“What’s this about?”

Harro van Lente inspired by Péter Várdy


There is something that Harro van Lente finds lacking in many curricula: the odd one out, a subject that knocks you off balance and makes you think: ‘What do I do with this?’ That is exactly the feeling that the Maastricht professor of Science and Technology Studies had during the lessons with Péter Várdy, his former philosophy lecturer at the University of Twente.

Péter Várdy is a Hungarian refugee who studied philosophy in the Netherlands and who was a lecturer at the University of Twente for 33 years. It was there, as a student of Physics, that Harro van Lente met him for the first time. It was in 1982. “In my second year he taught an optional subject on philosophical questions. And every lecture started with the same incomprehensible but beautiful sentence, something like ‘the unique nature of the rational form’. It was about mathematician Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. With this, Gödel means that a mathematic language cannot be both consistent and complete. There are always theories that cannot be proved. The book Gödel, Escher, Bach [which won the Pulitzer prize in 1980] is also about that.”
But Van Lente’s address is not all about those incompleteness theories, but about the fact that Várdy opened up a world for him that he was unaware of.
In the case of lectures, students can do two things: stay or leave. Staying out of politeness or staying out of interest. Van Lente chose the latter. “Of course part always was and will remain incomprehensible, but he opened the curtains! When I heard that man speak, with so much love, I only wanted to know more. He was modest, involved with his students, and he presented the subject matter with great care and integrity. He was so intensely caught up with it, that he overestimated many a student’s level.”
As a twenty-year-old, Van Lente knew that he didn’t want to end up in a lab. “I wanted to do something for society. My study had to be useful. I knew students who chose ‘a study programme that seemed fun’, but that was too shallow a reason for me. I wanted to learn something so that I would be able to do something.” Still, along the way that ‘being able to do something’ wasn’t enough. “I learned the equations necessary to build a bridge, but then I wondered if we really needed bridges.” Várdy taught him that knowledge need not necessarily be practicable. “Knowledge can also be something valuable in itself.” Van Lente took up a second study: Philosophy of Science and Technology. “We were only four students. We had intensive contact with our lecturers, with Várdy as well. It was great.”
If Peter Várdy had still taught today, he would have had a difficult time, Van Lente realises. “I can already see the complaints flowing in from students: subject matter too difficult, of no use, does not relate to the rest. A pity, because sometimes it is necessary that you are pulled from your normal way of doing things and thinking.”

“What’s this about?”
Harro van Lente and Péter Várdy
Author: Wendy Degens
Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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