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Rembrandt van Rijn (2) vs. Bertrand Russell

For yesterday, the most perceptive comment came from Slugger:

Rabbit Angstrom is a perfect example of the life that the Buddha warns against. He is a creature of animal passions who never gains any enlightenment.

In any case, I think we can all agree that Buddha is a far more interesting person than Updike. But, following the rules of the contest, we’re going with the best comment, which comes from Ethan:

Updike. We could ask him to talk to the title “Stan fans spark Bayes craze.” Buddha might just meditate silently for the whole hour.

Bonus points for bringing in Stan and baseball.

Today, the ultimate Dutch master is up against the ultimate rationalist. Rembrandt will paint the portrait of anyone who doesn’t paint himself.

I gotta say, this is one rough pairing. Who wouldn’t want to see Rembrandt do a quick painting demonstration? But, Russell must have been a great lecturer, witty and deep and he could even do math! I have a feeling that Rembrandt was a nicer guy (it would hard to not be a nicer guy than Bertrand Russell, right?), but I don’t know how relevant that is in choosing a speaker.

P.S. As always, here’s the background, and here are the rules.


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Well, if it’s “Betrand” Russell I think the choice is easy. (Take that as a sideways request to figure out how to allow comment editing as well.)

    I’m going to go for Rembrandt here, only because his best work has held our interest for almost 400 years while Russell’s crowning achievement, Principia Mathematica, was both co-authored (OK… that’s probably true of a lot or Rembrandts as well) and lasted (in its second, “improved” edition) for exactly four years before Godel proved it was nonsense..

    Now you might think of something else as Russell’s crowning achievement, of course, but Rembrandt sure as hell didn’t work on any painting for 20 years only to discover that the painiting’s underlying premise was incoherent.

    • I think that’s a bit harsh on Russell’s work. His paradox showing the inconsistency of Frege’s logic and subsequent work on Principia fed directly into modern (Zermelo-Fraenkel) set theory’s axiom of well-foundedness (aka “regularity”) and axiom of predicate formation (aka “comprehension”). He also did foundational work in natural language semantics in general and referring expressions in particular. The epistelary debate between Mr. Russell and Mr. Strawson is a classic (though I have to come down on Strawson’s side in that one). Plus, I can’t vote for Kripke or Montague because they’re not in the bracket. And where’s (the latter) Wittgenstein? That’s who I’d really like to see. Or Richard Rorty, who I never got to see lecture—you could’ve snuck him into the modern French intellectual bracket, despite his Anglo analytic philsophy background (he did a Wittgenstein-like “pivot” in the 1970s). I miss teaching philosophy of language — it’s still one of my favorite subjects.

      I’d pay good money and even fill out forms and attend pre-seminars in order to see the battle royal among both religous brackets, the (post-)modern French intellectual bracket, and Russell. My money would be on Russell.

      • Keith O'Rourke says:


        Maybe Wittenstein and Ramsay interviewing Russell?

        > teaching philosophy of language — it’s still one of my favorite subjects
        Maybe, someday do something for statisticians on this?

  2. numeric says:

    Rabbit Angstrom was a harbinger, introducing oral copulation into polite American literature and society (Rabbit Redux)–this 25 years before Clinton/Lewinsky. Updike also introduced (re-introduced) the word redux into the popular lexicon (I seem to recall all these statistical working papers with “redux” in the title, but that was pre-internet). I think I would nominate Updike for the chutzpah award with his Rabbit character (a thinly-veiled alter ego), however. After all, everyone knows who this thoroughly unlikable character is (despondent, aimless, sexual predator, reactive). The NY Times (
    calls it

    “the most illuminating and prophetic of modern political novels, though on the surface it seems not about politics at all”

    and they are correct in that it foreshadows the modern alienation, anomie and atomization of the submerged 80% of the American public (you know, the people empting your trash in the office–ask them about their home life some time!). Why this is to be celebrated is beyond me, however. I guess he’d be interesting to listen to because then I would get some inkling of whether this was all a scam or whether he believed it.

  3. Jeremy Fox says:

    Rembrandt in a walk:

    -He believes that “God is in every leaf on every tree”. Most of his greatest paintings are portraits of himself or regular people (as opposed to portraits of kings or Popes, or mythical battles, or etc.) Same for his etchings.

    -He believes in embracing variation. Check out especially his later work, which is famously unpolished and is all the more evocative for it. In contrast, Russell spent his whole career trying, and failing, to impose more precision on the foundations of mathematics and language than is possible.

    -As a painter, he knows a thing or two about the importance of one’s “model”.

    Oh, and he’s my favorite artist, so there’s that.

    • Daniel Gotthardt says:

      You and others stress that Russell failed a lot. But we can learn so much more from Russell’s errors than from anything Rembrandt ever did. We would be awestruck by Rembrandts display of artistic excellence and still learn nothing.

      • Jonathan (another one) says:

        That’s a fair point,but only if you thought Russell learned from his errors and could teach us about that. My readings of Russell suggest that he was too egomaniacal to think that he had made many errors — though I admit my Russell-infatuated period was 40 years ago and I may be missing something.

  4. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Russell eventually developed a good sense of who to read:

    Bertrand Russell (1959) wrote, “Beyond doubt […] he [CS Peirce] was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest American thinker ever.”

    (Yes, I am predictable.)

  5. zbicyclist says:

    Russell was a scold, while with Rembrandt we could relax and light up a cigar.

  6. EJ Wagenmakers says:

    From what I’ve read, Rembrandt wasn’t such a nice guy at all. His pupils would paint coins on the floor of his workshop, so that the notoriously stingy Rembrandt would try to pick them up.

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