In various branches of mathematics, a useful construction is often viewed as the “most efficient solution” to a certain problem. The definition of a universal property uses the language of category theory to make this notion precise and to study it abstractly.
This article gives a general treatment of universal properties. To understand the concept, it is useful to study several examples first, of which there are many: all free objects, direct product and direct sum, free group, free lattice, Grothendieck group, product topology, Stone–Čech compactification, tensor product, inverse limit and direct limit, kernel and cokernel, pullback, pushout and equalizer.
Before giving a formal definition of universal properties, we offer some motivation for studying such constructions.
- The concrete details of a given construction may be messy, but if the construction satisfies a universal property, one can forget all those details: all there is to know about the construct is already contained in the universal property. Proofs often become short and elegant if the universal property is used rather than the concrete details. For example, the tensor algebra of a vector space is slightly painful to actually construct, but using its universal property makes it much easier to deal with.
- Universal properties define objects up to a unique isomorphism. Therefore, one strategy to prove that two objects are isomorphic is to show that they satisfy the same universal property.
- Universal constructions are functorial in nature: if one can carry out the construction for every object in a category C then one obtains a functor on C. Furthermore, this functor is a right or left adjoint to the functor U used in the definition of the universal property.
- Universal properties occur everywhere in mathematics. By understanding their abstract properties, one obtains information about all these constructions and can avoid repeating the same analysis for each individual instance.
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