“Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?”: Revisited

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Using the incident of Vincent van Gogh’s cutting off his ear, Runyan (1981) published an original and important methodological article on how progress can be made in understanding and explaining unique actions of historical individuals. Runyan’s main goal was to outline 13 alternative hypotheses about psychological causes involved in the incident and evaluate each of them using a Popperian methodological approach of “conjecture” and “refutation” to reduce their number. This review goes further by showing how two different combinations of hypotheses, both old and new, that resist initial singular refutation and represent different aspects of the ear-cutting incident, can be used to form 2 larger coherent accounts for these events that can compete with each other. Only some of possible “ingredient” causes represented in these hypotheses can fit naturally together as a coherent “recipe” to form a unitary account. The author first sorts hypotheses with respect to three questions: Why did the ear-cutting event occur when it did? Why did Vincent mutilate himself as part of this event? Why did Vincent cut off his ear rather than mutilate some other body part? After providing preliminary answers to the first 2 questions, the author engages in a close investigation of why the ear, in particular, was the object taken by Vincent for masochistic action and reveals what was probably going on in Van Gogh’s mind at the time. This provides a basis for evaluating which of the 2 larger unitary accounts provides the best singular explanation of the ear-cutting incident and its aftermath.

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