I’ll continue then with this brief subseries on category theory. Today I want to talk more about universal properties, and about the notion of natural transformation. Maybe not today, but soon at any rate, I want to tie all this in with the central concept of representability, which leads directly and naturally to the powerful and fundamental idea of adjoint functors. This goes straight to the very heart of category theory.

The term “natural”, often bandied about by mathematicians, is perhaps an overloaded term (see the comments here for a recent disagreement about certain senses of the word). I don’t know the exact history of the word as used by mathematicians, but by the 1930s and 40s the description of something as “natural” was part of the working parlance of many mathematicians (in particular, algebraic topologists), and it is to the great credit of Eilenberg and Mac Lane that they sought to give the word a precise mathematical sense. A motivating problem in their case was to prove a universal coefficient theorem for Cech cohomology, for which they needed certain comparison maps (transformations) which cohered by making certain diagrams commute (which was the naturality condition). In trying to precisely define this concept of naturality, they were led to the concept of a “functor” and then, to define the concept of functor, they were led back to the notion of category! And the rest, as they say, is history.

More on naturality in a moment. Let me first give a few more examples of universal constructions. Last time we discussed the general concept of a cartesian product — obviously in honor of Descartes, for his tremendous idea of the method of coordinates and analytic geometry.

But of course products are only part of the story: he was also interested in the representation of *equations* by geometric figures: for instance, representing an equation as a subset of the plane. In the language of category theory, the variable denotes the second coordinate or second projection map , and denotes the composite of the first projection map followed by some given map :

The locus of the equation is the subset of where the two morphisms and are equal, and we want to describe the locus in a categorical way (i.e., in a way which will port over to other categories).

**Definition**: Given a pair of morphisms

their *equalizer* consists of an object and a map , such that , and satisfying the following universal property: for any map such that , there exists a unique map such that (any map that equalizes and factors in a unique way through the equalizer ).

Another way of saying it is that there is a bijection between -equalizing maps and maps ,

effected by composing such maps with the universal -equalizing map .

**Exercise**: Apply a universality argument to show that any two equalizers of a given pair of maps are isomorphic.

It is not immediately apparent from the definition that an equalizer describes a “subthing” (e.g., a subset) of , but then we haven’t even discussed subobjects. The categorical idea of subobject probably takes some getting used to anyway, so I’ll be brief. First, there is the idea of a monomorphism (or a “mono” for short), which generalizes the idea of an injective or one-to-one function. A morphism is *monic* if for all , implies . Monos with codomain are preordered by a relation , where

if there exists such that . (Such a is unique since is monic, so it doesn’t need to be specified particularly; also this is easily seen to be monic [exercise].) Then we say that two monics mapping into name the same subobject of if and ; in that case the mediator is an isomorphism. Writing to denote this condition, it is standard that is an equivalence relation.

Thus, a *subobject* of is an equivalence class of monos into . So when we say an equalizer of maps defines a subobject of , all we really mean is that is monic. **Proof**: Suppose for maps . Since , we have for instance. By definition of equalizer, this means there exists a unique map for which . Uniqueness then implies are equal to this self-same , so and we are done.

Let me turn to another example of a universal construction, which has been used in one form or another for centuries: that of “function space”. For example, in the calculus of variations, one may be interested in the “space” of all (continuous) paths in a physical space , and in paths which minimize “action” (principle of least action).

If is a topological space, then one is faced with a variety of choices for topologizing the path space (denoted ). How to choose? As in our discussion last time of topologizing products, our view here is that the “right” topology will be the unique one which ensures that an appropriate universal property is satisfied.

To get started on this: the points of the path space are of course paths , and *paths* in the path space, , sending each to a path , should correspond to *homotopies* between paths, that is continuous maps ; the idea is that . Now, just knowing what paths in a space look like (homotopies between paths) may not be enough to pin down the topology on , but: suppose we now generalize. Suppose we decree that for *any* space , the continuous maps should correspond exactly to continuous maps , also called homotopies. Then *that* is enough to pin down the topology on . (We could put it this way: we use general spaces to probe the topology of .)

This principle applies not just to topology, but is extremely general: it applies to any category! I’ll state it very informally for now, and more precisely later:

Yoneda principle: to determine any object up to isomorphism, it suffices to understand what general maps mapping into it look like.

For instance, a product is determined up to isomorphism by knowing what maps into it look like [they look like pairs of maps ]. In the first lecture in the Stone duality, we stated the Yoneda principle just for posets; now we are generalizing it to arbitrary categories.

In the case at hand, we would like to express the bijection between continuous maps

as a working universal property for the function space . There is a standard “Yoneda trick” for doing this: probe the thing we seek a universal characterization of with the identity map, here . Passing to the other side of the bijection, the identity map corresponds to a map

and *this* is the “universal map” we need. (I called it because in this case it is the evaluation map, which maps a pair (path , point ) to , i.e., evaluates at .)

Here then is the universal characterization of the path space: a space equipped with a continuous map , satisfying the following universal property: given any continuous map , there exists a unique continuous map such that is retrieved as the composite

(for the first arrow in the composite, cf. the exercise stated at the end of the last lecture).

**Exercise**: Formulate a universality argument that this universal property determines up to isomorphism.

**Remark**: Incidentally, for any space , such a path space exists; its topology turns out to be the topology of “uniform convergence”. We can pose a similar universal definition of any function space (replacing by , *mutatis mutandis*); a somewhat non-trivial result is that such a function space exists for all if and only if is locally compact; the topology on is then the so-called “compact-open” topology.

But why stop there? A general notion of “exponential” object is available for *any* category with cartesian products: for objects of , an *exponential* is an object equipped with a map , such that for any , there exists a unique such that is retrieved as the composite

**Example**: If the category is a meet-semilattice, then (assuming exists) there is a bijection or equivalence which takes the form

iff

But wait, we’ve seen this before: is what we earlier called the implication . So implication is really a function space object!

Okay, let me turn now to the notion of natural transformation. I described the original discovery (or invention) of categories as a kind of reverse engineering (functors were invented to talk about natural transformations, and categories were invented to talk about functors). Moving now in the forward direction, the rough idea can be stated as a progression:

- The notion of functor is appropriately defined as a morphism between categories,
- The notion of natural transformation is appropriately defined as a morphism between functors.

That seems pretty bare-bones: how do we decide what the appropriate notion of morphism between functors should be? One answer is by pursuing an analogy:

- As a space of continuous functions is to the category of topological spaces, so a category of functors should be to the category of categories.

That is, we already “know” (or in a moment we’ll explain) that the objects of this alleged exponential category are functors . Since is defined by a universal property, it is uniquely determined up to isomorphism. This in turn will uniquely determine what the “right” notion of morphism between functors should be: morphisms in the exponential ! Then, to discover the nature of these morphisms, we employ an appropriate “probe”.

To carry this out, I’ll need two special categories. First, the category denotes a (chosen) category with exactly one object and exactly one morphism (necessarily the identity morphism). It satisfies the universal property that for any category , there exists a unique functor . It is called a *terminal* category (for that reason). It can also be considered as an empty product of categories.

**Proposition**: For any category , there is an isomorphism .

**Proof**: Left to the reader. It can be proven either directly, or by applying universal properties.

The category can also be considered an “object probe”, in the sense that a functor is essentially the same thing as an object of (just look where the object of goes to in ).

For example, to probe the objects of the exponential category , we investigate functors . By the universal property of exponentials , these are in bijection with functors . By the proposition above, these are in bijection with functors . So objects of are necessarily tantamount to functors (and so we might as well define them as such).

Now we want to probe the morphisms of . For this, we use the special category given by the poset . For if is any category and is a morphism of , we can define a corresponding functor such that , , and sends the morphism to . Thus, such functors are in bijection with morphisms of . Speaking loosely, we could call the category the “generic morphism”.

Thus, to probe the morphisms in the category , we look at functors . In particular, if are functors , let us consider functors such that and . By the universal property of , these are in bijection with functors such that the composite

equals , and the composite

equals . Put more simply, this says and for objects of , and and for morphisms of .

The remaining morphisms of have the form . Introduce the following abbreviations:

- for objects of ;
- for morphisms of .

Since is a functor, it preserves morphism composition. We find in particular that since

we have

or, using the abbreviations,

In particular, the data is redundant: it may be defined either as either side of the equation

.

**Exercise**: Just on the basis of this last equation (for arbitrary morphisms and objects of ), prove that functoriality of follows.

This leads us at last to the definition of natural transformation:

**Definition**: Let be categories and let be functors from to . A *natural transformation* is an assignment of morphisms in to objects of , such that for every morphism , the following equation holds: .

Usually this equation is expressed in the form of a commutative diagram:

F(f) F(c) ---> F(d) | | phi_c | | phi_d V G(f) V G(c) ---> G(d)

which asserts the equality of the composites formed by following the paths from beginning (here ) to end (here ). (Despite the inconvenience in typesetting them, commutative diagrams as 2-dimensional arrays are usually easier to read and comprehend than line-by-line equations.) The commutative diagram says that the *components* of the transformation are coherent or compatible with all morphisms of the domain category.

**Remarks**: Now that I’ve written this post, I’m a little worried that any first-timers to category theory reading this will find this approach to natural transformations a little hardcore or intimidating. In that case I should say that my *intent* was to make this notion seem as inevitable as possible: by taking seriously the analogy

function space: category of spaces :: functor category: category of categories

we are inexorably led to the “right” (the “natural”) notion of natural transformation as morphism between functors. But if this approach is for some a pedagogical flop, then I urge those readers just to *forget it*, or come back to it later. Just remember the definition of natural transformation we finally arrived at, and you should be fine. Grasping the inner meaning of fundamental concepts like this takes time anyway, and isn’t merely a matter of pure deduction.

I should also say that the approach involved a kind of leap of faith that these functor categories (the exponentials ) “exist”. To be sure, the analysis above shows clearly what they must look like if they *do* exist (objects are functors ; morphisms are natural transformations as we’ve defined them), but actually there’s some more work to do: one must show they satisfy the universal property with respect to not just the two probing categories and that we used, but *any* category .

A somewhat serious concern here is that our talk of exponential categories played pretty fast and loose at the level of mathematical foundations. There’s that worrying phrase “category of categories”, for starters. That particular phraseology can be avoided, but nevertheless, it must be said that in the case where is a *large* category (i.e., involving a proper class of morphisms), the collection of all functors from to is not a well-formed construction within the confines of Gödel-Bernays-von Neumann set theory (it is not provably a class in general; in some approaches it could be called a “super-class”).

My own attitude toward these “problems” tends to be somewhat blasé, almost dismissive: *these are mere technicalities*, sez I. The main concepts are right and robust and very fruitful, and there are various solutions to the technical “problem of size” which have been developed over the decades (although how satisfactory they are is still a matter of debate) to address the apparent difficulties. Anyway, I try not to worry about it much. But, for those fine upstanding citizens who do worry about these things, I’ll just state one set-theoretically respectable theorem to convey that at least conceptually, all is right with the world.

**Definition**: A category with finite products is *cartesian closed* if for any two objects , there exists an exponential object .

**Theorem**: The category of small categories is cartesian closed.

## 11 comments

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June 29, 2008 at 5:52 pm

RelheunThis article didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know, but one this I did appreciate was the presence of a motivation for the definition of a natural transformation. Everywhere else I’ve seen a definition of natural transformations, it has been entirely unmotivated – they define a natural transformation, then prove that they can be regarded as morphisms between functors. As such, I much prefer the pedagogy here to most other treatments I’ve read.

June 29, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Todd TrimbleRelheun — good; thanks for the feedback. As you may know, there’s a notion of (strict) 2-category and beyond, and a similar approach can be used to justify certain recondite concepts found therein (such as the notion of “modification” between transformations).

That is, the category of small (strict) n-categories is cartesian closed, and this determines the nature of all relevant general structure in the n-category of n-functors between two n-categories. This is useful to know, even if it is the

weakn-categories which are more deserving of attention these days.July 12, 2008 at 7:37 am

Basic Category Theory, III: Representability, adjoints, and the Yoneda lemma « Todd and Vishal’s blog[…] functors, principle of duality, representable functors, Yoneda lemma | by Todd Trimble In our last post on category theory, we continued our exploration of universal properties, showing how they can be […]

July 18, 2008 at 6:22 pm

Ultrafilter convergence, compactness, and the spectrum of a Boolean algebra « Todd and Vishal’s blog[…] Tags: spectrum, Stone-Cech compactification, ultrafilter | by Todd Trimble After this brief (?) categorical interlude, I’d like to pick up the main thread again, and take a closer look at the some of […]

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

WaltTodd, you raise non-self-advertisement to a high art. I had no idea that you had a blog. I’ve even come across this blog a couple of times, and I never realized that “Todd” was you.

I think the definition of natural transformation seems odd just because of the way it’s normally explained. Take a functor from some category C to groups. If you explain it as given by a map on objects, etc., then the definition of natural transformation seems a little unmotivated. If you explain a functor as if for each object of C, you pick a group, then it seems less surprising that a morphism of functors is that for each object you pick a morphism of groups.

July 20, 2008 at 11:38 am

Todd TrimbleHi Walt. Yeah, just yesterday Vishal wondered why I don’t sign off on comments with my name linking to our blog; I should look into that. I seem to be the only “Todd” I’ve ever seen in the math blogs I’ve visited, though.

I think it’s the naturality condition per se (involving commutative squares) that seemed unmotivated to the first commenter. Of course there a number of ways of motivating it; the way I chose above gave me an excuse to introduce functor categories (as exponentials) and play around with that idea for a while, so that the pump would be primed for the Yoneda embedding in Basic Category Theory III. (Love that Yoneda embedding!)

July 22, 2008 at 2:11 am

RelheunActually, Walt has the right of it. I always felt the naturality condition was a very obvious thing to want to have hold; it never occurred to me until now to even ask for a motivation for it.

September 1, 2008 at 8:16 am

ZFC and ETCS: Elementary Theory of the Category of Sets « Todd and Vishal’s blog[…] first, and I thought that it would be of interest to some who have been following my category theory […]

September 11, 2008 at 12:13 am

ETCS: Internalizing the logic « Todd and Vishal’s blog[…] we address a comment made by “James”, that a category satisfying the ETCS axioms is cartesian closed. As everything else in this article, this uses only the fact that such a category is a topos: has […]

December 5, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Can Category Theory Serve as the Foundation of Mathematics? « Combinatorics and more[…] Trible wrote (on Todd’s and Vishal Blog) a series of posts ( I, II, III) on category theory, and additional posts (I,II) on category theory and axiomatic set […]

April 7, 2019 at 8:06 am

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