Imre Lakatos: A Critical Appraisal

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2016. Imre Lakatos: A Critical Appraisal, URL = <>.

Portrait of philosopher Imre Lakatos

Imre Lakatos is widely regarded as one of the most significant philosophers of science of the twentieth century. Along with Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, he helped shape modern approaches to the theory of knowledge. Lakatos championed the importance of the study of the history of science and its implications for epistemology until his sudden death in 1974.

In this critical review, I will examine two of Lakatos' fundamental theses. His first thesis sought to answer the question, 'What is science and what are its methods?' Lakatos' answer to this question was that science is a body of knowledge arrived at by a methodology of competing research programmes.[1] In the first part of this review (§2), I will outline Lakatos' view of the core components of a scientific research programme and how it operates to advance our knowledge of the world. Although I accept his characterization of the nature and methods of science as being substantially correct, I go on to identify four shortcomings requiring a solution.

Firstly, I question the reason proponents of a research programme protect its metaphysical core from refutation. Is it by methodological fiat, as Lakatos suggests, or is there a less dogmatic reason? I also question Lakatos' separation of variants of a single theory during its historical development into different theories. Another quandary I address about theories is whether we should include the background assumptions required to make predictions as part of the theory itself, as Lakatos suggests. And I leave unsettled a key difficulty in separating out the metaphysical core and the positive heuristic of scientific research programmes.

Lakatos' second thesis proposed a solution to the problem of developing and testing theories of rationality. On Lakatos' view, a methodology should be judged by how well it reconstructs the history of science as a rational enterprise. The most useful meta-methodology, he proposed, was his own methodology of scientific research programmes elevated as a meta-criterion.[2] In the second part of this essay (§3), I critically examine Lakatos' historiographical criteria for evaluating theories of rationality based on how well they reconstruct the history of science. I reveal the internal tensions lurking in Lakatos' four criteria and replace them with two revised criteria. To finish off, in order to strengthen his test for methodological adequacy, I supplement his historiographical conditions with a new coherence test.


  1. [1] See Lakatos [1978a: ch. 1], also reprinted in Lakatos and Musgrave [1970: 91–196]. For an earlier formulation, see Lakatos [1978b: part 2, ch. 8, §6].
  2. [2] See Lakatos [1978a: ch. 2].

Copyright © 2016

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