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Word of the Week: Aufheben

Sometimes language is a complicated thing… so complicated that it can take on a philosophical bent.

Take the German word aufheben. It can have multiple meaning that contradict each other. In the most frequent use of the term people can express both the wish to “abolish” as well as to “preserve” something. It all depends on the context.

The famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel used this antipode to explain the motor of dialectic functions. “Sublation,” he argues, shows the movement of Geist (spirit) or mind and can therefore both preserve and abolish at the same time.

For example: during adolescence we struggle with problems that will soon be forgotten. Those problems did not simply vanish, but instead helped to form us into the adults we are today. The same is true for every part of human life and evolution. In history, politics, art and philosophy: we do not simply forget and move on, but instead always keep a part of what we experienced with us.

Aufheben is the exemplary verb of the German language used to express this philosophical complexity. Still it is pretty safe to say that this dualism is lost not only on non-native German speakers, but also on a majority of Germans who use it in everyday life.

It is amazing to see what one word can do, isn’t it?

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