Lakatos introduced the notion of scientific research programmes, consisting of a hard core (basic assumptions of a theory) and a protective belt (auxiliary hypotheses that can be modified to protect the hard core from refutation), distinguishing between progressive and degenerating research programmes depending on whether they lead to new predictions and whether those predictions are eventually confirmed. Thus he took a position between Popper and Kuhn.

Lakatos's views have always seemed very plausible to me, but what is his significance in today's philosophy of science - is there any debate about his contributions to the philosophy of science, and what are some relevant recent articles?

Thanks for any suggestions!

  • 2
    "Lakatos’s influence, particularly in the philosophy of science, has been immense", says SEP. Some of his ideas became commonalities and the terminology he introduced is widely used even by non-philosophers. Corfield in Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics gives a sympathetic discussion of Lakatos's conception as it applies to mathematics, both pointing out its flaws and limitations and creatively developing his ideas
    – Conifold
    Aug 21, 2023 at 19:29
  • Noam Chomsky states in the introduction to his Minimalism Program that the minimalism program is a program “in the sense of Imre Lakatos”. Jan 27 at 5:17
  • @Conifold Yes, Corfield's article is great! Do you perhaps know anyone who has taken up the idea?
    – user71009
    Jan 27 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


The debates about "what is science", which raged thru the 20th century, are mostly historical now. And they were not definitively resolved. Like you, I am a latecomer to this historical debate, and cannot give you a definitive description of the current opinion on Lakatos. I will instead attempt to describe what conclusions I have drawn in my research on these questions.

The first candidate definition, that science is verificationism, hearkened back to Hume, and was championed by the Logical Positivists. LP was highly thought of for a time, but it is now nearly universally rejected as both an approach to philosophy as a whole, as well as its verificationist description of science. The primary problem with verificationism, is that we humans are built with strong confirmation biases, and almost any reasonably plausible idea can find cherry picked "verifications" for it. If we use verificationism for science, then looking for verifications will lead to all sorts of contradicting beliefs all of which lay claim to being "verified".

Popper's "Fasifiability" criteria was a significant improvement over verificationism, as it forces science to look at the hardest cases, and edge cases, which can refute a claim, rather than the "easy" ones which are invalidly used to claim "verification". Falsification is now widely applied across science, and Popper's criteria is widely accepted by practicing scientists.

Popper is not the final word, of course, because philosophers also like to do falsifiability tests of global claims, and falsifiability itself fails in many edge cases. Critics pointed out that science often ignores refuting test cases for highly useful theories for decades, that the overturning of theories by these refutations follows a more sociological process than Popper's rigid one, and that the methodologies cited by Popper do not apply to all sciences, as some sciences do not follow any common methodology with all other sciences.

The competing views offered included Kuhn's "normal science" vs kind of random "paradigm shifts", Quine and Wittgenstein offered a conception of science as just one of many possible coherent community practices, and Feyerabend challenged that science has ANY methodology or common criteria of validity, offering instead an "anything goes" characterization. While Popper's falsifiability clearly has exceptions, there were issues that most scientists and other philosophers of science had as well with each of these alternatives.

Lakatos' Research Programme proposal encompasses the strengths of each of these alternatives. It preserves the importance of refutations, and the search for them. It allows for long periods where a refutation is tolerated to a theory, so long as the Research Programme is working to close the apparent refutation. It provides a better explanation for when a paradigm shift occurs, and why, than Kuhn does. It allows that the methodolgies of different programmes may be slightly different, so long as they are seeking better explanatory power, and to close out challenging observations. Lakatos appears, to my mind, to have captured the strengths of each of these competing views.

A flaw for Lakatos is that his criteria for progressivity and regressivity was not calculable. The problem he encountered while trying to axiomize progressivity and regressivity was a reprise of the problem that Popper encountered while trying to axiomize Versimilitude. The process of empiricism involves JUDGEMENT, and cannot be spelled out in a closed form logical case. Lakatos had not realized this, similarly to Popper and his expectation that Verisimilitude could be calculable. My takeaway -- empiricists need to abandon formal logical truth as a truth criteria, and accept instead pragmatic truth as their truth criteria.

The one subsequent effort to characterize science I have encountered is E.O. Wilson's effort to define the scientific process as one where one compiles evidences incrementally and cumulatively, a process he calls Consilience. One way to look at consilience is as a useful clarification of what a progressive Research Programme looks like.

Note that each of these competing views of science is useful and valid for at least some of what science does. All of them involve useful insights, which their proponents then try out universalizing. My personal view on this is that Popper's falsifiability criteria is a highly useful first approximation to science, and that Lakatos' Research Programmes are the most useful and comprehensive of the clarifications/alternatives to falsifiability.

The relatively high regard that Popper is held in by most scientists relative to his rivals strongly supports my approach of treating Popper as a good first approximation, and Lakatos's Research Programmes as the higher order theory one sometimes needs to resort to when simple falsifiability is not precise enough.

But if this narration is not comprehensive enough, and if you want to find recent explicit philosophic commentary on Lakatos, and some alternative narrative to the one I have developed for myself by sampling the materials I have found on this old debate, you will need to conduct a current philosophic database search.

  • Quine and Wittgenstein didn't say that. Wittgenstein didn't even do philosophy of science in the sense that is discussed. Quine was a falsificationist like Popper, but also a holist, so he claims that we only falsify the totality of our scientific theories (when working in physics - only physics, but when working in biology - physics, chemistry and biology).
    – user71009
    Jan 27 at 7:54
  • @abcga -- Well, I encounter philosophical posters online who say they hold by Wittenstein's view of science, so at least a number of real people disagree on W not having done philosophy of science. And this reference describes two different W philosophies of science -- one from the Tractatus that inspired logical positivism, and one from Philosophical Investigations that treats science as a "language game": ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/…. Languages are coherentist. Quine is known as a as a coherentist: tedposton.org/Documents/IntroEC.pdf
    – Dcleve
    Jan 27 at 23:08
  • Wittgenstein did do some philosophy of mathematics, but I am not aware of any works specifically dedicated to natural science. It is one thing to inspire certain proposals and another to be their actual author. However, I am no Wittgenstein expert, so you might be correct that he is said by some to have proposed something in that regard, even though I haven't heard of that. I have no idea, however, what does Quine being a coherentist have to do with anything you previously said.
    – user71009
    Jan 28 at 2:16

Certainly, let's delve into the details of Imre Lakatos's contributions to the philosophy of science and the debates surrounding his ideas.

Lakatos's Notion of Scientific Research Programmes: Imre Lakatos introduced the concept of scientific research programmes as an alternative to the philosophies of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. He proposed that scientific theories could be understood as a combination of a hard core and a protective belt.

  1. Hard Core: The hard core represents the central and unchangeable assumptions of a scientific theory. These are the fundamental principles that define the theory and are typically not open to modification. The hard core serves as the foundation upon which the rest of the theory is built.

  2. Protective Belt: The protective belt consists of auxiliary hypotheses, assumptions, and modifications that are subject to change. These elements are designed to shield the hard core from being directly refuted by empirical evidence. If empirical observations contradict the protective belt, it's the protective belt that is adjusted rather than the hard core.

Progressive and Degenerating Research Programmes: Lakatos categorized scientific research programmes into two main types based on their trajectory:

  1. Progressive Research Programme: This type of programme generates novel predictions that lead to new discoveries. When these predictions are confirmed through empirical evidence, the programme gains credibility and advances the scientific field.

  2. Degenerating Research Programme: In this case, a research programme becomes stagnant, with predictions that are continually modified or "ad hoc" to align with observations. The programme may be resistant to change, even in the face of accumulating anomalies, and its progress stalls.

Significance and Debates:

  1. Middle Ground: Lakatos's framework provided a middle ground between Popper's falsificationism and Kuhn's paradigm shifts. It recognized that scientific theories are not easily abandoned in the face of anomalies, as Kuhn suggested, but rather may undergo adjustments in auxiliary hypotheses, as proposed by Popper.

  2. Critiques: Critics argue that Lakatos's distinction between progressive and degenerating programmes might not capture the complex dynamics of scientific development. Real-world science often involves a mixture of both types, and the transition from one to the other may not be as straightforward.

  3. Flexibility and Historical Context: Lakatos's framework might require adaptation to account for the historical and sociological factors that influence scientific progress. Different scientific communities might interpret and apply his concepts differently.

  4. Contemporary Application: Recent articles explore how Lakatos's ideas can be applied to modern scientific practices, including topics such as the replication crisis, interdisciplinary research, and the role of computer simulations.

  5. Extension and Revisions: Some scholars propose extending Lakatos's framework to include the dynamic nature of scientific theories and the interplay between different research programmes. Others suggest modifications to his criteria for categorizing programmes.

In light of these debates, the solution might involve recognizing that while Lakatos's framework provides valuable insights into the structure of scientific theories, it might need refinement to accommodate the complexities of real-world scientific practices and the evolving nature of scientific knowledge. This ongoing discourse contributes to the enrichment and evolution of the philosophy of science.

  • ChatGPT? Nothing against it, just sounded like it. Jan 27 at 5:18

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