Philosophy and Christmas Cards, Soup to Nuts

by John Holbo on November 26, 2023

‘Tis the season, so I designed a card. (You may purchase it here if you like. Or any other comparably inappropriate product. I do feel more people ought to confound loved ones by gifting them my socks.)

On to further scholarly matters!

Ludwig Wittgenstein, his friends said, insisted on ‘soupy’ Christmas cards.

In Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents, 1911-1951 we read that Moore, Russell and Keynes were scrupulous about document preservation, as a result of which many Christmas cards from Wittgenstein are preserved:

It is of some interest to note that while from Vienna Wittgenstein would send chaste cards with Biedermeier views of the Josefplatz or the like – the sort of thing his sisters would oder from a Kohlmarkt stationer in boxes – his English cards were chosen especially for the banality of the illustrations and of the accompanying verses, as for example:

If wishes count, you’ll surely have
Life’s blessings rich and true
For I am wishing from my heart
Such good things all for you.

These were not the cards usually exchanged at Cambridge, but (it is legitimate to suppose) the clumsy sincerity of a different level of English life was more acceptable to him; and, as for taste, he was chiefly concerned to avoid the half and half.

At this point there is a footnote, indicating his friend Thomas Redpath described him as ‘avoiding the aesthetic’ on such festive occasions. And, in a letter to Norman Malcolm, he instructed: “tell Doney, his Christmas card wasn’t soupy enough.”

One of Wittgenstein’s soupy cards can be viewed here.

And the interior shows this:

And now it gets interesting! You see how Wittgenstein notated, by hand, in ink, the meter – the stresses – for proper reading of the poem.

At this point we shift to read in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief.

Take the question: “How should poetry be read? What is the correct way of reading it?” if you are talking about blank verse the right way of reading it might be stressing it correctly – you discuss how far you should stress the rhythm and how far you should hide it. A man says it ought to be read this way and reads it out to you. You say: “Oh, yes. Now it makes sense.” There are cases of poetry which should almost be scanned – where the metre is as clear as crystal – others where the metre is entirely in the background. I had an experience with the 18th century poet Klopstock. I found that the way to read him was to stress his metre abnormally. Klopstock put u-u (etc.) in front of his poems. When I read his poems in this new way I said: “Ah-ha, now I know why he did this.” What had happened? I had read this kind of stuff and been moderately bored, but when I read it in this particular way, intensely, I smiled, said: “This is grand,” etc. But I might not have said anything. The important fact was that I read it again and again. When I read these poems I made gestures and facial expressions which were what would be called gestures of approval.

In short, what a nut.

He sent his friends ‘soupy’ Christmas cards as a sort of determined embrace of the ordinary – or avoidance of the aesthetic, or call it what you will. If you know Wittgenstein you know that he went in for this a lot, one way or another. A blog post isn’t the place to settle the fraught issue of Wittgenstein’s relationship with ‘ordinariness’. But note the irony. It wasn’t enough just to send soupy cards. He had to notate the metre to tell his friends exactly how to read them just right. Again, this was a thing with him. You might even say: his whole later philosophy was all an attempt to instruct students in how to be properly ordinary about it all. Like, exactly.

At any rate, noticing this about his card caused me to make gestures and facial expressions which were what would be called gestures of bemusement.

What sort of philosopher cares so much about Christmas cards?



Bill Benzon 11.26.23 at 1:42 pm

Now that Silicon Valley is ascendant, might I suggest that a line of Rene Girard items would do well. I think his craggy face on a mug would be just the thing to stare you in the face as you drink your herbal tea.


M Caswell 11.26.23 at 6:35 pm

Wittgenstein’s scansion of the verse is nuts: he’s making the first two lines one meter, and the last two another. He’s turned the rhythm from awkward and schlocky to bizarre- as a joke, I assume?


oldster 11.26.23 at 9:12 pm

“Klopstock put u-u (etc.) in front of his poems. ”

I wonder whether the “u-u” indicates not the vowel but rather the breve-mark for short syllables, such as W. uses in annotating the meter in his card?
Also — do you suppose that the “golden book” referred to is Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”? That would fit with the scene in the engraving (generically, though no specific scene from the book), and with the reputation of that book. Otherwise, which book is the “golden book”?

Yeah, dude was definitely trying to hard to emulate normal, indeed bourgeois.


John Holbo 11.26.23 at 11:16 pm

“I wonder whether the “u-u” indicates not the vowel but rather the breve-mark”

Yes, I tried to type the breve-mark but WordPress, in its wisdom, turned it into ‘?’ so I hastily settled for ‘u’ as the least-bad option.


Craig Kringle 11.27.23 at 12:25 am

What sort of philosopher cares so much about Christmas cards?

Sir, I take grave offense to the implication that serious philosophers do not or should not care “so much about Christmas cards.”

You may be aware that a significant chunk of my intellectual life involves the discovery, preservation, and interpretation of one of mankind’s greatest annual expressions of sentiment, Sorge, one might even say Geist: the Christmas postcard. This occupation has formed the basis of my upcoming opus, Being and Ephemera (to be published by MacFarland, of course). I do hope you will at least consider my monograph before making such boldly ill-informed claims in the future and that you will be able to answer your own question about the quality of philosopher who cares “so much about Christmas cards.”

The answer will sure be: a great one.

Craig Kringle,


oldster 11.27.23 at 2:44 am

“Yes, I tried to type the breve-mark but WordPress, in its wisdom, turned it into ‘?’ so I hastily settled for ‘u’ as the least-bad option.”

In that case, I understood exactly what you meant to convey. Communication!

“Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five short syllables”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “syllables”; then he looks up the word “short” in a table and finds a sample syllable opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word “five” and for each number he takes a syllable of the same length as the sample out of the drawer.——It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.——”But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘short’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?”——Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word “five”?—No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.”

ars longa; verbum breve est.


John Holbo 11.27.23 at 2:56 am

“Being and Ephemera” is good!


TM 11.27.23 at 1:52 pm

Can we have the original German?


Craig Kringle 11.28.23 at 3:49 am

Sein und Vergänglichewegwerfkarten.


Craig Kringle 11.28.23 at 4:03 am

But the problem is English “ephemera” so beautifully also has ephemeral which is so lovely next to Being. I don’t know German well enough (anymore) to figure out a good word for that. (And google just tells me the German ephemera is… Ephemera. And that’s boring.)

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