Category theory formalizes mathematical structure
and its concepts in terms of a labeled directed graph
called a ''category
'', whose nodes are called ''objects'', and whose labelled directed edges are called ''arrows'' (or morphism
s). A category
has two basic properties: the ability to compose
the arrows associatively
, and the existence of an identity
arrow for each object. The language of category theory has been used to formalize concepts of other high-level abstractions
such as sets
, and groups
. Informally, category theory is a general theory of functions
Several terms used in category theory, including the term "morphism", are used differently from their uses in the rest of mathematics. In category theory, morphisms obey conditions specific to category theory itself.
and Saunders Mac Lane
introduced the concepts of categories, functor
s, and natural transformation
s from 1942–45 in their study of algebraic topology
, with the goal of understanding the processes that preserve mathematical structure.
Category theory has practical applications in programming language theory
, for example the usage of monads in functional programming
. It may also be used as an axiomatic foundation for mathematics, as an alternative to set theory
and other proposed foundations.
Categories represent abstractions of other mathematical concepts.
Many areas of mathematics can be formalised by category theory as categories
. Hence category theory uses abstraction to make it possible to state and prove many intricate and subtle mathematical results in these fields in a much simpler way.
A basic example of a category is the category of sets
, where the objects are sets and the arrows are functions from one set to another. However, the objects of a category need not be sets, and the arrows need not be functions. Any way of formalising a mathematical concept such that it meets the basic conditions on the behaviour of objects and arrows is a valid category—and all the results of category theory apply to it.
The "arrows" of category theory are often said to represent a process connecting two objects, or in many cases a "structure-preserving" transformation connecting two objects. There are, however, many applications where much more abstract concepts are represented by objects and morphisms. The most important property of the arrows is that they can be "composed", in other words, arranged in a sequence to form a new arrow.
Applications of categories
Categories now appear in many branches of mathematics, some areas of theoretical computer science
where they can correspond to types
or to database schema
s, and mathematical physics
where they can be used to describe vector space
s. Probably the first application of category theory outside pure mathematics was the "metabolism-repair" model of autonomous living organisms by Robert Rosen
Categories, objects, and morphisms
The study of categories
is an attempt to ''axiomatically'' capture what is commonly found in various classes of related mathematical structures
by relating them to the ''structure-preserving functions'' between them. A systematic study of category theory then allows us to prove general results about any of these types of mathematical structures from the axioms of a category.
Consider the following example. The class
Grp of groups
consists of all objects having a "group structure". One can proceed to prove theorem
s about groups by making logical deductions from the set of axioms defining groups. For example, it is immediately proven from the axioms that the identity element
of a group is unique.
Instead of focusing merely on the individual objects (e.g. groups) possessing a given structure, category theory emphasizes the morphism
s – the structure-preserving mappings – ''between'' these objects; by studying these morphisms, one is able to learn more about the structure of the objects. In the case of groups, the morphisms are the group homomorphism
s. A group homomorphism between two groups "preserves the group structure" in a precise sense; informally it is a "process" taking one group to another, in a way that carries along information about the structure of the first group into the second group. The study of group homomorphisms then provides a tool for studying general properties of groups and consequences of the group axioms.
A similar type of investigation occurs in many mathematical theories, such as the study of continuous
maps (morphisms) between topological space
s in topology
(the associated category is called Top), and the study of smooth function
s (morphisms) in manifold theory
Not all categories arise as "structure preserving (set) functions", however; the standard example is the category of homotopies between pointed topological space
If one axiomatizes relations
instead of functions
, one obtains the theory of allegories
A category is ''itself'' a type of mathematical structure, so we can look for "processes" which preserve this structure in some sense; such a process is called a functor
is a visual method of arguing with abstract "arrows" joined in diagrams. Functors are represented by arrows between categories, subject to specific defining commutativity conditions. Functors can define (construct) categorical diagrams and sequences (cf. Mitchell, 1965). A functor associates to every object of one category an object of another category, and to every morphism in the first category a morphism in the second.
As a result, this defines a category ''of categories and functors'' – the objects are categories, and the morphisms (between categories) are functors.
Studying categories and functors is not just studying a class of mathematical structures and the morphisms between them but rather the ''relationships between various classes of mathematical structures''. This fundamental idea first surfaced in algebraic topology
. Difficult ''topological'' questions can be translated into ''algebraic'' questions which are often easier to solve. Basic constructions, such as the fundamental group
or the fundamental groupoid
of a topological space
, can be expressed as functors to the category of groupoid
s in this way, and the concept is pervasive in algebra and its applications.
Abstracting yet again, some diagrammatic and/or sequential constructions are often "naturally related" – a vague notion, at first sight. This leads to the clarifying concept of natural transformation
, a way to "map" one functor to another. Many important constructions in mathematics can be studied in this context. "Naturality" is a principle, like general covariance
in physics, that cuts deeper than is initially apparent. An arrow between two functors is a natural transformation when it is subject to certain naturality or commutativity conditions.
Functors and natural transformations ('naturality') are the key concepts in category theory.
Categories, objects, and morphisms
A ''category'' ''C'' consists of the following three mathematical entities:
* A class
ob(''C''), whose elements are called ''objects'';
* A class hom(''C''), whose elements are called morphism
s or maps
or ''arrows''. Each morphism ''f'' has a ''source object a'' and ''target object b''.
The expression , would be verbally stated as "''f'' is a morphism from ''a'' to ''b''".
The expression – alternatively expressed as , , or – denotes the ''hom-class'' of all morphisms from ''a'' to ''b''.
* A binary operation
∘, called ''composition of morphisms'', such that for any three objects ''a'', ''b'', and ''c'', we have . The composition of and is written as or ''gf'', governed by two axioms:
: If , and then , and
: For every object ''x'', there exists a morphism called the ''identity morphism
for x'', such that for every morphism , we have .
:: From the axioms, it can be proved that there is exactly one identity morphism
for every object. Some authors deviate from the definition just given by identifying each object with its identity morphism.
Relations among morphisms (such as ) are often depicted using commutative diagram
s, with "points" (corners) representing objects and "arrows" representing morphisms.
s can have any of the following properties. A morphism is a:
(or ''monic'') if implies for all morphisms .
(or ''epic'') if implies for all morphisms .
* ''bimorphism'' if ''f'' is both epic and monic.
if there exists a morphism such that .
if . end(''a'') denotes the class of endomorphisms of ''a''.
if ''f'' is both an endomorphism and an isomorphism. aut(''a'') denotes the class of automorphisms of ''a''.
if a right inverse of ''f'' exists, i.e. if there exists a morphism with .
if a left inverse of ''f'' exists, i.e. if there exists a morphism with .
Every retraction is an epimorphism, and every section is a monomorphism. Furthermore, the following three statements are equivalent:
* ''f'' is a monomorphism and a retraction;
* ''f'' is an epimorphism and a section;
* ''f'' is an isomorphism.
s are structure-preserving maps between categories. They can be thought of as morphisms in the category of all (small) categories.
A (covariant) functor ''F'' from a category ''C'' to a category ''D'', written , consists of:
* for each object ''x'' in ''C'', an object ''F''(''x'') in ''D''; and
* for each morphism in ''C'', a morphism ,
such that the following two properties hold:
* For every object ''x'' in ''C'', ;
* For all morphisms and , .
A contravariant functor is like a covariant functor, except that it "turns morphisms around" ("reverses all the arrows"). More specifically, every morphism in ''C'' must be assigned to a morphism in ''D''. In other words, a contravariant functor acts as a covariant functor from the opposite category
A ''natural transformation'' is a relation between two functors. Functors often describe "natural constructions" and natural transformations then describe "natural homomorphisms" between two such constructions. Sometimes two quite different constructions yield "the same" result; this is expressed by a natural isomorphism between the two functors.
If ''F'' and ''G'' are (covariant) functors between the categories ''C'' and ''D'', then a natural transformation η from ''F'' to ''G'' associates to every object ''X'' in ''C'' a morphism in ''D'' such that for every morphism in ''C'', we have ; this means that the following diagram is commutative
175px|center|Commutative diagram defining natural transformations
The two functors ''F'' and ''G'' are called ''naturally isomorphic'' if there exists a natural transformation from ''F'' to ''G'' such that η''X''
is an isomorphism for every object ''X'' in ''C''.
Universal constructions, limits, and colimits
Using the language of category theory, many areas of mathematical study can be categorized. Categories include sets, groups and topologies.
Each category is distinguished by properties that all its objects have in common, such as the empty set
or the product of two topologies
, yet in the definition of a category, objects are considered atomic, i.e., we ''do not know'' whether an object ''A'' is a set, a topology, or any other abstract concept. Hence, the challenge is to define special objects without referring to the internal structure of those objects. To define the empty set without referring to elements, or the product topology without referring to open sets, one can characterize these objects in terms of their relations to other objects, as given by the morphisms of the respective categories. Thus, the task is to find ''universal properties
'' that uniquely determine the objects of interest.
Numerous important constructions can be described in a purely categorical way if the ''category limit'' can be developed and dualized to yield the notion of a ''colimit''.
It is a natural question to ask: under which conditions can two categories be considered ''essentially the same'', in the sense that theorems about one category can readily be transformed into theorems about the other category? The major tool one employs to describe such a situation is called ''equivalence of categories'', which is given by appropriate functors between two categories. Categorical equivalence has found numerous applications
Further concepts and results
The definitions of categories and functors provide only the very basics of categorical algebra; additional important topics are listed below. Although there are strong interrelations between all of these topics, the given order can be considered as a guideline for further reading.
* The functor category
has as objects the functors from ''C'' to ''D'' and as morphisms the natural transformations of such functors. The Yoneda lemma
is one of the most famous basic results of category theory; it describes representable functors in functor categories.
: Every statement, theorem, or definition in category theory has a ''dual'' which is essentially obtained by "reversing all the arrows". If one statement is true in a category ''C'' then its dual is true in the dual category ''C''op
. This duality, which is transparent at the level of category theory, is often obscured in applications and can lead to surprising relationships.
* Adjoint functors
: A functor can be left (or right) adjoint to another functor that maps in the opposite direction. Such a pair of adjoint functors typically arises from a construction defined by a universal property; this can be seen as a more abstract and powerful view on universal properties.
Many of the above concepts, especially equivalence of categories, adjoint functor pairs, and functor categories, can be situated into the context of ''higher-dimensional categories''. Briefly, if we consider a morphism between two objects as a "process taking us from one object to another", then higher-dimensional categories allow us to profitably generalize this by considering "higher-dimensional processes".
For example, a (strict) 2-category
is a category together with "morphisms between morphisms", i.e., processes which allow us to transform one morphism into another. We can then "compose" these "bimorphisms" both horizontally and vertically, and we require a 2-dimensional "exchange law" to hold, relating the two composition laws. In this context, the standard example is Cat, the 2-category of all (small) categories, and in this example, bimorphisms of morphisms are simply natural transformation
s of morphisms in the usual sense. Another basic example is to consider a 2-category with a single object; these are essentially monoidal categories
are a weaker notion of 2-dimensional categories in which the composition of morphisms is not strictly associative, but only associative "up to" an isomorphism.
This process can be extended for all natural number
s ''n'', and these are called ''n''-categories
. There is even a notion of ''ω-category
'' corresponding to the ordinal number ω
Higher-dimensional categories are part of the broader mathematical field of higher-dimensional algebra
, a concept introduced by Ronald Brown
. For a conversational introduction to these ideas, seJohn Baez, 'A Tale of ''n''-categories' (1996).
In 1942–45, Samuel Eilenberg
and Saunders Mac Lane
introduced categories, functors, and natural transformations as part of their work in topology, especially algebraic topology
. Their work was an important part of the transition from intuitive and geometric homology
to homological algebra
. Eilenberg and Mac Lane later wrote that their goal was to understand natural transformations. That required defining functors, which required categories.
, and some writing on his behalf, have claimed that related ideas were current in the late 1930s in Poland. Eilenberg was Polish, and studied mathematics in Poland in the 1930s. Category theory is also, in some sense, a continuation of the work of Emmy Noether
(one of Mac Lane's teachers) in formalizing abstract processes; Noether realized that understanding a type of mathematical structure requires understanding the processes that preserve that structure (homomorphism
s). Eilenberg and Mac Lane introduced categories for understanding and formalizing the processes (functor
s) that relate topological structures
to algebraic structures (topological invariant
s) that characterize them.
Category theory was originally introduced for the need of homological algebra
, and widely extended for the need of modern algebraic geometry
). Category theory may be viewed as an extension of universal algebra
, as the latter studies algebraic structure
s, and the former applies to any kind of mathematical structure
and studies also the relationships between structures of different nature. For this reason, it is used throughout mathematics. Applications to mathematical logic
(categorical abstract machine
) came later.
Certain categories called topoi
(singular ''topos'') can even serve as an alternative to axiomatic set theory
as a foundation of mathematics. A topos can also be considered as a specific type of category with two additional topos axioms. These foundational applications of category theory have been worked out in fair detail as a basis for, and justification of, constructive mathematics
. Topos theory
is a form of abstract sheaf theory
, with geometric origins, and leads to ideas such as pointless topology
is now a well-defined field based on type theory
for intuitionistic logic
s, with applications in functional programming
and domain theory
, where a cartesian closed category
is taken as a non-syntactic description of a lambda calculus
. At the very least, category theoretic language clarifies what exactly these related areas have in common (in some abstract
Category theory has been applied in other fields as well. For example, John Baez
has shown a link between Feynman diagrams
and monoidal categories.
Another application of category theory, more specifically: topos theory, has been made in mathematical music theory, see for example the book ''The Topos of Music, Geometric Logic of Concepts, Theory, and Performance'' by Guerino Mazzola
More recent efforts to introduce undergraduates to categories as a foundation for mathematics include those of William Lawvere
and Rosebrugh (2003) and Lawvere and Stephen Schanuel
(1997) and Mirroslav Yotov (2012).
* Domain theory
* Enriched category theory
* Glossary of category theory
* Group theory
* Higher category theory
* Higher-dimensional algebra
* Important publications in category theory
* Lambda calculus
* Outline of category theory
* Timeline of category theory and related mathematics
* Notes for a course offered as part of the MSc. in Mathematical Logic
, Manchester University
* , draft of a book.
* Based on .
Theory and Application of Categories
an electronic journal of category theory, full text, free, since 1995.
a wiki project on mathematics, physics and philosophy with emphasis on the ''n''-categorical point of view.
The n-Category Café
essentially a colloquium on topics in category theory.
a web page of links to lecture notes and freely available books on category theory.
* , a formal introduction to category theory.
* , with an extensive bibliography.
List of academic conferences on category theory
* — An informal introduction to higher order categories.
is a category theory package for Mathematica
. Manipulation and visualization of objects, morphism
s, categories, functor
s, natural transformation
s, universal properties
* , a channel about category theory.
of recorded talks relevant to categories, logic and the foundations of physics.
Interactive Web page
which generates examples of categorical constructions in the category of finite sets.
an instruction on category theory as a tool throughout the sciences.
Category Theory for Programmers
A book in blog form explaining category theory for computer programmers.
Introduction to category theory.
Category:Higher category theory
Category:Foundations of mathematics