Imre Lakatos Biography

Imre Lakatos was a Jewish-Hungarian philosopher known for his significant contributions to the philosophy of science and philosophy of mathematics. He adopted the surname ‘Lakatos’ to escape the Nazi invasion of Hungary, which tragically claimed the lives of his mother and grandmother. Despite facing imprisonment during World War II, Lakatos persevered and went on to become a renowned philosopher. His notable works include the introduction of a scientific ‘research programme’ and his thesis on the fallibility of mathematics. He translated mathematics books into Hungarian and authored several books on the philosophy of science and mathematics throughout his life. Some of his well-known works include ‘Proofs and Refutations’, ‘Cauchy and the Continuum: The Significance of Non-Standard Analysis’, and ‘Criticism and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 51
  • Died on: February 2, 1974
  • Place of death: London, England
  • Notable Alumni: University Of Debrecen
  • Grouping of People: Jewish Mathematician
  • Cause of Death: Heart Attack
  • Education: Moscow State University, University Of Cambridge, University Of Debrecen

Childhood & Early Life

Imre Lakatos was born as Imre Lipschitz on November 9, 1922, in Debrecen, Hungary, into a Jewish family. His mother and grandmother died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the German Nazi invasion during World War II. He completed his education from the University of Debrecen in 1944, graduating in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He received his PhD from Debrecen University in 1948. In 1949, he studied briefly at the Moscow State University under Sofya Yanovskaya. Later, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cambridge in 1961. In order to avoid Nazi discrimination, he changed his surname to ‘Molnar’ and later took upon ‘Lakatos’ (Locksmith) as his last name, inspired by Hungarian general Geza Lakatos, and became Imre Lakatos.

Career

He was an active communist during World War II and took up work in the Hungarian Ministry of Education as a senior official in 1947, after the war ended. He landed himself in political trouble in 1950 since he didn’t agree to follow Russian orders without a valid reason and hence, was arrested on charges of revisionism and imprisoned for three years at a Stalinist prison. He resumed his studies upon his release in 1953 and took up mathematical research, wherein he started translating mathematics books into Hungarian, including George Polya’s ‘How to Solve It’. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he left Hungary and traveled to Vienna and finally settled down in Great Britain for the rest of his life. In 1960, he was hired at the London School of Economics (LSE) as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method, where he wrote extensively on the philosophy of science and philosophy of mathematics. While studying at Cambridge, he compiled a doctoral thesis ‘Essays in the Logic of Mathematical Discovery’, which was published in four parts as ‘Proofs and Refutations’ in ‘The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science’ in 1963-64. With an intention to improve his work on ‘Proofs and Refutations’, he refused to publish it as a book. It was released after his death as ‘Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery’ in 1976. He is credited for authoring various papers on the philosophy of mathematics, after which he switched to writing on the philosophy of science, at large. He never failed to support his arguments with historical case studies, which is evident from his famous article, ‘Cauchy and the Continuum: The Significance of Non-Standard Analysis’.

He taught at LSE for 14 years and served as the editor of the renowned ‘The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science’ from 1971 until his sudden death in 1974.

Major Works

He tried to prove the Euler-Descartes theorem: V – E + F = 2 (i.e. V=Vertices, E=Edges, F=Faces) in his 1961 doctoral thesis, as a fictional conversation between a teacher and students in a mathematics class. His major contribution in the philosophy of science was the idea of a scientific ‘research programme’, where he attempted to create a synthesis of Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific theory change and Karl Popper’s falsificationism. He devised a research programme consisting of ‘hard core’, emphasizing on evaluating a research program as ‘progressive’ or ‘degenerative’, instead of analyzing whether the hypothesis is true or false.

Personal Life & Legacy

He died unexpectedly on February 2, 1974, after suffering a heart attack, at the age of 51, thus leaving several of his projects in the philosophy of mathematics and science incomplete. A number of his influential papers on the philosophy of science were published posthumously in two books, ‘Lakatos 1978s’ and ‘Lakatos 1978b’, by his two former students – Gregory Currie and John Worrall. In 1978, his papers, previously published in several scholarly journals, were compiled and released posthumously as ‘Philosophical Papers’. The London School of Economics introduced the Lakatos Award in 1986 in his memory, which is given to candidates making exceptional contributions to the philosophy of science.

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