In "The Production of Knowledge" William Starbuck presents the following anecdote (without providing its source). Is this anecdote based on a real historically traceable incidence?

During the thirteenth century, professors at the University of Paris decided to find out whether oil would congeal if left outdoors on a cold night. They launched a research project to investigate the question. To them, research meant searching through the works of Aristotle. After much effort, they found that nothing Aristotle had written answered their question, so they declared the question unanswerable.

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    One reason to be highly skeptical of this is that cooking fats of various sorts - including olive oil - were not unknown to Europeans of the time. And Europe is hardly tropical. Their behavior in cold weather should have been well-known.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 6:33
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    I can't find anything either, but it seems very likely considering Aristotle wrote a lot about the organisation or informing of something (namely compounds). Alexander of Aprodisias also analyzed Aristotle's discoveries in a book called "Alexander of Aprodisias: On Aristotle Meteorology 4" - which is available for free on Google Books.
    – Yisela
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 16:32
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    This sounds like an amusing made-up anecdote, but I think that ancient manuscripts really did prevent a lot of original research in the Middle Ages.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 12:57
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    There might have existed some morons in the University of Paris then, as surely exist now. But the anecdote smells of modern prejudice and frivolity. Even Albert the Great (1200-1280), one of the most ardent fans of Aristotle of the time, was not afraid of contradicting him. "whoever believes that Aristotle was a god ought to believe that he never erred; if he however believes that Aristotle was but a man, then without doubt he could err just as we can too" (Physica VII, 1, 14 - klemens.sav.sk/fiusav/doc/organon/2006/1/16-31.pdf )
    – leonbloy
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 19:26
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    I contacted the author directly. This claim was originally mentioned in a 1974 book titled “Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution”, authored by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch. The story appears near the top of page 78 (or Chapter 7), but the authors do not provide a historical reference. I have no access to such book, but it would be interesting to see if there are any other hints mentioned there.
    – Yisela
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 10:19

2 Answers 2


In short: The claim mentioned above is not based on a real historically traceable incidence.

As revealed by Yisela's excellent inquiry from W. Starbuck, mentioned above in a comment, the argument stems from

"Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution”, authored by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch. The story appears near the top of page 78 (or Chapter 7

and indeed

the authors do not provide a historical reference

More correct answer: Within the original work (Watzlawic et al.) the claim conveys something true.

First, the above story appears in a chapter that is dedicated to the formation of mythologies. The chapter also discusses subjective origins of mythologies.

This is what happened to me when reading the above story in this context:

  1. At first it sounded somewhat plausible to me
  2. Given the context of the chapter, I would however be even more skeptical, whether this might be an intellectual joke with some basic underlying truth.
  3. Rather than providing a reference (like for other examples in the same book), the paragraph ends with a rather lengthy footnote without much meaning. In the middle of this footnote the authors however state:

Conversely, many gifted writers are astounded and even annoyed at the deeper meanings that others read into their works. Thus while the former believe they know, but apparently do not, the latter seem to know more than they are willing to acknowledge

  1. With this in mind I would re-read the chapter, and note that one paragraph before the story on 13th century scholars, the authors use an argument that seems to run at odds with the story on 13th century scholars (and relates to an aspect recognized by Obie 2.0's comment on original question):

... if anybody had bothered to look at the most obvious source for the understanding of change, he didn't not leave a written record.

  1. Continuing to read (and reflecting the above comment of Avery that something should be known in other records), the story sounds even more exaggerated, as it is introduced (without a reference) as:

In more than one way, this absurd situation reminded us of a famous piece of scholastic enquiry into the nature of things; at some point during the thirteenth century...

In short, Watzlawic et al. are somewhat funny, and have a justified point.

  • Given the comment of Yisela, I just got a copy of the original book.
    – tsttst
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 2:46
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    I feel like skeptics.SE just collectively unveiled a bit of cosmic irony.
    – Avery
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 7:54
  • "Within the original work (Watzlawic et al.) the claim conveys something true" — Can you explain what that "something true" is? On first reading — and second reading — Watzlawic et al. are just making up a story about a "famous piece of scholastic enquiry" which never happened and was apparently never even reported to have happened, prior to Watzlawic-et-al.'s making it up. Are you saying that the falsehood of W.'s surface claim was in some way important to the deeper truth (whatever it was)? or would it have been possible for W. to have made the same point in a truthful way? Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 18:00
  • @Quuxplusone The topic of the chapter from which the above claim originates, discusses how certain types of stories (also on invented issues) start. Most of the chapter is truthful in the literal sense. Sneaking in an invented claim, which takes its own life (and is picked up by others), shows that Watzlawic et al. correctly understood how stories start. In that sense the invented claim it is a true example of the main point of their chapter.
    – tsttst
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 3:54

This story is surprisingly easy to completely disprove, because devotion to Aristotle's worldview was banned at the University of Paris in thirteenth century.

Condemnations of 1210–1277

The Condemnation of 1210 was issued by the provincial synod of Sens, which included the Bishop of Paris as a member (at the time Peter of Nemours). The writings of a number of medieval scholars were condemned, apparently for pantheism, and it was further stated that: "Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication."

It is not known how far this ban was taken, but the Wikipedia page makes clear that we have no direct evidence that Aristotle was publicly read between 1210 and 1277, making this anecdote impossible.

The 1277 ban was more serious and listed 219 teachings derived from Aristotle which were forbidden at the university. For example, Aristotle taught that "nature abhors a vacuum," but without scientific evidence this was considered a mere human-authored dogma, so proclaiming it to students was banned. Other Aristotelian dogmas that were rejected through the ban include "there exists only a single planet in the universe" and "the heavens do not move."

Medieval historians have concluded that the 1277 ban created conditions for more open, lively academic debate about the nature of the universe. Which makes this anecdote even more impossible.

  • This is reasonably compelling, but what about prior to 1210?
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 14:43
  • My personal feeling is that if Aristotle was so worshiped in 1200-1210 for this to happen, then someone in one of the articles I read would have mentioned it. That's just my judgement though
    – Avery
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 14:59
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    Condemnations of this variety are often made because a work is having too much influence. Further, there's some suggestion that the condemnation of 1210 was not particularly well enforced. Among other things, if it had been well-enforced, one wonders at the need for the Condemnation of 1277. Basing a declaration of "making this anecdote impossible" on "personal feelings" is kind of shaky ground.
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 15:08
  • To be clear, I am not basing a declaration of "making this anecdote impossible" on "personal feelings". The anecdote is clearly impossible from 1210-1300. From 1201-1210 I simply think it runs against common sense that real historians would not mention it.
    – Avery
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 2:04
  • It could be before 1210, or afterwards. When said university was officially recognized by the pope in 1215, one part of the work of Aristotle was explicitly encouraged - the ban on Aristotle was restricted to the subset of his works with theological implications (also see: medieval.ucdavis.edu/120B/Paris.html ) While I am also skeptical about the claim, Starbuck is a reputable scientist by himself ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Starbuck ) and starting a book with an invented story (which has since been cited in other scientific publications ...) too appears unusual.
    – tsttst
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 2:13

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