Universal property

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A property of an object in a category which characterizes it as a representing object for some (covariant or contravariant) set-valued functor defined on the category. More formally, let be a category and a functor (for definiteness, the covariant case is treated here). Then a universal element of is a pair , where is an object of and , such that for every other such pair there is a unique in satisfying . The correspondence between and defines a natural isomorphism between and the functor ; the object is said to be a representing object (or representation) for the functor , and its universal property is the possession of the universal element .


1) In any category , the universal property of a (categorical) product is the possession of a pair of projections ; that is, is a universal element for the (contravariant) functor which sends an object to the set of all pairs of morphisms .

2) In the category of modules over a commutative ring , the universal property of a tensor product is the possession of a bilinear mapping ; that is, is a representing object for the covariant functor which sends a module to the set of bilinear mappings .

An object possessing a given universal property is unique up to canonical isomorphism in the appropriate category. The idea of characterizing objects by means of universal properties was first exploited by S. MacLane [a1].


[a1] S. MacLane, "Duality for groups" Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. , 56 (1950) pp. 485–516
How to Cite This Entry:
Universal property. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This article was adapted from an original article by P.T. Johnstone (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article