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The pivotal philosophical debate of twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy originated with Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn (1922–1996), along with Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994), made the history and sociology of science central to conceptions of scientific progress and rationality. Lakatos, a Hungarian émigré who escaped the failed 1956 revolution, became Karl Popper’s (1902–1994) best and favored student, but he joined forces with Kuhn and Feyerabend against Popper’s refusal to see scientific method as having historical roots and hence being subject to change. Lakatos maintained Popper’s anti-positivist view that scientific knowledge has no epistemological foundation, but that progress occurred through continual criticism and revision. Lakatos made the historicism in that view explicit by critically elaborating Popper’s approach into an interpretative method for the history of science and mathematics. Instead of Popper’s ahistorical “logic of scientific discovery” Lakatos saw an historically changing logic of criticism and the growth of scientific knowledge. But like Popper and Feyerabend, and unlike Kuhn, Lakatos recommended a normative conception of scientific method, analogous to normative philosophical models of political or civic processes. Lakatos created his critical theory of science using a sui generis historiographical approach for reconstructing the scientific present as a value-laden history of progress and decline.
The historiographical toolkit is Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programs. In contrast to Popper’s confrontations of falsifiable theories, with their risky predictions and hence potential refutations, Lakatos argued that individual theories are poorly chosen “units” for scientific change. In practice, as Kuhn and Feyerabend dramatically demonstrated, the best theories can be formally inconsistent; they may contradict stable observations or received theories, or they may violate traditional canons of scientific method—not all at once, but individually or opportunistically, as needed for theory improvement. Lakatos also assumed no theory-neutral observational basis to conclusively refute a single theory. Hence there was no guarantee that confirmatory or refuting data might not itself be reinterpreted and overturned, thus making conclusive refutation of single theories either impossible or subject to unrealistic and overcomplex methodological criteria.
This messy and chaotic milieu of chronic uncertainty requires the intelligence and flexibility of working scientists, whose theories Lakatos organized in terms of longterm research programs. These need not coincide with projects of individual researchers. Instead, they are a post festum historical reconstruction used to characterize scientifically recognized progress or failure. Lakatos proposes a philosophical model to characterize just what, in longterm patterns of theory choice, empirical discovery, and interpretation, led to a recognition, perhaps erroneous, by scientific communities as achievement or decline. A research program, then, was defined as a series of theories that were loosely united by a shared hard core of key principles, ranging from inchoate metaphysical ideas to favored modeling approaches; a positive heuristic of plans for generating theoretical improvements, and turning theories into operational models for addressing open problems, hopefully creating novel confirmations or predictions; ancillary touchstone and observational theories, used to interpret and organize a changing basis of theory-laden “facts” relevant to the program; a protective belt of theories or models insulating the program from critical attack; perhaps ad hoc theories or models needed as temporary fixes; an inventory of Kuhnian puzzles, contradictions, and anomalies awaiting resolution; and an environment of competing research programs against which relative progress is gauged.
Thus “scientific” describes not individual theories, but sequences of theories in time, not necessarily coordinated by any single individual or group. Such science, then, is either progressive or degenerating, the outcome measured by the presence or absence of novel confirmations, persistent puzzles and contradictions, powerful model development, and more or less ad hoc fixes—all of these judged relative to competing programs with a shared domain of problems, relevant phenomena, and research objectives. Lakatos’s historiography of research programs is a theory of modern scientific progress in which a role for scientific truth is reduced in proportion to the Faustian ambitions of theoreticians and experimenters.
Lakatos and others rewrote episodes from the histories of various sciences, using research program categories: the phlogiston and oxygen programs of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794); the wave and corpuscular programs for light; nineteenth-century atomic-versus-phenomenological theories of heat; modern plate tectonics; classical political economy from Adam Smith (1723–1790) to David Ricardo (1772–1823) and Karl Marx (1818–1883); and several segments of twentieth-century physics. These projects led to successes and failures, the latter occurring when a major change, like the replacement of classical physics with relativity theory, or the emergence of modern science altogether, is forced into Lakatos’s research program categories, which can be thought of as a nuanced conception of Kuhn’s “normal science,” and absent Kuhn’s confusing normative views. Lakatos saw this historical work as “scientific,” meaning that methodological reflection itself was an ongoing, theory-laden activity of understanding the “phenomena” of the scientific past. As in science proper, no perfect match is expected between historical theory and historical data, implying, as Lakatos points out, no “true” scientific consciousness: our knowledge of science is imperfect and uncertain, just as in science proper. Lakatos’s dialectical histories demonstrated that understanding past knowledge is possible only through some contemporary normative criteria for what counts as scientific, whether clearly articulated or not. His project was to make that condition of historical knowledge his primary lesson for the new philosophy of science. Lakatos and others carried out this project by using the methodology of scientific research programs as a historiographical guide and toolkit. Feyerabend identified the characteristic feature of modern scientific knowledge as a constantly expanding horizon of facts. Lakatos thought it best to comprehend that post-Renaissance process using normative and philosophical concepts that make historical knowledge an object of rational, even scientific, selfunderstanding.
- Kuhn, Thomas 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lakatos, Imr 1976. Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery. Eds. John Worrall and Elie Zahar. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lakatos, Imr 1978. Mathematics, Science, and Epistemology. Eds. John Worrall and Gregory Currie. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lakatos, Imr 1978. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Eds. John Worrall and Gregory Currie. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lakatos, Imre, and Alan Musgrave, 1970. Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Popper, Karl 1959. Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books.
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