Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine was a philosopher, psychologist, historian, and critic. Taine and Ernest Renan were the leading French positivistic thinkers of the second half of the nineteenth century. As a result of Taine’s great independence of mind, his life was not always comfortable. Discriminatory treatment from the authorities of the Second Empire led to his withdrawal from teaching from 1852 to 1863, when he was appointed an examiner at Saint-Cyr.
The next year he became a lecturer at the École des Beaux Arts; from his lectures there came his famous Philosophie de l’art, At the intervention of the Catholic clergy, a French Academy award for his Histoire de la littérature anglaise was denied him, and he was elected to the academy only in 1878, after the fall of the Second Empire. By that time he had antagonized both liberals and Bonapartists by his ruthless destruction of the revolutionary and Napoleonic legends.
Nevertheless, his influence was great and diversified. His positivistic and physiological approach to psychology was adopted by Théodule Ribot, Pierre Janet, and others, and his opposition to centralization and to revolutionary experiments attracted Catholic traditionalists such as Paul Bourget and Maurice Barrès, who, however, ignored his severe condemnation of the old regime and his outspoken sympathies for Protestant and parliamentary England.
Although Taine’s philosophical views were formed early in life under the joint influence of Benedict de Spinoza, G. W. F. Hegel, and classical science, they were first systematically expounded in his De l’intelligence. The theory of mind presented in this book is based on Taine’s general monism and determinism.
Thus in the preface to the fourth edition, he stated his opposition to faculty psychology on the grounds that words such as capacity, self, reason, and memory suggest by their simplicity the existence of indivisible mental entities and thus prevent us from grasping the enormous complexities of the underlying psychological mechanisms.
The self is nothing but a series of mental events. In his attack on the substantialization of the self and the reification of abstractions, Taine drew on psychopathology and neural physiology.
|Benedict de Spinoza|
Psychopathology shows how mental disease can dissociate the components of a complex phenomenon that appears subjectively as simple; neural physiology reveals the enormous complexity of the neural mechanism that underlies mental phenomena.
Taine held a double-aspect theory of the relation between introspective data and public physical events; the mental and the physical are two sides of the same process, “two translations of the same text”. Taine’s use of physiological analysis, his strictures on introspection, and his mechanistic determinism place him among the naturalists.
Like most of his contemporaries, Taine regarded classical science as complete, and its picture of nature as definitive. Like Herbert Spencer, Wilhelm Ostwald, and others, he regarded the law of conservation of energy as ultimate, as “the immutable ground of being,” and the equivalence of cause and effect as a consequence of this law.
Taine applied his rigorous determinism to all phenomena—physical, mental, and social. There is little in his writings dealing directly with physical phenomena, but there is no question that the determinism of classical physics was for him an ideal model to which other sciences should conform.
Thus in the introduction to his Histoire de la littérature anglaise, he proposed that every social phenomenon should be explained as the result of race, environment, and time—that is, of the particular psychosocial state of a society.
Taine had already applied this method in previous essays, and he applied it in his Philosophie de l’art and later in his major historical work, Les origines de la France contemporaine, inspired by his reflections on the French defeat in 1870. The thesis of this monumental and controversial work is that there was one persistent theme—excessive centralization—underlying all the violent upheavals of modern France.
Introduced by the Bourbons, it was strengthened by the French Revolution, which destroyed the natural provinces and replaced them by departments which were mere administrative appendixes of the central government; in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte the centralized administrative structure was an efficient tool of internal control and external conquest, but it became an unwieldy bureaucratic machine as soon as it was deprived of Napoleon’s ruthless energy.
Taine’s detailed study of social conditions under the old regime, of revolutionary excesses, and of mob psychology after 1789 strengthened the inclination to pessimism present in his previous writings. This inclination found its most eloquent expression in the following passage: “Man is a nervous machine, governed by a mood, disposed to hallucinations, transported by unbridled passions, essentially unreasonable”.
In De l’intelligence Taine had said that every image tends to acquire a hallucinatory intensity unless checked by the inhibiting influence of other images. Thus mental equilibrium and social stability are mere “happy accidents.” Civilization is a mere surface beneath which lurk irrational drives always ready to break through.