy.

Early years

Taine was born in Vouziers,[3] but entered a boarding school, the Institution Mathé, whose classes were conducted at the Collège Bourbon, at the age of 13 in 1841, after the death of his father.[4] He excelled as a student, receiving a number of prizes in both scientific and humanistic subjects, and taking two Baccalauréat degrees at the École Normale before he was 20.[5] Taine's contrarian politics led to difficulties keeping teaching posts,[6] and his early academic career was decidedly mixed; he failed the exam for the national Concours d'Agrégation in 1851.[7] After his dissertation on sensation was rejected, he abandoned his studies in the social sciences, feeling that literature was safer.[8] He completed a doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1853, with considerably more success in his new field; his dissertation, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine, won him a prize from the Académie française.[9]


Title page of the first American edition of Taine's The Origins of Contemporary France, published in 1876.

Taine was criticized, in his own time and after, by both conservatives and liberals; his politics were idiosyncratic, but had a consistent streak of skepticism toward the left; at the age of 20, he wrote that "the right of property is absolute."[10] Peter Gay describes Taine's reaction to the Jacobins as stigmatization, drawing on The French Revolution,[11][12] in which Taine argues:

Some of the workmen are shrewd Politicians whose sole object is to furnish the public with words instead of things; others, ordinary scribblers of abstractions, or even ignoramuses, and unable to distinguish words from things, imagine that they are framing laws by stringing together a lot of phrases.[13]

This reaction led Taine to reject the French Constitution of 1793 as a Jacobin document, dishonestly presented to the French people.[14] Taine rejected the principles of the Revolution[15][16] in favor of the individualism of his concepts of regionalism and race, to the point that one writer calls him one of "the most articulate exponents of both French nationalism and conservatism."[17][18]

Title page of the 1872 edition of History of English Literature.

Other writers, however, have argued that, though Taine displayed increasing conservatism throughout his career, he also formulated an alternative to rationalist liberalism that was influential for the social policies of the Third Republic.[19] Taine's complex politics have remained hard to read; though admired by liberals like Anatole France, he has been the object of considerable disdain in the twentieth century, with a few historians working to revive his reputation.[20]

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.[21][22] 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".[23][24]

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),[25] 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.[26]

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;[27] 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.[28]


Taine's influence on French intellectual culture and literature was enormous. He had a special relationship, in particular, with Émile Zola.[29] As critic Philip Walker says of Zola, "In page after page, including many of his most memorable writings, we are presented with what amounts to a mimesis of the interplay between sensation and imagination which Taine studied at great length and out of which, he believed, emerges the world of the mind."[30] Zola's reliance on Taine, however, was occasionally seen as a fault; Miguel de Unamuno, after an early fascination with both Zola and Taine, eventually concluded that Taine's influence on literature was, all in all, negative.[31]

Taine also influenced a number of nationalist literary movements throughout the world, who used his ideas to argue that their particular countries had a distinct literature and thus a distinct place in literary history.[32] In addition, post-modern literary critics concerned with the relationship between literature and social history (including the New Historicists) continue to cite Taine's work, and to make use of the idea of race, milieu, and moment. The critic John Chapple, for example, has used the term as an illustration of his own concept of "composite history."[33]

Portrait of Taine, by Félix Vallotton, 1897.

Taine shared a correspondence with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who later referred to him in Beyond Good and Evil as "the first of living historians".[34] He was also the subject of Stefan Zweig's doctoral thesis, "The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine."[35]


The chief criticism of race, milieu, and moment at the time the idea was created was that it did not sufficiently take into account the individuality of the artist, central to the creative genius of Romanticism. Even Zola, who owed so much to Taine, made this objection, arguing that an artist's temperament could lead him to make unique artistic choices distinct from the environment that shaped his general viewpoint; Zola's principal example was the painter Édouard Manet. Similarly, Gustave Lanson argued that race, milieu, and moment could not among themselves account for genius; Taine, he felt, explained mediocrity better than he explained greatness.[36]

A distinct criticism concerns the possible sloppiness of the logic and scientific basis of the three concepts. As Leo Spitzer has written, the actual science of the idea, which is vaguely Darwinian, is rather tenuous, and shortly after Taine's work was published a number of objections were made on scientific grounds.[37] Spitzer also points out, again citing period sources, that the relationship between the three terms themselves was never well understood, and that it is possible to argue that moment is an unnecessary addition implied by the other two.


  • De Personis Platonicis (1853).
  • La Fontaine et ses Fables (1853–1861, Taine's doctoral thesis).
  • Voyage aux Pyrénées (1855–1860).
  • Essai sur Tite-Live (1856).[38]
  • Les Philosophes Classiques du XIXe Siècle en France (1857–1868).
  • Essais de Critique et d’Histoire (1858–1882).
  • Vie et Opinions Politiques d'un Chat (1858).
  • Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise (1864).[39]
  • Philosophie de l’Art (1865–1882).
  • Nouveaux Essais de Critique et d’Histoire (1865–1901).
  • Voyage en Italie (1866).
  • Notes sur Paris. Vie et Opinions de M. Frédéric-Thomas Graindorge (1867).
  • De l’Intelligence (1870).[40]
  • Un Séjour en France de 1792 à 1795 (1872).
  • Du Suffrage Universel et de la Manière de Voter (1872).
  • Notes sur l’Angleterre (1872).
  • Les Origines de la France Contemporaine:
    • L’Ancien Régime (1875).
    • La Révolution: I – l’Anarchie (1878).
    • La Révolution: II – La Conquête Jacobine (1881).
    • La Révolution: III – Le Gouvernement Révolutionnaire (1883).
    • Le Régime Moderne (1890–1893).
  • Derniers Essais de Critique et d’Histoire (1894).
  • Carnets de Voyage: Notes sur la Province (1863–1897).
  • Étienne Mayran (1910).
  • H. Taine, sa Vie et sa Correspondance (1903–1907).

Works in English translation

  • The Philosophy of Art (1865).[41]
  • Italy, Rome and Naples (1868).
  • Art in Greece (1871).
  • Art in the Netherlands (1871).
  • English Positivism: A Study on John Stuart Mill (1870).
  • On Intelligence (1871, translated by T.D. Haye).
  • History of English Literature (1872, translated by Henry Van Laun).[42][43][44]
  • Notes on England (1872, translated by William Fraser Rae; Edward Hyams, 1957).
  • The Ideal in Art (1874, translated by John Durand).
  • A Tour Through the Pyrenees (1874, translated by J. Safford Fiske).
  • Lectures on Art (1875).
  • The Origins of Contemporary France (1876, translated by John Durand).[45][46]
  • Notes on Paris (1879, translated by John Austin Stevens).
  • Journeys Through France (1896).
  • Life and Letters of H. Taine (1902, translated by R.L. Devonshire).[47]

Selected articles

See also


  1. Kelly, R. Gordon (1974). "Literature and the Historian", American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, 143.
  2. Baring, Maurice (1911). "Hippolyte Taine." In: Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 26, Eleventh Edition. Cambridge University Press, p. 363.
  3. Duclaux, Mary (1903). "The Youth of Taine," The Living Age, Vol. 236, pp. 545–560.
  4. EB 1911, p. 360.
  5. EB 1911, p. 360.
  6. Bosky, Bernadette Lynn, "Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine", Cyclopedia of World Authors (EBSCO Literary Reference Center).
  7. Lombardo, Patrizia (1990). "Hippolyte Taine Between Art and Science", Yale French Studies, Vol. 77, p. 119.
  8. Wolfenstein, Martha (1944). "The Social Background of Taine's Philosophy of Art", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 335.
  9. Bosky.
  10. Wolfenstein (1944), p. 333.
  11. Aulard, F.A. (1907). Taine – Historien de la Révolution Française. Paris: Librairie Armand Colant.
  12. Cochin, Augustin (1909). La Crise de l’Histoire Révolutionnaire: Taine et Aulard. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion.
  13. Taine, The French Revolution, quoted in Gay, Peter (1961). "Rhetoric and Politics in the French Revolution", The American Historical Review, Vol. 66, No. 3, p. 665.
  14. Gay, 665.
  15. McElrone, Hugh P. (1887). "Taine’s Estimate of Napoleon Bonaparte," The Catholic World, Vol. 45, pp. 384–397.
  16. Soltau, Roger Henry (1959). "Hippolyte Taine." In: French Political Thought in the 19th Century. New York: Russell & Russell, pp. 230–250.
  17. Freund, Ludwig (1921). "The New American Conservatism and European Conservatism", Ethics, Vol. 66, No. 1, p. 13.
  18. Norman, Hilda Laura (1921). “The Personality of Hippolyte Taine,” PMLA, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, pp. 529–550.
  19. Pitt, Alan (1998). "The Irrationalist Liberalism of Hippolyte Taine", The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 4, p. 1051.
  20. Pitt (1998), p. 1036.
  21. Khan, Sholom J. (1953). Science and Aesthetic Judgment: A Study in Taine's Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press.
  22. Katscher, Leopold (1886). "Taine – A Literary Portrait," The Nineteenth Century, Vol. XX, pp. 51–73.
  23. Terrier, Jean (2011). Visions of the Social: Society as a Political Project in France, 1750-1950. BRILL, pp. 25–26.
  24. Hauser, Arnold (2012). "Art as a Product of Society." In: The Sociology of Art. Routledge, pp. 96–97.
  25. Charlton, Donald G. (1959). Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  26. See, for example, Mueller, John H. (1935). "Is Art the Product of its Age?", Social Forces, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 367–375. Not all critics would make the connection in these terms; Zeitgeist is a Hegelian concept which, though applied loosely in everyday speech, retains a specific meaning distinct from Taine's "moment" in a philosophical or critical context.
  27. "Taine's indebtedness to Herder has not yet fully been recognized. Every element of Taine's theory is containd in Herder's writings." – Koller, Armin H. (1912). "Johann Gottfried Herder and Hippolyte Taine: Their Theories of Milieu," PMLA, Vol. 27, p. xxxix.
  28. DuPont, Denise (2003). "Masculinity, Femininity, Solidarity: Emilia Pardo Bazan's Construction of Madame de Stael and George Sand". In: Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, 372–393.
  29. Butler, Ronnie (1974). "Zola between Taine and Sainte-Beuve, 1863–1869," The Modern Language Review, Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 279–289.
  30. Walker, Philip (1969). "The Mirror, The Window, and The Eye in Zola's Fiction", Yale French Studies, Vol. 42, p. 60.
  31. Basdekis, Demetrios (1973). "Unamuno and Zola: Notes on the Novel", Modern Language Notes, Vol. 88, No. 2, p. 369.
  32. Jones, R.A. (1933). "Taine and the Nationalists." In: The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., pp. 222–249.
  33. Chapple, John (1997). Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
  34. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1907). Beyond Good and Evil. New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 214.
  35. Vanwesenbeeck, Birger & Mark H. Gelber (2014). Stefan Zweig and World Literature: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives. New York: Camden House, p. 102.
  36. Wolff, Mark (2001). "Individuality and l'Esprit Français: On Gustave Lanson's Pedagogy", MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3, pp. 239–257.
  37. Spitzer, Leo (1942). "Milieu and Ambiance: An Essay in Historical Semantics," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 169–218.
  38. Lombardo, Patrizia (1990). "Hippolyte Taine between Art and Science," Yale French Studies, No. 77, pp. 117–133.
  39. Rae, W. Fraser (1864). "Taine's History of English Literature," The Westminster Review, Vol. 81, pp. 473–511.
  40. Mill, John Stuart (1870). "On Taine's De l'Intelligence," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XIV, pp. 121–124.
  41. Rae, W. Fraser (1866). "H. Taine on Art and Italy," The Westminster Review, Vol. LXXXV, pp. 224–237.
  42. Stephen, Leslie (1873). "Taine's History of English Literature," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XX, pp. 693–714.
  43. Saint-Beuve, Charles Augustin (1890). "Taine’s 'History of English Literature'." In: Essays. London: Walter Scott. Ltd., pp. 228–265.
  44. Schérer, Edmond (1891). "Taine's History of English Literature." In: Essays on English Literature. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, pp. 62–84.
  45. Morley, John (1876). "M. Taine's New Work," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXV, pp. 370–384.
  46. Gasquet, J.R. (1904). "Taine’s French Revolution." In: Studies Contributed to the “Dublin Review”. Westminster: Art and Book Company, pp. 1–33.
  47. Payne, William Morton (1904). "Letters of H.H. Taine", The International Quarterly, Vol. X, pp. 196–200.

Further reading


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