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Category theory^{[1]} 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 morphisms). 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, rings, and groups.
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.
Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane introduced the concepts of categories, functors, and natural transformations in 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.^{[2]}
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.
Categories now appear in many branches of mathematics, some areas of theoretical computer science where they can correspond to types or to database schemas, and mathematical physics where they can be used to describe vector spaces.^{[3]} Linear algebra can also be expressed in terms of categories of matrices.^{[4]} Probably the first application of category theory outside pure mathematics was the "metabolism-repair" model of autonomous living organisms by Robert Rosen.^{[5]}
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 theorems 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 morphisms – 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 homomorphisms. 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 spaces in topology (the associated category is called Top), and the study of smooth functions (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 spaces.
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.
Diagram chasing 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 (viz. 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.
In fact, what we have done is define a category of categories and functors – the objects are categories, and the morphisms (between categories) are functors.
By studying categories and functors, we are not just studying a class of mathematical structures and the morphisms between them; we are studying the relationships between various classes of mathematical structures. This is a fundamental idea, which 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 groupoids 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.^{[6]}
A category C consists of the following three mathematical entities:
Relations among morphisms (such as fg = h) are often depicted using commutative diagrams, with "points" (corners) representing objects and "arrows" representing morphisms.
Morphisms can have any of the following properties. A morphism f : a → b is a:
Every retraction is an epimorphism, and every section is a monomorphism. Furthermore, the following three statements are equivalent:
Functors 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 F : C → D, consists of:
such that the following two properties hold:
A contravariant functor F: C → D is like a covariant functor, except that it "turns morphisms around" ("reverses all the arrows"). More specifically, every morphism f : x → y in C must be assigned to a morphism F(f) : F(y) → F(x) in D. In other words, a contravariant functor acts as a covariant functor from the opposite category C^{op} to D.
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 η_{X} : F(X) → G(X) in D such that for every morphism f : X → Y in C, we have η_{Y} ∘ F(f) = G(f) ∘ η_{X}; this means that the following diagram is commutative:
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.
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.
Indeed, it turns out that numerous important constructions can be described in a purely categorical way. The central concept which is needed for this purpose is called categorical limit, and can be 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 in mathematics.
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.
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 transformations of morphisms in the usual sense. Another basic example is to consider a 2-category with a single object; these are essentially monoidal categories. Bicategories 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 numbers 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, see John Baez, 'A Tale of n-categories' (1996).
“ | It should be observed first that the whole concept of a category is essentially an auxiliary one; our basic concepts are essentially those of a functor and of a natural transformation [...] | ” |
— Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane, General theory of natural equivalences^{[7]} |
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 axiomatic homology theory. Eilenberg and Mac Lane later wrote that their goal was to understand natural transformations. That required defining functors, which required categories.
Stanislaw Ulam, 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. To achieve this understanding, Eilenberg and Mac Lane proposed an axiomatic formalization of the relation between structures and the processes that preserve them.
The subsequent development of category theory was powered first by the computational needs of homological algebra, and later by the axiomatic needs of algebraic geometry. General category theory, an extension of universal algebra having many new features allowing for semantic flexibility and higher-order logic, came later; it is now applied throughout mathematics.
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.
Categorical logic is now a well-defined field based on type theory for intuitionistic logics, 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 sense).
Category theory has been applied in other fields as well. For example, John Baez has shown a link between Feynman diagrams in Physics and monoidal categories.^{[8]} 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).
Note that theorem 3 is actually easier for categories in general than it is for the special case of sets. This phenomenon is by no means rare.