Hegel and the Zero-Knowledge Proof

Beni Issembert
Apr 22, 2018 · 4 min read
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Once again I am reaching the Blockchain and trying to get released from old chains, through the prism of philosophy. After Proudhon and his will to decentralize everything, I was reading once again (every decade to be accurate) Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and I could not stop myself from connecting the German Philosopher’s vision to the concept of “Absolute Knowledge” to the idea of knowledge in the Blockchain world. Some of you will see a direct link to one of my last posts regarding a possible epistemology of the Blockchain. However, you will certainly be surprised to discover the link I draw between the Hegelianism (or a part of it) and the Zero-Knowledge proof concept.

Hegel — On the eve of the modernity

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote during the first part of the 19th century in Germany. Far from a pure romantic vision of the real, like Goethe or Mrs de Stael, Hegel mainly tried to define a distinctive articulation of idealism, which he called “absolute idealism.” Hegel dealt with philosophy as well as history, art and religion. One of his pieces of art remains, until the moment I am writing these lines. His account of the master-slave dialectic, which influenced strongly most of the philosophers and economists of the 19th and 20th centuries, i.e. Marx, Barth, Merleau-Ponty or Nietzsche. But it is his concept of Absolute Knowledge that grabbed my interest, and you will understand why.

The Hegelian Absolute Knowledge

The last and final chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology (1807) is titled Absolute Knowledge. Let’s focus at first on the “absolute” part of the concept. According to scholiasts, we must understand by absolute, something seen as the ultimate basis of all thought and being. But for Hegel, we have to understand the concept of absolute as being the “fundamental to reality.”

In order to understand or to try to understand (I must admit Hegel is not easy-going) the Hegelian Absolute Knowledge, let’s have a look on a little metaphor that the German philosopher used when he was a kid. Indeed, Hegel spoke about a “small house” where he used to like to get back to and that he considered as “home.” According to him, the Hellenistic Era needs to be seen as the first step of the knowledge when Modernity is trying to renounce on the past knowing in order to acquire its own point of view of the world.

In another word, the “small home” is where the Hegelian Knowledge begins and where Modernity does not find its natural place. But the “small house” is where the knowledge becomes absolute, “fundamental to reality.”

And now, in regards to this shameful short presentation of one of the most important thinking of all time, let’s connect it to the Zero-Knowledge proof idea.

The Zero-Knowledge proof for all

Let’s try to define the concept in the most comfortable way. A Zero-Knowledge proof protocol is a way in which one guy or computer can prove to another that he knows a value without conveying any other information apart from the fact he knows the value. In short, the first party does not have to provide the second one with the value to prove it knows it.

Or, “a zero-knowledge proofs require interaction between an individual proving their knowledge and the individual validating the proof.”

According to Wikipedia, “Zero-knowledge proofs were first conceived in 1985 by Shafi Goldwasser, Silvio Micali, and Charles Rackoff in their paper “The Knowledge Complexity of Interactive Proof-Systems.” And actually, some of the Blockchain artisans are using this protocol or a part of it within their projects since it looks pretty sexy to use in a cryptographic ecosystem.

And now? Zero-Knowledge Proofs and the Hegelian Absolute Knowing, what the heck? Well, what would happen if and when we could admit Absolute Knowing would not be the simple act of knowing something, in ownership of an insight, but rather the capacity to prove its ownership? That is to say, the Absolute Knowing could be considered in a cryptographic way not only as the sole ownership of a value but also as the capacity to prove a second part of the ownership without transferring automatically the value to the second part.

To conclude, trying to rethink Hegel via the prism of the Blockchain is not a simple task but could serve the purpose of a much bigger research that will lead all of us into the deep of the AufKlärung. Who’s in?

PS: Thanks to my friend Dylan Dewdney for his support and his help when it comes to fixing my twisted English.

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