French philosopher, historian, critic of art and literature; b. Vouziers (Ardennes), Apr. 21, 1828; d. Paris, Mar. 5, 1893. After the death (1840) of his father, a lawyer, he went to Paris (1841) to study, entered the École normale supérieure (1848), where he excelled as a student yet failed his agrégation examination in philosophy because of his bold ideas. He spent a year at various teaching posts in the provinces, where his independence made him unpopular; and then he returned to Paris for further study. When his doctoral theses in psychology were not accepted, he prepared and defended at the Sorbonne theses on literature: De personis platonicis (in Latin), and Essai sur les Fables de la Fontaine. In 1855 he published Voyage aux Pyrénées; and in 1856, Essai sur Tite-Live, which was crowned by the French Academy. He published also numerous periodical articles, later collected in Les Philosophes français du XIX e siècle (1857) and in Essais de critique et d'histoire (1858). After completing in 1864 his four-volume Histoire de la Littérature anglaise (placed on the Index, June 11, 1866), he was appointed examiner at Saint-Cyr, and in 1864 he replaced Viollet-le-Duc as professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Two decades of teaching there, plus visits to England, Belgium, Italy, Greece, and the Netherlands, prepared him for his works on the philosophy of art. His Nouveaux essais de critique et d'histoire appeared in 1865, and his humorous recollections of Parisian life, Vie et opinions de Thomas Graindorge, in 1867. De l'Intelligence, an important philosophical work, appeared in 1870. After the disappointments of the Franco-Prussian War, he went to England, taught at Oxford (May of 1871), and then retired for the remainder of his life to Menthon-Saint-Bernard in Savoy. During this period, he wrote Notes sur l'Angleterre (1872), the more important but incomplete Les Origines de la France contemporaine (6 v. 1875–93), and Derniers essais de critique et d'histoire (1894). He was elected to the French Academy in 1878. Although he did not return to religion, he asked to be buried after a Protestant service, thereby witnessing a sympathy for Christianity, which to him represented a great moral and social force. After his death appeared a four-volume edition of his correspondence, translated as Life and Letters of H. Taine (3 v. 1902–08), as well as a novel composed in 1861 under the influence of Stendhal, Étienne Mayran (1910).
Taine's writings are notable for their unity. As a philosopher, a historian, and a literary art critic, he was a leading proponent of scientism, applying to moral sciences the positive method of the natural sciences. In philosophy, as a disciple of condillac, hegel, comte, and Vacherot, he defined the conditions necessary for the development of the spirit. After attacking the spiritualism of cousin and Théodore Jouffroy, he exposed in his principal work, De l'Intelligence, a theory of knowledge that renewed Condillac's thesis on "transformed sensation," asserting that from the confused mass of facts "the constitutive properties of beings" emerge, and permit us to eliminate the contingent and attain "the eternal axiom."
This experimental method he applied to literary or artistic criticism, which he studied like a chemist. To him spiritual phenomena "are products like vitriol and sugar"; art and literature, normal functions of man. In every genius, he wrote, is discernible one "master faculty" that explains all others. But this dominant characteristic is influenced by geography, sun, climate, and above all by the three essential factors of race, environment, and moment. Taine explained the inequality of "human plants" born in identical circumstances by positing the application of a threefold principle: how important the "master faculty" is, how much good it does, and how well effects converge. In brief, he conceived aesthetics according to a rigorous determinism, but his innate clear-sightedness often permitted him to escape the logic of his system.
Taine's philosophical theories also inspired his historical study of the origins of contemporary France. Modern France he described as a plant, whose birth and growth must be known to be understood. In this great, sometimes controversial work, he insisted that the principal agent of the French Revolution was the classical spirit, which produced the excesses of Jacobinism, civil dissensions, and Napoleonic despotism. He held the revolution responsible for France's moral decline and its subsequent evils. He began this study with faith in positivism, but he completed it in disquiet, questioning the existence of any ideal regime and the ability of science to establish a modern constitution. Taine's accounts of journeys revealed in him superior talents as an observer, creator, and portrait painter. His taut, richly colored style used violent, brutal images that moved readers; his pen accumulated materialist metaphors that seem to bring into being the spiritual world, and please by their clarity and life. Many of Taine's books, including his most famous ones, have been translated into English.
Bibliography: e. boutmy, Taine, Schérer, Laboulaye (Paris 1901). v. giraud, Essai sur Taine (Paris 1901); H. Taine (Paris 1928). a. aulard, Taine, historien de la Révolution française (Paris 1907). a. m. barrÈs, Taine et Renan (Paris 1922). f. c. roe, Taine et l'Angleterre (Paris 1923). a. chevrillon, Taine: Formation de sa pensée (Paris 1932); Portrait de Taine (Paris 1958). s. j. kahn, Science and Esthetic Judgment: A Study in Taine's Critical Method (New York 1953). g. morra, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:1070–73.