Imre Lakatos: A Critical Appraisal

3. History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions

3.2 Tensions in Lakatos' Meta-criterion

Book cover: Lakatos: An Introduction by Brendan Larvor

Lakatos' novel contribution to the theory of how to test theories of rationality against the history of science is very interesting. I would like to make a few brief remarks. His critique of meta-falsificationism is devastating because, as Lakatos points out, meta-falsificationism does not allow for the fact that science as a human enterprise is not completely rational [1978a: 131, 134] and, secondly, is incapable of evaluating progress in theories of rationality [1978a: 132]. Lakatos' proposed alternative meta-criterion [1978a: 132–4], the MHRP, recognizes progress in theories of rationality if the new theory:

  1. reconstructs more, but never all, of the basic value judgements of scientists as rational,
  2. leads to an empirically progressive revision of some previously held basic value judgements,
  3. predicts novel historical facts, and
  4. anticipates further basic value judgements.

Conditions 3. and 4. above serve a part of the function of evaluating ordinary scientific historico-sociological research programmes, such as Marxism and Bellah's typology of religions, in accordance with the MSRP.[6] (They are only a part because Lakatos did not include the condition that the predictions must be in accord with the positive heuristic of the programme. Fortunately, such a heuristic may be easily reconstructed.) This is to be expected if progress in theories of rationality is dependent on our knowledge of science as a historico-sociological enterprise. So, by knowing more about what scientists do and how scientists evaluate, we shall know more about rationality.

Conditions 1. and 2. introduce the normative elements into the meta-criterion. But here a tension develops. Consider this possibility. A new methodology is proposed and developed that reconstructs fewer of the basic value judgements of scientists as rational compared with the MSRP and is remarkably empirically progressive, predicting (postdicting) many astounding novel historical facts.

This new methodology is empirically progressive in two ways. Firstly, by writing the history of science as the application of this method it uncovers novel historical facts. It is progressive in its 'internal' historiography. Lakatos' [1978a: 133] successful predictions of 'a complicated war of attrition' without crucial experiments and 'hordes of known anomalies in research programmes progressing on possibly inconsistent foundations' are examples of this 'internal' empirical progressiveness of his MSRP.

Secondly, this new methodology postdicts novel historical facts in its neutralization of its 'anomalies'; that is, those 'basic value judgments' of the scientific community that conflict with the methodology. It explains these conflicts, in an empirically progressive way, as the result of deviant sociological or psychological causes, such as religious or political persecution of rival scientists. The methodology is empirically progressive in its 'external' historiography.

Now, it seems that this new methodology would represent progress in our theories of rationality. However, surprisingly, for Lakatos it would not be progressive because it did not reconstruct more of the basic value judgements of scientists as rational. But is it not more important to develop a deeper understanding of scientific methodology than to be inadvertently drawn into a rationalization of the prejudices of some scientists by insisting on the numerical increase of 'rationally' reconstructed 'basic value judgements'?

Lakatos had recognized that progress in our theories of rationality 'must even lead to the revision of previously held basic value judgements'. 'This', according to Lakatos, 'is analogous to the exceptional "depth" of a theory which clashes with some basic statements available at the time and, at the end, emerges from the clash victoriously.' [1978a: 132 and n. 1 on same page] Lakatos' insight here is a statement of condition 2. above and reflects the line of thought I have. In contrast, however, Lakatos' condition 1., specifying a numerical increase in agreement, severely restricts the amount of 'depth' a theory of rationality is allowed to possess. Lakatos had never appreciated this tension between his conditions and easily conflated them into one harmonious standard: 'progress in the theory of rationality is marked by discoveries of novel historical facts, by the reconstruction of a growing bulk of value-impregnated history as rational' [1978a: 133].


  1. [6] Condition 4. may be considered a subclass of condition 3.

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