Listening to a course on philosophy of science, Lakatos was presented as a middle way between Popper and the positivists strictly rational description of scientific theories and Kuhn's historical/social account scientific theories.

However going into the details, I fail to understand the difference between Lakatos's view and Kuhn's view of science.

Lakatos says that a scientific theory can be divided into two components:

  • A hard core of principles or assumptions which form the basis of the theory. If these change then the theory is abandoned in favor of a new one.
  • Auxiliary hypotheses which can be changed to make the theory compatible with new experimental results, while still upholding the core assumptions of the theory.

A theory is then in a progressive phase if the changes being made to the auxiliary hypotheses improve its predictive power and are being driven from within the theory. It is regressive (and hence in need of change) if the auxiliary changes are being made as responses to outside challenges which question the theory's validity.

From what I see, Lakatos's hard core corresponds to a Kuhnian paradigm, and his progressive phase is just Kuhn's normal puzzle solving mode of science. A theory in the regressive phase is just the crisis phase that precedes Kuhn's revolutionary science phase.

  1. How exactly is Lakatos's description of science different from Kuhn's?
  2. How is his concept of a hard core of assumptions different than Kuhn's paradigm?
  3. What is common between Lakatos's view and Popper's view (as far as I can see there's no overlap) that makes Lakatos's approach a middle ground between Popper and Kuhn?
  • In a nutshell, there are some basic difference: Lakatos is a "popperian" and thus concerned with two problems regarding philosophy of science (going back to neo-logicism): demarcation problem and methodology. Both are "alien" to Kuhn point of view. Common to K and L is the interest for history and the use of historical cases-study to understand the growth of knowledge. Apr 15, 2016 at 9:40
  • When L's History of Sci and its rational reconstructions appeared in the Boston Studies, it was published with a comment by Kuhn; there is also a 'response to criticism' (Kuhn's came late to be discussed in detail). If you are looking for an answer from the horse' mouth.
    – sand1
    Apr 16, 2016 at 10:28
  • It is not true that demarcation is alien to Kuhn. He demarcated agains astrology, gave 5 properties of a good scientific theory, etc. Oct 12, 2020 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


To my mind, Lakatos's approach does not resist Kuhn, or mediate between Kuhn and Popper. It fully accepts Kuhn, and just solves a problem in his framing (whether Lakatos himself saw it that way or not.) It allows for 'ongoing revolution'.

One main problem with Kuhn for a lot of people is that neither strictly normal nor strictly revolutionary science seems to happen very often. Normal scientists do tweak theories. Revolutions don't halt the ongoing process of normal science. There is always something halfway in-between.

Even in the most rigid periods of science, theories evolve and do not just elaborate. And even during clearly revolutionary periods, we see piecemeal advancement that remains dependent upon some of the old paradigm and yet usually gets integrated into the new one.

The awareness of Lakatos's 'divider' between 'the core and the mantle' of a paradigm, and the idea that it moves back and forth (or rather in and out), including more or less material in the core, allows for a notion of ongoing normal and revolutionary science to happen in parallel.

  • I do not agree that Lakatos "fully accepts Kuhn"; see e.g. Ian Hacking, IMRE LAKATOS'S PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE (1979) : "Lakatos was determined to refute the doctrine that he attributed to Kuhn, that knowledge changes by irrational 'conversions' from one paradigm to another.I do not think that a correct reading of Kuhn gives quite the apocalyptic air of cultural relativism that Lakatos found there." 1/2 Apr 15, 2016 at 9:37
  • ... "A good many people now write as if Kuhn and Lakatos were telling parallel versions of a similar story, and this eclectic attitude may be welcomed. But there is a really deep worry underlying Lakatos's antipathy to Kuhn's work, and it must not be glossed over." 2/2 Apr 15, 2016 at 9:38
  • "That he attributed" -- and incorrectly so! Fighting imaginary flaws does not change the man's own thinking. In the end, Lakatos' actual position and 'the correct interpretation of Kuhn' are very, very similar. Kuhn kept explaining over and over again to Popper that he was not basically an irrationalist, and that things were really more continuous in his theory than people seemed to believe, and no one listened. Lakatos formalized how this could be modeled more clearly.
    – user9166
    Apr 15, 2016 at 19:28

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