Grothendieck topos


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Classically, we have:

A Grothendieck topos 𝒯\mathcal{T} is a category that admits a geometric embedding

𝒯lexPSh(C) \mathcal{T} \stackrel{\stackrel{lex}{\leftarrow}}{\hookrightarrow} PSh(C)

in a presheaf category, i.e., a full and faithful functor that has a left exact left adjoint.

This is equivalently the category of sheaves (Set-valued presheaves satisfying the sheaf condition) over a small site.

Since smallness can be relative, we also have:

For a given fixed category of sets SS, a Grothendieck topos over SS is a category of sheaves (SS-valued presheaves satisfying the sheaf condition) over a site which is small relative to SS, that is a site internal to SS.

Note that a Grothendieck topos is a topos because (or if) SS is.

The site is not considered part of the structure; different sites may give rise to equivalent category of sheaves.

By the general theory of geometric morphisms, every Grothendieck topos sits inside a category of presheaves by a geometric embedding Sh(S)PSh(S)Sh(S) \hookrightarrow PSh(S).




Every Grothendieck topos is a total category and a cototal category.


From the page total category, totality follows from the fact that a Grothendieck topos is

Dually, a Grothendieck topos is

Therefore a Grothendieck topos is also cototal.

Giraud's axiomatic characterization

Giraud characterized Grothendieck toposes as categories satisfying certain exactness and small completeness properties (where “small” is again relative to the given category of sets SS). The exactness properties are elementary (not depending on SS), and are satisfied in any elementary topos, or even a pretopos.

Giraud's theorem characterises a Grothendieck topos as follows:

  1. a locally small category with a small generating set,
  2. with all finite limits,
  3. with all small coproducts, which are disjoint, and pullback-stable,
  4. where all congruences have effective quotient objects, which are also pullback-stable.

These conditions are equivalent to

See the Elephant, theorem C.2.2.8. (There, the assumption of local smallness is not stated explicitly, but it is included in the definition of \infty-pretopos by way of well-poweredness; on the nLab it is not so included, so we have to state it explicitly. To see that it is necessary, note that if UU and VV are Grothendieck universes with UVU\in V, then Set VSet_V satisfies all the other conditions relative to Set USet_U, but is not locally small and is not a Grothendieck topos.) See also Wikipedia.

Sometimes (3,4) are combined and strengthened to the statement that the category has all small colimits, which are effective and pullback-stable. However, this is a mistake for two reasons: it is a significantly stronger axiomatisation (since without the small generating set, not every infinitary pretopos has this property), and it is not valid in weak foundations (while the definition given above is).

Street’s axiomatic characterization

Augmenting the aforementioned Proposition 1 that Grothendieck toposes are total categories, Street more or less characterizes Grothendieck toposes as lex total categories having the same “size” as SetSet.

In more detail: we take as background set theory ZFC + “there is a strongly inaccessible cardinal” κ\kappa; equivalently, the existence of a single Grothendieck universe UU (a set of “small sets”). Supposing given a model VV of ZFC+universeZFC+universe, “category” shall then refer to category theory interpreted in VV. Let SetSet be the category of small sets; note that the set of morphisms of SetSet has size κ\kappa. Let EE be a locally small category.


EE is lex total if the Yoneda embedding y:E[E op,Set]y: E \to [E^{op}, Set] has a left exact left adjoint.


(Street) A category EE is a Grothendieck topos iff it is lex total and the size of the set of isomorphism classes of objects is κ\kappa or less.


This result is in the spirit of saying “every Grothendieck topos is the category of sheaves with respect to the canonical topology on itself”. Putting aside set-theoretic issues, it suggests that Grothendieck toposes be seen as analogous to frames, which may be defined as lex total objects in 2\mathbf{2}-CatCat. In this setting, the appropriate morphisms are left exact left adjoints, so that Grothendieck toposes and geometric morphisms between them would be analogous to locales and continuous maps between them.

One can deduce formally that lex total categories are locally cartesian closed Heyting pretoposes.

In weak foundations

We have two definitions of a Grothendieck topos:

  • the category of sheaves on some small site,
  • a category that satisfies Giraud's axioms (as listed above).

The theorem that these are equivalent can be proved in quite weak foundations, whether finitist, predicative, or constructive (or all three at once), as long as we axiomatize correctly given the caveats listed in the previous section. Some hard-nosed predicativists (and even hard-nosed ZFC fundamentalists) may object to the language (on the ground that large categories such as SetSet and other nontrivial Grothendieck toposes don't really exist), but they should accept the theorems when suitably phrased.

In predicative mathematics, however, we cannot prove that every Grothendieck topos is in fact a topos! In fact, it is immediate that the category of sets is a Grothendieck topos, but SetSet is an elementary topos if and only if power sets are small, which is precisely what predicativists doubt. One can use the term Grothendieck pretopos to avoid implying that we have an elementary topos. On the other hand, since Grothendeick toposes came first, perhaps it is the definition of ‘elementary topos’ that is too strong.

Similarly, in finitist mathematics, we cannot prove that every Grothendieck topos has a natural numbers object; while in strongly predicative mathematics, we cannot prove that every Grothendieck topos is cartesian closed. In each case, once a property is accepted of SetSet (the axiom of infinity and small function sets, in these examples), it can be proved for all Grothendieck toposes.

Constructivism as such is irrelevant; even in classical mathematics, most Grothendieck toposes are not boolean. However, for an analogous result, try the theorem that the category of presheaves on a groupoid (and hence any category of sheaves contained within it) is boolean. (Again, SetSet itself is an example of this.)

The theorem that every Grothendieck topos is cocomplete is a subtle point; it fails only in finitist predicative mathematics. (The key point in the proof is to generate the transitive closure *\sim^* of a binary relation \sim. One proof defines a *ba \sim^* b to mean that ax 0x n1ba \sim x_0 \sim \cdots \sim x_{n-1} \sim b for some nn, which is predicative but infinitary; another defines a *ba \sim^* b to mean that aba \sim' b for every transitive relation \sim' that contains \sim, which is finitary but impredicative.)

Locally presentable categories: Large categories whose objects arise from small generators under small relations.

(n,r)-categoriessatisfying Giraud's axiomsinclusion of left exact localizationsgenerated under colimits from small objectslocalization of free cocompletiongenerated under filtered colimits from small objects
(0,1)-category theory(0,1)-toposes\hookrightarrowalgebraic lattices\simeq Porst’s theoremsubobject lattices in accessible reflective subcategories of presheaf categories
category theorytoposes\hookrightarrowlocally presentable categories\simeq Adámek-Rosický’s theoremaccessible reflective subcategories of presheaf categories\hookrightarrowaccessible categories
model category theorymodel toposes\hookrightarrowcombinatorial model categories\simeq Dugger’s theoremleft Bousfield localization of global model structures on simplicial presheaves
(∞,1)-topos theory(∞,1)-toposes\hookrightarrowlocally presentable (∞,1)-categories\simeq
Simpson’s theorem
accessible reflective sub-(∞,1)-categories of (∞,1)-presheaf (∞,1)-categories\hookrightarrowaccessible (∞,1)-categories


A quick introduction of the basic facts of sheaf-topos theory is chapter I, “Background in topos theory” in

  • Ieke Moerdijk, Classifying Spaces and Classifying Topoi Lecture Notes in Mathematics 1616, Springer (1995)

A standard textbook on this case is

Grothendieck topoi appear around section III,4 there. A proof of Giraud’s theorem is in appendix A.

The proof of Giraud’s theorem for (∞,1)-topoi is section 6.1.5 of

Street’s characterization of Grothendieck toposes is given in

  • Ross Street, Notions of topos, Bull. Australian Math. Soc. 23 (1981), 199-208; MR83a:18014. (pdf link)

Revised on September 14, 2015 17:14:47 by Todd Trimble (