The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Weak 2-Categories

I’d like to step aside from homology because I’m on the road and I can throw off a post about weak 2-categories in my sleep by now.

When we were talking about enriched categories we mentioned the case of 2-categories, where between each pair of objects we have a hom-category and so on. We also mentioned that if a 2-category has only one object it’s the same thing as a strict monoidal category. But monoidal categories aren’t generally strict! That is, the monoidal product isn’t associative “on the nose”, but only up to a natural isomorphism. And so we should look for the same sort of thing to happen in the case of more general 2-categories.

So, a (weak) 2-category \mathcal{C} will have a collection of objects. Between each pair of objects C,D\in\mathcal{C} there will be a category \hom_\mathcal{C}(C,D) whose objects we call 1-morphisms from C to D. Between two such 1-morphisms f,g:C\rightarrow D we have a set of “2-morphisms” \hom_{\hom_\mathcal{C}(C,D)}(f,g).

We can “vertically” compose 2-morphisms using the composition from a given hom-category. That is, given \phi:f\rightarrow g and \psi:g\rightarrow h we have \psi\bullet\phi:f\rightarrow h. Of course, there is an “identity” 2-morphism 1_f on any 1-morphism f, and the composition is associative. At this top level, everything is just like any other category.

Down at the level of 1-morphisms, things get hairier. For each triple of objects A,B,C\in\mathcal{C} we have a functor \circ:\hom_\mathcal{C}(B,C)\times\hom_\mathcal{C}(A,B)\rightarrow\hom_\mathcal{C}(A,C). This functor is not required to be associative in the usual sense, nor to have identities. Instead, for every triple of 1-morphisms f:A\rightarrow B, g:B\rightarrow C, and h:C\rightarrow D, there is a 2-isomorphism \alpha_{f,g,h}\in\hom_{\hom_\mathcal{C}(A,D)}((h\circ g)\circ f,h\circ(g\circ f)) which replaces the associative law. Similarly, for each object we have a 1-morphism 1_C\in\hom_\mathcal{C}(C,C) and for each 1-morphism f:C\rightarrow D we have 2-morphisms \lambda_f\in\hom_{\hom_\mathcal{C}(C,D)}(1_D\circ f,f) and \rho_f\in\hom_{\hom_\mathcal{C}(C,D)}(f\circ1_C,f) to replace the left and right unit laws.

Now because \circ is a functor, it also acts on 2-morphisms. That is, if we have 1-morphisms f_1,g_1:A\rightarrow B and f_2,g_2:B\rightarrow C, and 2-morphisms \phi:f_1\rightarrow g_1 and \psi:f_2\rightarrow g_2, then we have a “horizontal” composition \psi\circ\phi:f_2\circ f_1\rightarrow g_2\circ g_1.

Functoriality says that this horizontal composition has to preserve the vertical composition inside each hom-category. So let’s take 1-morphisms f_1,g_1,h_1\in\hom_\mathcal{C}(A,B) and f_2,g_2,h_2\in\hom_\mathcal{C}(B,C). Then take 2-morphisms \phi_1:f_1\rightarrow g_1, \psi_1:g_1\rightarrow h_1, \phi_2:f_2\rightarrow g_2, and \psi_2:g_2\rightarrow h_2. We can vertically compose to get \psi_1\bullet\phi_1:f_1\rightarrow h_1 and \psi_2\bullet\phi_2:f_2\rightarrow h_2. These can then be horizontally composed to get (\psi_2\bullet\phi_2)\circ(\psi_1\bullet\phi_1):f_2\circ f_1\rightarrow h_2\circ h_1. On the other hand we could have composed horizontally before vertically and obtained (\psi_2\circ\psi_1)\bullet(\phi_2\circ\phi_1):f_2\circ f_1\rightarrow h_2\circ h_1. Functoriality tells us that these two 2-morphisms must be the same. We call this equation the “exchange identity”.

As an exercise, write all this out in the case where we just have one object. Then there’s only one hom-category to worry about. Verify that this restates the definition of a (weak) monoidal category, and show what the exchange identity means in this case.

October 4, 2007 - Posted by | Category theory


  1. If I’ve not missed a key detail, your weak 2-categories are sufficiently important that they deserve a 5-syllable name (as opposed to your 6). Where I come from, we call them bicategories.

    Comment by David Turner | October 5, 2007 | Reply

  2. Yes, the original term was “bicategories”, and then “tricategories”, “tetracategories”, and so on, but after a while it gets harder to remember the Greek prefix. When you’re only dealing with the first few, that nomenclature works, but once you’re doing many levels of this hierarchy it’s easier to just move to a number.

    As for the syllables, I’ve seen (and used myself) the convention that “2-category” means weak by default, and “strict 2-category” must be specified.

    Comment by John Armstrong | October 5, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] Spans and Cospans I was busy all yesterday with my talk at George Washington, so today I’ll make up for it by explaining one of the main tools that went into the talk. Coincidentally, it’s one of my favorite examples of a weak 2-category. […]

    Pingback by Spans and Cospans « The Unapologetic Mathematician | October 6, 2007 | Reply

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