Imre Lakatos

Imre Lakatos

Imre Lakatos
Imre Lakatos, c. 1960s
Born (1922-11-09)November 9, 1922
Debrecen, Hungary
Died February 2, 1974(1974-02-02) (aged 51)
London, England
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Eleatic fallibilism, critic of Logical Positivism, Formalism (philosophy), Falsificationism
Main interests
Philosophy of mathematics, Philosophy of science, Epistemology, Politics,
Notable ideas
Method of Proofs and Refutations, Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Methodology of Historiographical Research Programmes

Imre Lakatos (Hungarian: Lakatos Imre ; November 9, 1922 – February 2, 1974) was a Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science, known for his thesis of the fallibility of mathematics and its 'methodology of proofs and refutations' in its pre-axiomatic stages of development, and also for introducing the concept of the 'research programme' in his methodology of scientific research programmes.


  • Life 1
  • Proofs and refutations, mathematics 2
    • Cauchy and uniform convergence 2.1
  • Research programmes 3
  • Pseudoscience 4
    • Darwin's theory 4.1
  • Historiographical research programmes 5
  • Criticism 6
    • Feyerabend 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11
    • Archives 11.1


Lakatos was born Imre (Avrum) Lipschitz to a Jewish family in Debrecen, Hungary in 1922. He received a degree in mathematics, physics, and philosophy from the University of Debrecen in 1944. He avoided Nazi persecution of Jews by changing his name to Imre Molnár. His mother and grandmother died in Auschwitz. He became an active communist during the Second World War. He changed his surname once again to Lakatos (Locksmith) in honor of Géza Lakatos.

After the war, from 1947 he worked as a senior official in the Hungarian ministry of education. He also continued his education with a PhD at Debrecen University awarded in 1948, and also attended György Lukács's weekly Wednesday afternoon private seminars. He also studied at the Moscow State University under the supervision of Sofya Yanovskaya in 1949. When he returned, however, he found himself on the losing side of internal arguments within the Hungarian communist party and was imprisoned on charges of revisionism from 1950 to 1953. More of Lakatos' activities in Hungary after World War II have recently become known. In fact, Lakatos was a hardline Stalinist and, despite his young age, had an important role between 1945 and 1950 (his own arrest and jailing) in building up the Communist rule, especially in cultural life and the academia, in Hungary.[2]

After his release, Lakatos returned to academic life, doing mathematical research and translating How to Solve It into Hungarian. Still nominally a communist, his political views had shifted markedly and he was involved with at least one dissident student group in the lead-up to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

After the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in November 1956, Lakatos fled to Vienna, and later reached England. He received a doctorate in philosophy in 1961 from the University of Cambridge. The book Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, published after his death, is based on this work.

Lakatos never obtained British Citizenship. In 1960 he was appointed to a position in the London School of Economics, where he wrote on the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science. The LSE philosophy of science department at that time included Karl Popper, Joseph Agassi and JO Wisdom. The latter became his great friend. It was Agassi who first introduced Lakatos to Popper under the rubric of his applying a fallibilist methodology of conjectures and refutations to mathematics in his Cambridge PhD thesis.

With co-editor Alan Musgrave, he edited the often cited Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, the Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965. Published in 1970, the 1965 Colloquium included well-known speakers delivering papers in response to Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".

Lakatos remained at the London School of Economics until his sudden death in 1974 of a heart attack,[3] aged just 51. The Lakatos Award was set up by the school in his memory.

In January 1971 he became editor of the internationally prestigious British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, which his friend JO Wisdom had built up before departing in 1965, until his death in 1974,[4] after which it was then edited jointly for many years by his LSE colleagues John W. N. Watkins and John Worrall, Lakatos's ex-research assistant.

His last LSE lectures in scientific method in Lent Term 1973 along with parts of his correspondence with his friend and critic Paul Feyerabend have been published in For and Against Method (ISBN 0-226-46774-0).

Lakatos and his colleague neoclassical economics, were published by Cambridge University Press in two separate volumes in 1976, one devoted to physical sciences and Lakatos's general programme for rewriting the history of science, with a concluding critique by his great friend Paul Feyerabend, and the other devoted to economics.[5]

Proofs and refutations, mathematics

Lakatos' philosophy of mathematics was inspired by both George Polya.

The 1976 book Proofs and Refutations is based on the first three chapters of his four chapter 1961 doctoral thesis Essays in the logic of mathematical discovery. But its first chapter is Lakatos's own revision of its chapter 1 that was first published as Proofs and Refutations in four parts in 1963-4 in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. It is largely taken up by a fictional dialogue set in a mathematics class. The students are attempting to prove the formula for the Euler characteristic in algebraic topology, which is a theorem about the properties of polyhedra, namely that for all polyhedra the number of their (V)ertices minus the number of their (E)dges plus the number of their (F)aces is 2:  (V – E + F = 2). The dialogue is meant to represent the actual series of attempted proofs which mathematicians historically offered for the conjecture, only to be repeatedly refuted by counterexamples. Often the students paraphrase famous mathematicians such as Cauchy, as noted in Lakatos's extensive footnotes.

What Lakatos tried to establish was that no theorem of informal mathematics is final or perfect. This means that we should not think that a theorem is ultimately true, only that no counterexample has yet been found. Once a counterexample, i.e. an entity contradicting/not explained by the theorem is found, we adjust the theorem, possibly extending the domain of its validity. This is a continuous way our knowledge accumulates, through the logic and process of proofs and refutations. (If axioms are given for a branch of mathematics, however, Lakatos claimed that proofs from those axioms were tautological, i.e. logically true.)

Lakatos proposed an account of mathematical knowledge based on the idea of heuristics. In Proofs and Refutations the concept of 'heuristic' was not well developed, although Lakatos gave several basic rules for finding proofs and counterexamples to conjectures. He thought that mathematical 'thought experiments' are a valid way to discover mathematical conjectures and proofs, and sometimes called his philosophy 'quasi-empiricism'.

However, he also conceived of the mathematical community as carrying on a kind of dialectic to decide which mathematical proofs are valid and which are not. Therefore he fundamentally disagreed with the 'formalist' conception of proof which prevailed in Frege's and Russell's logicism, which defines proof simply in terms of formal validity.

On its first publication as a paper in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in 1963-4, Proofs and Refutations became highly influential on new work in the philosophy of mathematics, although few agreed with Lakatos' strong disapproval of formal proof. Before his death he had been planning to return to the philosophy of mathematics and apply his theory of research programmes to it. Lakatos, Worrall and Zahar use Poincaré (1893)[6] to answer one of the major problems perceived by critics, namely that the pattern of mathematical research depicted in Proofs and Refutations does not faithfully represent most of the actual activity of contemporary mathematicians.[7]

Cauchy and uniform convergence

In a 1966 text published as (Lakatos 1978), Lakatos re-examines the history of the calculus, with special regard to Augustin-Louis Cauchy and the concept of uniform convergence, in the light of non-standard analysis. Lakatos is concerned that historians of mathematics should not judge the evolution of mathematics in terms of currently fashionable theories. As an illustration, he examines Cauchy's proof that the sum of a series of continuous functions is itself continuous. Lakatos is critical of those who would see Cauchy's proof, with its failure to make explicit a suitable convergence hypothesis, merely as an inadequate approach to Weierstrassian analysis. Lakatos sees in such an approach a failure to realize that Cauchy's concept of the continuum differed from currently dominant views.

Research programmes

Lakatos's second major contribution to the philosophy of science was his model of the 'research programme', which he formulated in an attempt to resolve the perceived conflict between Popper's falsificationism and the revolutionary structure of science described by Kuhn. Popper's standard of falsificationism was widely taken to imply that a theory should be abandoned as soon as any evidence appears to challenge it, while Kuhn's descriptions of scientific activity were taken to imply that science was most constructive when it upheld a system of popular, or 'normal', theories, despite anomalies. Lakatos' model of the research programme aims to combine Popper's adherence to empirical validity with Kuhn's appreciation for conventional consistency.

A Lakatosian research programme[8] is based on a hard core of theoretical assumptions that cannot be abandoned or altered without abandoning the programme altogether. More modest and specific theories that are formulated in order to explain evidence that threatens the 'hard core' are termed auxiliary hypotheses. Auxiliary hypotheses are considered expendable by the adherents of the research programme—they may be altered or abandoned as empirical discoveries require in order to 'protect' the 'hard core'. Whereas Popper was generally read as hostile toward such ad hoc theoretical amendments, Lakatos argued that they can be progressive, i.e. productive, when they enhance the programme's explanatory and/or predictive power, and that they are at least permissible until some better system of theories is devised and the research programme is replaced entirely. The difference between a progressive and a degenerative research programme lies, for Lakatos, in whether the recent changes to its auxiliary hypotheses have achieved this greater explanatory/predictive power or whether they have been made simply out of the necessity of offering some response in the face of new and troublesome evidence. A degenerative research programme indicates that a new and more progressive system of theories should be sought to replace the currently prevailing one, but until such a system of theories can be conceived of and agreed upon, abandonment of the current one would only further weaken our explanatory power and was therefore unacceptable for Lakatos. Lakatos's primary example of a research programme that had been successful in its time and then progressively replaced is that founded by Isaac Newton, with his three laws of motion forming the 'hard core'.

The Lakatosian research programme deliberately provides a framework within which research can be conducted on the basis of 'first principles' (the 'hard core') which are shared by those involved in the research programme and accepted for the purpose of that research without further proof or debate. In this regard, it is similar to Kuhn's notion of a paradigm. Lakatos sought to replace Kuhn's paradigm, guided by an irrational 'psychology of discovery', with a research programme no less coherent or consistent yet guided by Popper's objectively valid logic of discovery.

Lakatos was following Pierre Duhem's idea that one can always protect a cherished theory (or part of one) from hostile evidence by redirecting the criticism toward other theories or parts thereof. (See Confirmation holism and Duhem-Quine thesis). This aspect of falsification had been acknowledged by Popper.

Popper's theory, Falsificationism, proposed that scientists put forward theories and that nature 'shouts NO' in the form of an inconsistent observation. According to Popper, it is irrational for scientists to maintain their theories in the face of Nature's rejection, as Kuhn had described them doing. For Lakatos, however, "It is not that we propose a theory and Nature may shout NO; rather, we propose a maze of theories, and nature may shout INCONSISTENT".[9] The continued adherence to a programme's 'hard core', augmented with adaptable auxiliary hypotheses, reflects Lakatos's less strict standard of falsificationism.

Lakatos saw himself as merely extending Popper's ideas, which changed over time and were interpreted by many in conflicting ways. He contrasted Popper, the "naive falsificationist" who demanded unconditional rejection of any theory in the face of any anomaly (an interpretation Lakatos saw as erroneous but that he nevertheless referred to often); Popper1, the more nuanced and conservatively interpreted philosopher; and Popper2, the "sophisticated methodological falsificationist" that Lakatos claims is the logical extension of the correctly interpreted ideas of Popper1 (and who is therefore essentially Lakatos himself). It is, therefore, very difficult to determine which ideas and arguments concerning the research programme should be credited to whom.

While Lakatos dubbed his theory "sophisticated methodological falsificationism", it is not "methodological" in the strict sense of asserting universal methodological rules by which all scientific research must abide. Rather, it is methodological only in that theories are only abandoned according to a methodical progression from worse theories to better theories—a stipulation overlooked by what Lakatos terms "dogmatic falsificationism". Methodological assertions in the strict sense, pertaining to which methods are valid and which are invalid, are, themselves, contained within the research programmes that choose to adhere to them, and should be judged according to whether the research programmes that adhere to them prove progressive or degenerative. Lakatos divided these 'methodological rules' within a research programme into its 'negative heuristics', i.e., what research methods and approaches to avoid, and its 'positive heuristics', i.e., what research methods and approaches to prefer.

Lakatos claimed that not all changes of the auxiliary hypotheses of a research programme (which he calls 'problem shifts') are equally productive or acceptable. He took the view that these 'problem shifts' should be evaluated not just by their ability to defend the 'hard core' by explaining apparent anomalies, but also by their ability to produce new facts, in the form of predictions or additional explanations.[10] Adjustments that accomplish nothing more than the maintenance of the 'hard core' mark the research programme as degenerative.

Lakatos' model provides for the possibility of a research programme that is not only continued in the presence of troublesome anomalies but that remains progressive despite them. For Lakatos, it is essentially necessary to continue on with a theory that we basically know cannot be completely true, and it is even possible to make scientific progress in doing so, as long as we remain receptive to a better research programme that may eventually be conceived of. In this sense, it is, for Lakatos, an acknowledged misnomer to refer to 'falsification' or 'refutation', when it is not the truth or falsity of a theory that is solely determining whether we consider it 'falsified', but also the availability of a less false theory. A theory cannot be rightfully 'falsified', according to Lakatos, until it is superseded by a better (i.e. more progressive) research programme. This is what he says is happening in the historical periods Kuhn describes as revolutions and what makes them rational as opposed to mere leaps of faith or periods of deranged social psychology, as Kuhn argued.


According to the demarcation criterion of pseudoscience originally proposed by Lakatos, a theory is pseudoscientific if it fails to make any novel predictions of previously unknown phenomena, in contrast with scientific theories, which predict novel fact(s).[11] Progressive scientific theories are those which have their novel facts confirmed and degenerate scientific theories are those whose predictions of novel facts are refuted. As he put it:

"A given fact is explained scientifically only if a new fact is predicted with it....The idea of growth and the concept of empirical character are soldered into one." See pages 34–5 of The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, 1978.

Lakatos's own key examples of pseudoscience were Ptolemaic astronomy, Immanuel Velikovsky's planetary cosmogony, Freudian psychoanalysis, 20th century Soviet Marxism,[12] Lysenko's biology, Niels Bohr's Quantum Mechanics post-1924, astrology, psychiatry, sociology, neoclassical economics, and Darwin's theory.

Darwin's theory

In his 1973 LSE Scientific Method Lecture 1[13] he also claimed that "nobody to date has yet found a demarcation criterion according to which Darwin can be described as scientific".

Almost 20 years after Lakatos's 1973 challenge to the scientificity of Darwin, in her 1991 The Ant and the Peacock, LSE lecturer and ex-colleague of Lakatos, Helena Cronin, attempted to establish that Darwinian theory was empirically scientific in respect of at least being supported by evidence of likeness in the diversity of life forms in the world, explained by descent with modification. She wrote that
our usual idea of corroboration as requiring the successful prediction of novel facts...Darwinian theory was not strong on temporally novel predictions. ... however familiar the evidence and whatever role it played in the construction of the theory, it still confirms the theory.[14]

Historiographical research programmes

In his 1970 paper History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions[15] Lakatos proposed a dialectical historiographical meta-method for evaluating different theories of scientific method, namely by means of their comparative success in explaining the actual history of science and scientific revolutions on the one hand, whilst on the other providing a historiographical framework for rationally reconstructing the history of science as anything more than merely inconsequential rambling. The paper started with his now renowned dictum "Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind."

However neither Lakatos himself nor his collaborators ever completed the first part of this dictum by showing that in any scientific revolution the great majority of the relevant scientific community converted just when Lakatos's criterion – one programme successfully predicting some novel facts whilst its competitor degenerated - was satisfied. Indeed for the historical case studies in his 1970 Criticism and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes he had openly admitted as much, commenting 'In this paper it is not my purpose to go on seriously to the second stage of comparing rational reconstructions with actual history for any lack of historicity.'



Paul Feyerabend argued that Lakatos's methodology was not a methodology at all, but merely "words that sound like the elements of a methodology."[16] He argued that Lakatos's methodology was no different in practice from epistemological anarchism, Feyerabend's own position. He wrote in Science in a Free Society (after Lakatos's death) that:
Lakatos realized and admitted that the existing standards of rationality, standards of logic included, were too restrictive and would have hindered science had they been applied with determination. He therefore permitted the scientist to violate them (he admits that science is not "rational" in the sense of these standards). However, he demanded that research programmes show certain features in the long run — they must be progressive.... I have argued that this demand no longer restricts scientific practice. Any development agrees with it.[17]
Lakatos and Feyerabend planned to produce a joint work in which Lakatos would develop a rationalist description of science and Feyerabend would attack it.

See also


  1. ^ András Máté (2006). "Árpád Szabó and Imre Lakatos, Or the relation between history and philosophy of mathematics". Perspectives on Science 14 (3): 282–301.  
  2. ^
  3. ^ Donald Gillies. Imre Lakatos. Paul K. Feyerabend. On the Threshold of Science: For and Against Method, by Matteo Motterlini. The British Journal of the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 47, No. 3, Sep., 1996.
  4. ^ See Lakatos's 5 Jan 1971 letter to Paul Feyerabend p233-4 in Motterlini's 1999 For and Against Method
  5. ^ These were respectively Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences: The Critical Background to Modern Science 1800-1905 Colin Howson (Ed)and Method and Appraisal in Economics Spiro J. Latsis (Ed)
  6. ^ Poincaré, H. (1893). "Sur la Généralisation d'un Théorème d'Euler relatif aux Polyèdres", Comptes Redus de Seances de l'Academie des Sciences, 117 p. 144, as cited in Lakatos, Worrall and Zahar, p. 162
  7. ^ Lakatos, Worrall and Zahar (1976), Proofs and Refutations ISBN 0-521-21078-X, pp. 106-126, note that Poincaré's formal proof (1899) "Complèment à l'Analysis Situs", Rediconti del Circolo Matematico di Palermo, 13, pp. 285-343, rewrites Euler's conjecture into a tautology of vector algebra.
  8. ^ Bruce J. Caldwell (1991) "The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Criticisms and Conjectures" in G.K. Shaw ed. (1991) Economics, Culture, and Education: Essays in Honor of Mark Blaug Aldershot: Elgar, 1991 pp.95-107
  9. ^ Lakatos, Musgrave ed. (1970), Pg. 130
  10. ^ Theoretical progressiveness is if the new 'theory has more empirical content than the old. Empirical progressiveness is if some of this content is corroborated. (Lakatos ed., 1970, P.118)
  11. ^ See/hear Lakatos's 1973 Open University BBC Radio talk Science and Pseudoscience at his LSE website @
  12. ^ Lakatos notably only condemned specifically Soviet Marxism as pseudoscientific, as opposed to Marxism in general. In fact at the very end of his very last LSE lectures on Scientific Method in 1973, he finished by posing the question of whether Trotsky's theoretical development of Marxism was scientific, and commented that "Nobody has ever undertaken a critical history of Marxism with the aid of better methodological and historiographical instruments. Nobody has ever tried to find an answer to questions like: were Trotsky's unorthodox predictions simply patching up a badly degenerating programme, or did they represent a creative development of Marx's programme? To answer similar questions, we would really need a detailed analysis which takes years of work. So I simply do not know the answer, even if I am very interested in it."[p109 Motterlini 1999] However, in his 1976 On the Critique of Scientific Reason Feyerabend claimed Vladimir Lenin's development of Marxism in his auxiliary theory of colonial exploitation had been 'Lakatos scientific' because it was "accompanied by a wealth of novel predictions (the arrival and structure of monopolies being one of them)." And he continued by claiming both Rosa Luxemburg's and Trotsky's developments of Marxism were close to what Lakatos regarded as scientific: "And whoever has read Rosa Luxemburg's reply to Bernstein's criticism of Marx or Trotsky's account of why the Russian Revolution took place in a backward country (cf also Lenin [1968], vol 19, pp99ff.) will see that Marxists are pretty close to what Lakatos would like any upstanding rationalist to do..." [See footnote 9, p315 of Howson (Ed) 1976]
  13. ^ Published in For and Against Method: Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend Motterlini (Ed) University of Chicago Press 1999
  14. ^ Cronin, H., The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, Cambridge University Press, 1993. pp. 31-32. [1]
  15. ^
    • Lakatos, Imre. (1970). History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association.
  16. ^ See How to Defend Society Against Science
  17. ^ Paul Feyerabend (1978). Science in a Free Society. London: NLB. ISBN 0-86091-008-3


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Cronin, Helena (1991) The Ant and the Peacock Cambridge University Press
  • Howson, Colin, Ed. Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences: The Critical Background to Modern Science 1800-1905 Cambridge University Press 1976 ISBN 0-521-21110-7
  • Kampis, Kvaz & Stoltzner (eds) APPRAISING LAKATOS: Mathematics, Methodology and the Man Vienna Circle Institute Library, Kluwer 2002 ISBN 1-4020-0226
  • Lakatos, Musgrave ed. (1970). Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-07826-1
  • Lakatos (1976). Proofs and Refutations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29038-4
  • Lakatos (1978). The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Lakatos (1978). Mathematics, Science and Epistemology: Philosophical Papers Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521217695
  • Lakatos, I.: Cauchy and the continuum: the significance of nonstandard analysis for the history and philosophy of mathematics. Math. Intelligencer 1 (1978), no. 3, 151–161 (paper originally presented in 1966).
  • Lakatos, I., and Feyerabend P., For and against Method: including Lakatos's Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence, ed. by Matteo Motterlini, Chicago University Press, (451 pp), 1999, ISBN 0-226-46774-0
  • Latsis, Spiro J. Ed. Method and Appraisal in Economics Cambridge University Press 1976 ISBN 0-521-21076-3
  • Popper, K R, (1972), Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach, Oxford (Clarendon Press) 1972 (bibliographic summary, no text).
  • Zahar, Elie (1973) Why Einstein's programme superseded Lorentz's British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
  • Zahar, Elie (1988) Einstein's Revolution: A study in heuristic Open Court 1988

Further reading

  • Alex Bandy (2010). Chocolate and Chess. Unlocking Lakatos. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. ISBN 978-963-05-8819-5
  • Brendan Larvor (1998). Lakatos: An Introduction. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-14276-8
  • Jancis Long (1998). "Lakatos in Hungary", Philosophy of the Social Sciences 28, pp. 244–311.
  • John Kadvany (2001). Imre Lakatos and the Guises of Reason. Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2659-0; author's web site:
  • Teun Koetsier (1991). Lakatos' Philosophy of Mathematics: A Historical Approach. Amsterdam etc.: North Holland. ISBN 0-444-88944-2
  • Szabó, Árpád The Beginnings of Greek Mathematics (Tr Ungar) Reidel & Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest 1978 ISBN 963-05-1416-8

External links

  • Science and Pseudoscience (including an MP3 audio file) – Lakatos' 1973 Open University BBC Radio talk on the subject
  •  .
  • Lakatos's Hungarian intellectual background The Autumn 2006 MIT Press journal Perspectives on Science devoted to articles on this topic, with article abstracts.
  • Economic research programme
  • Official Russian page


  • Imre Lakatos's papers are held at the London School of Economics. His personal library at the Wayback Machine (archived January 5, 2008) is also held at the School.