According to Charles Taylor, it is the overcoming of dualisms that drives Hegel’s quest for the actualization of Geist. Taylor identifies four oppositions that serve as a wedge between man and the world: (1) knowing subject v. his world, (2) nature v. freedom, (3) individual v. society, and (4) finite spirit v. infinite spirit (Taylor, Hegel, 77-79). These oppositions, all pertaining (to some degree) to a subject and the world, are the very oppositions that Kantian philosophy celebrates but which Hegel emphasized needed to be overcome in order to truly create a system of Reason where subject and object could truly relate; for in the Kantian system, particularly with the post-Kantian thinkers of Hegel’s day, the epistemological ambiguity of critical philosophy must always lead one to skepticism. With that said, it is not the case that Hegel wanted to abandon Kant and return to pre-Kantian dogmatic metaphysics. If anything, Hegel was more a modernist that Kant himself. However, Hegel believed that by radicalizing the Kantian project it would be possible to “complete” Kant, by going through Kant, to reach another plateau. This means that Kant is not to be abandoned. Rather, one must accept the groundwork that Kant laid, including all the oppositions just mentioned, and then seek a way to overcome (aufhebung) the entire Kantian project and the system of dualisms that result from it.
To be clear, “overcome” here does not simply mean to abandon and leave without a trace. Rather, overcome (aufhebung) carries two connotations with it: negation and elevation. According to traditional readings of Hegel, the emphasis is on the side of elevation. For such thinkers like Charles Taylor, “there is a single supra-individual entity, Geist, and that all that exists is to be thought of as part of the development of this single, supra-human individual” (Cambridge Companion to Hegel, 118). Therefore, in overcoming opposition(s) Geist will be elevated (and will elevate itself) through a hierarchical process that will ultimately lead to the achievement of “Absolute Spirit,” which is the consummation of history and the ultimate sublation of all things into the One. However, this “One” must not be understood in Neoplatonic terms; for the One that is actualized in Hegel’s schema is not the same as the One of Plotinus in that the latter posits a return to the same whereas Hegel’s consummatory Absolute Geist is something altered through its own process of realization (Rowan Williams, “Hegel and the gods of Postmodernity,” 29).
At the other extreme are thinkers that focus more on the concept of “negation.” Thinkers like Slavoj Zizek prefer this interpretation over the “elevation” model because of the latter’s teleological thrust. Thinkers such as Zizek claim that Taylor places Hegel into an Aristotelean framework where Geist is impelled forward by and to its own self-actualization. Such a view for the contingency-driven-materialist Zizek is unthinkable. Instead, by focusing on “negation” as the vehicle which drives the dialectical process between oppositions, Zizek claims that “what we find in Hegel is the strongest affirmation yet of difference and contingency” (Kotsko, Zizek and Theology, 9). In fact, Zizek claims “that Hegel is the philosopher of contingency par excellence” (Johnston, Zizek’s Ontology, 127). For him, the entire process of Geist’s self-realization emerges out of chaos and is only recognized, nominated, and synthesized a posteriori. This means that the “overcoming” that takes place is in fact not an elevated synthesis of Spirit’s progress toward self-realization, but rather the “negation of negation.” A first move is posited and then an antithesis arises. However, because of the power of negation, a third move enters the frame – not as the elevation/synthesis of the former two terms, but rather – as that which negates the break that the second term inaugurated, therefore re-establishing the first, however on radically altered terms.
There are positive reasons for accepting either of the positions just mentioned. However, neither extreme does indeed, by itself, sufficiently articulate Hegel’s use of aufhebung. This does not mean that neither the traditional interpretation or the Zizekian are completely asymptotic with Hegel’s terminology. What it does mean is that (ironically) in the process of describing what aufheung means, both the schools of thought mentioned fail to fully apply the term to itself. In other words, considering that aufhebung carries with it a (supposed) opposition of sorts (elevation v. negation) it should follow that the meaning of aufhebung would itself be understood dialectically. How might such a process work? The only way to preserve the fullness of the concept aufhebung is to maintain both elements (elevation and negation) in dialectical tension. The way this would work is that a term is posited. It’s antithesis comes to the fore. Then, because of the purblind, self-initiating movement of Geist itself, Geist both “negates” the platform on which the first two terms exist and “elevates” itself to a different qualitative status of self-realization that concomitantly maintains fidelity to both the initial thesis and its antithesis. This process must occur without any actual end in sight, except the self-awareness that it must reach its own actualization. And since the collective of humanity is the vehicle by which Geist comes to self-realization it must be insisted that such finite spirits are unaware of the specific form of the Absolute toward which they are ultimately intending, while at the same time being fully aware (or needing to be at least) of their quest for the actuation of Absolute Spirit. Therefore, only by fully acknowledging and consistently upholding aufhebung’s binary nature can Geist move along the dialectical process in its flow toward self-actualization.