Imre Lakatos: A Critical Appraisal

3. History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions

3.1 Internal Coherence of Theories of Rationality

Book cover: Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology by Timothy McGrew, Marc Alspector-Kelly and Fritz Allhoff

Lakatos had not only argued that his methodology of scientific research programmes (MSRP) is the best available characterization of scientific method, but that it is also the most adequate theory of rationality. According to his theory of rationality, it is rational to epistemically value progressive research programmes while epistemically devaluing degenerating programmes. Naturally, he considered it irrational to do the converse. In his [1978a: 119], Lakatos attempted to defend this thesis in a novel manner. I shall argue that Lakatos' defence is not wholly adequate and then go on to propose what I think is a more successful vindication of Lakatos' criteria.

Lakatos' argument was this. All of the methodologies of science so far proposed have been offered as normative criteria for scientific rationality. Each methodology serves to provide a different rational reconstruction of the history of science. Furthermore, they differ on where to place the dividing line separating what is to be explained 'internally' as the idealized application of scientific method and what is to be explained 'externally', in socio-psychological terms, as the difference between the rationally reconstructed 'internal' history and actual history.

Conventionalist methodologies are notoriously difficult to criticize on logical and epistemological grounds. However, Lakatos proposed, they may be criticized for how inadequately they provide a rational reconstruction of the history of science. The criterion by which a rational reconstruction, and hence a methodology, may be judged is that methodology itself. So, falsificationism, which posits the conventional acceptance of 'basic statements', employed as such a normative historiographical meta-criterion, when applied to itself, 'falsifies' itself. This is so because the falsificationists' rationally reconstructed history of science is contradicted by an accepted 'basic value judgement' of the scientific elite. Most other methodologies, when used as a meta-criterion and applied to themselves, also fail their own standards.

Attempts at applying the meta-criterion of falsificationism, Lakatos continued, in order to 'falsify' the MSRP result in a hollow victory, for any methodology whatsoever can be 'falsified' because no community of scientists is completely rational, and so no rational reconstruction of science can ever perfectly mirror actual history. A more adequate normative historiographical meta-criterion is a meta-methodology of scientific research programmes or, what Lakatos termed, a 'methodology of historiographical research programmes' (MHRP). Different methodologies are now seen as the hard cores of normative historiographical research programmes.

Book cover: For and Against Method by Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend

The advantage of the MHRP is that it allows the proponents of a historiographical research programme to ignore anomalies as long as the programme is progressing. Secondly, the proponents of the programme need only take notice of criticism if it is constructive; that is, if the criticism will further our knowledge of method. On this meta-criterion, the MSRP is progressive since it reconstructs more of the history of science as rational, has led to the reversal of some historiographical appraisals and has successfully predicted novel historical facts.

Lakatos [1978a: 132] was correct in 'maintaining that a theory of rationality has to try to organize basic value judgements in universal, coherent frameworks'. However, he failed to raise, let alone answer, the question of why Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment physics should be regarded as the paradigm of rationality. Lakatos had given us no argument as to why it is not more reasonable to accept, say, the basic value judgements of fundamentalist theologians as exemplars of rationality and test our rational reconstructions of the history of fundamentalist theology against these judgements. 'Rational reconstructions', therefore, cannot be methodologically instructive unless we have some defensible reason for our choice of historical subject matter.[4]

So, a methodologist faced with a failure of his methodology (qua rational reconstruction of science) to stand up to historical tests has the option of retaining his methodology while discarding the thesis that science is a rational enterprise. For Lakatos simply to charge such people with 'disrespect' [1978a: 127] and 'temerity' [1978a: 129], and to leave it at that, is just not good enough.

I do think, though, that Lakatos' thesis is of some value if it is supplemented with an argument for the prima facie rationality of the scientific enterprise. Such an argument would refer to the way in which the spectacular predictive and technological success of the sciences was foreshadowed by deliberate theoretical developments, making it even more unlikely that this success was due to 'fantastic networks of coincidences'.[5] Any alternative theory of rationality must adequately explain this predictive and technological power as being the byproduct of irrational and non-rational forces. Seen in this light, the testing of methodologies against the history of science has prima facie plausibility.


  1. [4] Feyerabend has forcefully argued this point in his [1975: 201–14] and again in his [1979: 109–20].
  2. [5] In presenting one form of this argument, Shimony [1976: 474–8] refers to the difficulty in accounting for the success of science as the result of 'fantastic networks of coincidences'. Worrall [1976: 164] also briefly alludes to the prima facie plausibility of the rationality of science.

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