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Private Notebooks: 1914–1916
Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff
Liveright, $24.95 (cloth)
The month is May 1916. In southern Galicia, now Ukraine, on the Eastern Front of World War I, a twenty-seven-year-old Austrian volunteers for duty in an observation post exposed to enemy gunfire. He keeps a notebook of his hopes and fears, written in a simple cipher from his childhood—the letter “z” stands for “a,” “y” for “b,” and so on—with philosophical remarks, uncoded, on the facing pages. The latter concern the nature of logic and are peppered with logical symbols. From April 15: “Every simple proposition can be brought into the form ɸx.”
In June Russia launches the “Brusilov Offensive,” one of the most lethal military campaigns of the war. The young man’s notebook goes empty for a month. Then, on July 4, he begins to write, in the uncoded pages, remarks that are not logical, but spiritual. “What do I know about God and the purpose of life?” he asks. “That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning. That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it. . . . I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will; I am completely powerless.”
From this point on, distinctions blur. The cipher seeks connections; the philosophy leaps from logic to life’s meaning and back. “Yes,” he writes on August 2, “my work has broadened out from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world.” In the end, there is no code. Nothing is hidden—though “What cannot be said, cannot be said!”
The soldier was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stranded in Austria in 1914, he had volunteered for military service, apparently hoping to face death—his “chance to become a decent human being.” Commended for his courage under heavy fire, he was awarded the Silver Medal for Valor 2nd Class. Wittgenstein went on to become one of the most creative thinkers of the twentieth century, both icon and iconoclast of “analytic philosophy,” at once paradigmatic and wildly anomalous. For Wittgenstein, the arcane, technical problems of logic and metaphysics were entangled, from start to finish, with the problems of being alive. When you add the extraordinary narrative of Wittgenstein’s life—from Viennese wealth to the front lines of war, six years teaching grade school in rural Austria, then back to academic stardom at the University of Cambridge—you begin to see why he’s an object of fascination far outside the bounds of analytic philosophy.
Among the fascinated is Marjorie Perloff, a professor of literature who has studied Wittgenstein’s relationship to modernist poetry. She spent her pandemic producing the first English translation of Wittgenstein’s private notebooks: the coded remarks he wrote from 1914 to 1916 as he worked on the philosophy that would become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Published a century ago, the Tractatus itself swerves from forbiddingly complex material on the logic of language to mystical pronouncements that match the notebooks almost word for word.
What do we gain from access to Wittgenstein’s private remarks? We learn that he struggled to get on with his fellow soldiers. We learn how often he masturbated and that he visited the baths in Kraków when he was stationed in an artillery workshop there. Students in the digital humanities can now correlate Wittgenstein’s sexual activity with his philosophical progress and subject it to statistical scrutiny—information of value to those who hope to replicate his genius, perhaps.
But you may wonder if that’s enough. If there’s something deep to be gained from Wittgenstein’s private notebooks, it has to do with the entanglement of philosophy in the problems of life. This was a constant for Wittgenstein. While his later writings are less mystical than the Tractatus, he always thought philosophy should speak to existential woes. “My own problems appear in what I write in philosophy,” he confessed to his friend Rush Rhees. “What good does all my talent do me, if, at heart, I am unhappy? What help is it to me to solve philosophical problems, if I cannot settle the chief, most important thing?” But why was he unhappy? Who was Wittgenstein, and what were the problems of his life?
Born into ostentatious wealth in Vienna in 1889, Ludwig was the youngest child of Karl Wittgenstein, one of the richest industrialists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (He was not, however, related to the princely German family of Sayn-Wittgensteins, despite a common misconception.) His mother Leopoldine was exceptionally musical, and he grew up surrounded by music. Brahms and Mahler came to evening performances at the “Palais Wittgenstein” with its seven pianos, while Ludwig’s brother Paul became a concert pianist. Ludwig was regarded as the least gifted of eight siblings—five brothers and three sisters—and where Paul went to grammar school in Vienna, Ludwig was sent to the less academic Realschule in Linz. His time there overlapped with Adolf Hitler’s, but there is no record of them interacting.
Wittgenstein’s life and work were haunted by loneliness. Like the soldiers in Kraków, Wittgenstein’s schoolmates mocked and bullied him, and he had difficulty making friends. He was interested in philosophy but turned to the more practical pursuit of mechanical engineering and in 1908 moved to Manchester to study aeronautics. It was there that he became obsessed with foundational questions in logic, having read the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1903 book, The Principles of Mathematics. In the summer of 1911, Wittgenstein traveled to Jena to visit the German logician Gottlob Frege. As he later put it, Frege “wiped the floor” with him—but he encouraged Wittgenstein to study with Russell.
Thus it was that on October 18, 1911, Wittgenstein turned up unannounced at Russell’s door in Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell quickly came to regard him as a genius. As his biographer Ray Monk records, Wittgenstein told his closest companion at the time, David Pinsent, “that Russell’s encouragement had proved his salvation, [ending] nine years of loneliness and suffering, during which he had continually thought of suicide.” When Pinsent died in an airplane accident in 1918, Wittgenstein was distraught. He would dedicate the Tractatus to Pinsent’s memory, calling him, in a letter, “my first and my only friend.”
Despite his struggles with loneliness, Wittgenstein frequently sought solitude. He spent writing stretches in an isolated hut in Norway, a six-year period as a teacher in remote Austrian villages, and part of one year in a cabin by the ocean in Ireland, all alone. He wrestled with relationships throughout his life. Rigid and volatile, Wittgenstein quarreled with almost everyone dear to him, and they found his friendship taxing. He severed relations with Russell in 1913, though they reconciled after the war—only to despise each other’s later work. When the philosopher G. E. Moore, one of Wittgenstein’s friends in Cambridge, could not waive the degree requirements to award him a B.A., Wittgenstein was livid. “If I am not worth your making an exception for me even in some STUPID details then I may as well go to HELL directly,” he wrote to Moore, “and if I am worth it and you don’t do it then—by God—you might go there.”
The philosopher who had the greatest impact on Wittgenstein was Frank Ramsey, a prodigy who translated the Tractatus into English at nineteen and who died of a liver infection in 1930 at the age of twenty-six. Wittgenstein maintained a friendship with Ramsey’s widow Lettice for several years but abruptly broke it off. According to Ramsey’s biographer, Cheryl Misak, he “had left some furniture with her while he was between addresses, including a foul bathmat, which Lettice threw out. When Wittgenstein got his new rooms in Trinity, he wanted it back, and took Lettice’s crime to be unforgivable.”
Wittgenstein was queer but closeted. He had one serious relationship with a woman, Marguerite Respinger, with whom he intended a Platonic marriage. (Not wholly Platonic: the two spent time together kissing until Marguerite thought better of it; Wittgenstein didn’t take the hint.) But his most intense relationships were with undergraduate men: Francis Skinner, with whom he had a six-year relationship, and Ben Richards, whom he met after World War II. Wittgenstein felt a constant tension between sex and love, a risk of corruption that made him flee from physical proximity. Having pushed Skinner to leave academia for factory work, Wittgenstein fled back to Norway in 1936. When the two finally cohabited, in Cambridge, their relationship slowly fell apart. Wittgenstein’s love affair with Richards was haunted by the fear of loss—as we know from coded remarks in his later notebooks, still yet to be translated into English. (Their relationship is also traced in correspondence, much of which only recently came to light.)
There were non-romantic friendships, too, some of which were easier to manage. Wittgenstein had a bantering affinity with Gilbert Pattisson, a man he met on a train from Vienna in 1929. They would watch movies together and share photos cut from magazines—calling them “paintings” and “portraits”— along with corny jokes. On a postcard of Christ Church Cathedral, Wittgenstein wrote: “If I remember rightly this Cathedral was built, partly at least, by the Normans. Of course, it’s a long time ago & my memory isn’t what it was then.” But Wittgenstein would cut off ties with Pattison during World War II, finding his attitude too jingoistic. In a letter that ends yet another friendship, Wittgenstein writes:
The older I grow, the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other, and I think that what misleads one is the fact that they all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are.
This gives new meaning to one of Wittgenstein most famous aphorisms: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”
The question raised by the publication of the private notebooks is whether knowledge of Wittgenstein’s life sheds light on his philosophy. The answer is that it does.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy is not about being lonely, but one can see disquiet about loneliness sublimated in his work. “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it,” begins the preface of the Tractatus. It’s as if communication were impossible. We are trapped in our own thoughts, except for the hope that someone else already had them; we can tell each other nothing. The book goes on to embrace a form of solipsism—the view that no one else exists—albeit enigmatically: “what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”
Wittgenstein later recoiled from these ideas, partly under the influence of Ramsey and partly, perhaps, due to his experience as a schoolteacher in Austria. (Toward the end of this period, Wittgenstein composed a spelling dictionary for children. The best entry: das Schnaderhüpfel, a slam poetry contest described by a translator as the Alpine version of a rap battle.) In the Philosophical Investigations, the most finished of his later works, Wittgenstein holds that there can be no “private language.” Thought and talk are possible only in social practices like the ones in which language is learned; impregnable solitude is impossible.
Think of the games that children play with words, their secret codes and ciphers. Some are easy to crack: you write “z” for “a,” “y” for “b,” and so on. But even if you’re more creative, coining words for things that no one ever named, signs that don’t belong to any living language, curiosities of syntax that would baffle linguists—if your words have meaning at all, Wittgenstein argues, it must be possible to make those meanings public. The game is not essentially private, even if you are the only player. You can share your thoughts, and thus your world, with me.
Where the Tractatus flirts with solipsism, the Investigations fight against it, not just in substance but in style. The book is relentlessly dialogic, a sequence of numbered paragraphs featuring unnamed interlocutors, so that it’s often hard to say whose voice one hears. It is also packed with interrogatives. By one philosopher’s count, there are 784 questions in the Investigations and 110 answers—all but 40 of which are meant to be the wrong answer. The paragraphs emerged from lectures at Cambridge in which Wittgenstein worked out his thoughts in dialogue with others.
Among his most trusted interlocutors were the philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe and Rush Rhees, whom he appointed as his literary executors. Here the story takes a turn that brings us back to the private notebooks. No doubt afraid of prurient interest, Anscombe and Rhees were adamant that they not be published. “If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life,” she once remarked, “I should have pressed the button.” When she co-edited Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914–1916, Anscombe reproduced only the uncoded passages, and the editors’ preface does not so much as mention the omission. “We have left out very little that is in the notebooks,” she wrote with G. H. von Wright: “the omissions almost always were of sketches of symbolism, which could not be interpreted or were otherwise uninteresting.” This statement is not true.
Thanks to Perloff, we can now relate the public notes to Wittgenstein’s private remarks. The interest is not merely voyeuristic: it is emotional and intellectual. As the notes progress, Perloff sees a growing correspondence between public and private. She allows us to glimpse the convergence by quoting selections from Wittgenstein’s uncoded remarks.
At first the connections are transient. After huge progress in the late months of 1914—including the development of the so-called “picture theory” of propositions—Perloff quotes paired fragments from November 22. In code: “The redeeming word has not been articulated.” On the facing page: “At this point I am again trying to express something that won’t let itself be expressed.” After four months without progress, we read, in code, May 1, 1915: “The blessing of work!—” And beside it, philosophy: “All theories that say ‘This is how it must be, otherwise we could not philosophize’ or ‘otherwise we surely could not live,’ etc. etc., must of course disappear.”
There are moments of found poetry, like this stunning enjambment—the only one like it in the private notebooks—from April 1916:
Life is a
form of torture from which there is only temporary reprieve until one can be subjected to further torments.
And there are moments of bathos, as at the end of May, from the observation post: “I have only masturbated 3 times in the last two months.”
One month on, we hit the mystical breakthrough, and Perloff quotes whole pages of uncoded notes—about God and the meaning of life, the powerlessness of the will, ethics and the self, the morality of suicide. This is more than correspondence: it’s the eruption or explosion of the private soul in public space, the cracking of a code, the inexpressible expressed. “He who is happy must have no fear,” Wittgenstein writes. “Not even of death.”
These passages are riveting. But they bring frustrations, too. Perloff does not reproduce enough of the public notes—the ones that Anscombe published—and crucial context is lacking. The effect is to make the breakthrough of July 1916 seem more miraculous than it was. For instance, while Perloff quotes an uncoded remark of May 5, 1916, that lays the groundwork for Wittgenstein’s mystical turn—“In essence, the whole modern conception of the world is based on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are explanations of natural phenomena”—she does not quote a passage written one year earlier:
The urge towards the mystical comes of the non-satisfaction of our wishes by science. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions are answered our problem is still not touched at all. Of course in that case there are no questions any more; and that is the answer.
Nor does she mention the fifteen pages of notes that follow this, the dramatic progress of May-June 1915, only the coded sentence that comes afterward: “Working very hard! Despite the most repugnant circumstances!”
Perloff gives us little sense of what was happening to Wittgenstein’s work on the Eastern Front. Some of the most moving passages of the public notebooks involve not pure mysticism, but the interleaving of technical insights with existential ones. From July 14, 1916: “For if the form of operation can be expressed at all, then it must be expressed in such a way that it can only be applied correctly. . . . Whoever lives in the present lives without fear or hope.” Perloff does not cite the pages of technical philosophy that ensue or mention that, two days before he writes about suicide, Wittgenstein’s remarks concern the nature of tautologies.
In Perloff’s defense, it is hard to see the point of these connections without a rough account of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, an almost comically difficult book. When it was offered as a thesis for the PhD at Cambridge, the examiners were Russell and Moore. The farce came to an end with Wittgenstein consoling them: “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.” But we should at least give it a go.
Although it flaunts the technical tools of formal logic, the Tractatus is not about idealized “formal languages.” For Wittgenstein, “all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order.” The apparent claim of the Tractatus is that every proposition can be analyzed as a logical compound of “elementary propositions.” This means that every meaningful sentence is, in principle, synonymous with a sentence built with the “logical constants”—or, and, and not—out of basic sentences that feature only names referring to utterly simple objects. Basic sentences are metaphysically independent of one other: any one of them of them can be true while any other is false. The world is a mosaic of logical atoms.
Why does Wittgenstein believe this? Why think everything we say translates into a primordial language quite unlike the one we actually speak? (Wittgenstein is clear that no everyday sentence is basic in his sense, and none of our words is a logical name.) The argument is elusive, but we can trace a central thread. Since elementary propositions cannot be further analyzed, they could only fail to be independent of one another if there were mysterious necessities that governed their truth and falsity. There can be no such things, Wittgenstein believes. What’s more, if elementary propositions referred to complex objects, the existence of those objects would depend on the arrangement of their parts, and thus the truth of elementary propositions would depend on the truth of other propositions—violating independence. The upshot is that there are no necessary truths except for logical tautologies like “p or not p,” built up out of names of simple objects, that say nothing about the world.
But there’s a catch! Read the last two paragraphs again. In them, you’ll find sentences that speak of propositions, names, and simple objects. These sentences are not tautologies whose triviality eludes us only because it is lost in the fog of words. They aspire to make substantive claims, to place real constrains on how the world could be. And yet they don’t just happen to be true: if they are true at all, their truth is necessary. But that means they break the rules we meant them to express. The sentences of Wittgenstein’s theory won’t translate into logical compounds of elementary propositions, metaphysically independent of one another. So they aren’t meaningful, after all. That’s why I spoke of the “apparent claim of the Tractatus.” The paragraphs above turn out to be sheer nonsense.
This is “Wittgenstein’s ladder,” named for the metaphor with which he ends his book: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)” Wittgenstein cannot say what he appeared to say: in fact, it cannot be said. And yet, he hopes, it can be shown. The inexpressible nature of logic and necessity is manifest in the language we use—if our language follows Wittgenstein’s rules.
That there’s no consensus on what to make of this would be an understatement. The idea that you can somehow show what you can’t say was Russell’s bugbear in the PhD exam. And the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s ladder has been contested, sometimes bitterly, ever since. What we can say is that Wittgenstein’s breakthrough on the front lines of the war was to extend the idea of showing-not-saying beyond logic to ethics and the self, God and the meaning of life. If we can live with the fact that Wittgenstein’s theory of logic is inexpressible—it can only be shown, not said—we can live with our inability to express life’s meaning: “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. . . . When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question. . . . The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”
In a postscript to her edition of the private notebooks, Perloff asks why it has taken so long for them to be translated into English. (They were published in a German edition, edited by Wilhelm Baum, in 1991.) “In the Oxbridge of the post–World War II years—and, for that matter, in the leading American universities,” she writes, “the study of philosophy has been regarded as an abstract and conceptual discipline, rigorous in its reasoning and quite unrelated to issues of individual biography.” Given the level of fascination with Wittgenstein’s life, I am not sure this explains the delay in translation. But Perloff has a point: analytic philosophy presents itself as an impersonal, objective enterprise.
In his early years in Cambridge, Russell remembers Wittgenstein “[pacing] up and down my room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence.” When Russell asked, “Are you thinking about logic or your sins?” Wittgenstein’s reply was “Both.” This confluence is not his legacy. Nor is the doctrine of showing and saying or the mysticism of the Tractatus. After World War II, Wittgenstein’s impact stems from his later work, a study of the multifarious “language games” that bewitch our intelligence and lead us into confusion. Wittgenstein aims to relieve our perplexity by attending to the actual use of words. His project is one of demystification. Among the perplexed, according to Wittgenstein, is “the author of the Tractatus.” For the later Wittgenstein, language has no single essence of the sort he had once hoped to reveal.
The twenty-first century has seen a return to the Tractatus in philosophy—though without its mystical side. One finds the shade of the early Wittgenstein in works by contemporary metaphysicians, from Cian Dorr’s The Simplicity of Everything (2002) to Timothy Williamson’s Modal Logic as Metaphysics (2013). In 2011 the philosopher Sarah Moss solved one of the more intractable problems of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: how to reduce the necessity of a sentence like “Nothing is red and green all over” to a logical tautology. These authors don’t believe they are writing nonsense; this is Wittgenstein without the ladder.
Yet for Wittgenstein, the mysticism—and the vanishing of life’s problem—was the primary point. “My work consists of two parts,” he wrote to a potential publisher of the Tractatus, “of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one.” It was not the sales pitch the publisher needed.
You can see why philosophers might be wary of this, why they might ignore the biographical roots of Wittgenstein’s work. We can relate the solipsistic sympathies of the Tractatus to Wittgenstein’s loneliness, as I did in introducing them. But philosophers will want to know his argument. That Wittgenstein had trouble with friends seems at best irrelevant to the validity of his ideas; at worst, it is grounds for suspicion. Views are to be taken seriously only when they are argued for. If Wittgenstein was drawn to solipsism for its emotional resonance, not by the force of reason, can’t we then dismiss his work?
Some have been inclined to read the Tractatus as poetry, to which emotion might be more relevant, and argument less. I haven’t mentioned yet the book’s curious design: a structure of brief, numbered remarks, from 1 to 7, with elaborations nested under them, so that 6.52 elaborates on 6.5, which itself elaborates on 6. The remarks are enigmatic, and in their grand austerity quite beautiful—the Tractatus is a modernist work of art. Wittgenstein would later muse: “I believe I summed up where I stand in relation to philosophy when I said: really one should write philosophy only as one writes a poem.” But when Frege called the Tractatus “an artistic rather than a scientific achievement,” Wittgenstein was incensed.
With rare exceptions, analytic philosophy cannot be read as poetry. If it has value, it’s not the value of artistic achievement, unless perhaps in the medium of thought. Nor does analytic philosophy explore “the problem of life.” There’s plenty of work in applied philosophy, including ethics, engaging with practical questions—climate change, democracy, the treatment of non-human animals. But these are not the sorts of problems Wittgenstein fought. For the most part, analytic philosophy is detached, at least in its self-image, from the personal struggles of philosophers.
What is lost in this detachment? The fact that philosophy, even in its technical forms, is the expression of an outlook that defines who someone is. “To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth,” the novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote. She was on to something, I believe, even when the subject-matter of philosophy is not ethics or aesthetics but logic and metaphysics. It’s an astounding fact that someone would devote their life to the question “What is necessary truth?” or that they would write, in code, on one side of a notebook, “Much anxiety! I was close to tears!!!!” and on the facing page, “A question: can we manage without simple objects in logic?” The content of one’s metaphysics, like the content of one’s character, is a way of seeing the world. And the connection between them is a philosophical matter.
It is often said that contemporary philosophy is inaccessible. This statement is misleading, in part because the inaccessibility is not new—the great works of philosophy have always been difficult—and in part because there is now a thriving enterprise of “public philosophy,” aimed at a general audience. What public philosophy has not much conveyed, however, is the way philosophy is personal: the fact that we can feel about abstract questions of logic or metaphysics the way we feel about our deepest moral, political, and personal commitments, the music we listen to, the poetry we love—and that these feelings may be related. Philosophers are an astonishing, flawed, obsessive bunch. We have something to learn—about them, and about their philosophy—from figuring out what makes them who they are.
Not just philosophy, then, but philosophers: that is what these notebooks help us to see, life and work reflected on facing pages. A philosophy of philosophers, even—shown, if not said. The cult of personality comes with risks, but part of the magic of Wittgenstein is that he may be the only giant of analytic philosophy whose life has been shared in this way. In my experience, many philosophers have deep—I would say, spiritual—relationships with their work, even when it’s highly theoretical. They rarely write about these feelings, at least not for publication. But then neither did Wittgenstein. Aside from some remarks in the Tractatus, the preface to Philosophical Investigations, and a lecture on ethics he gave in 1929, it is private notes and letters that tell us how Wittgenstein felt and who he was.
“Logic must take care of itself,” Wittgenstein writes in the first of his uncoded notes. He repeats the aphorism twice, and again in the Tractatus. But logic can’t take of itself; nor can philosophy. They must have caretakers: the logicians and philosophers who dedicate themselves to abstract thought. I like to imagine them each with a private notebook, written in a simple cipher, that accompanies the pages of their published work. What were they doing when they were doing philosophy? What problems did they face in life? How often did they masturbate? These are ladders we should not throw away.
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide and is the host of a podcast, Five Questions, in which he asks contemporary philosophers five questions about themselves. His latest book is Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way.
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