The notion of nerve is part of a notion of pairs of adjoint functors. For the general abstract theory behind this see


As soon as any locally small category CC comes equipped with a cosimplicial object

Δ C:ΔC \Delta_C : \Delta \to C

that we may think of as determining a realization of the standard nn-simplex in CC, we make every object of CC probeable by simplices in that there is now a way to find the set

N(A) n:=Hom C(Δ C[n],A) N(A)_n := Hom_C(\Delta_C[n],A)

of ways to map the nn-simplex into a given object AA.

These collections of sets evidently organize into a simplicial set

N(A):Δ opSet. N(A) : \Delta^{op} \to Set \,.

This simplicial set is called the nerve of AA (with respect to the chosen realization of the standard simplicies in CC).

There are various obvious generalizations of this procedure, some of which are described below.


(notice that for the moment the following gives just one particular case of the more general notion of nerve)

Let SS be one of the categories of geometric shapes for higher structures, such as the globe category GG, the simplex category Δ\Delta, the cube category \Box, the cycle category Λ\Lambda of Connes, or certain category Ω\Omega related to trees whose corresponding presheaves are dendroidal sets.

If CC is any locally small category or, more generally, a VV-enriched category equipped with a functor

i:SC i : S \to C

we obtain a functor

N:CV S op N : C \to V^{S^{op}}

from CC to globular sets or simplicial sets or cubical sets, respectively, (or the corresponding VV-objects) given on an object cCc \in C by

N i(c):S opiC opC(,c)V. N_i(c) : S^{op} \stackrel{i}\to C^{op} \stackrel{C(-,c)}{\to} V \,.

This N i(c)N_i(c) is the nerve of cc with respect to the chosen i:SVi : S \to V.

Typically, one wants that ii is dense functor, i.e. that every object cc of CC is canonically a colimit of a diagram of objects in MM, more precisely,

colim((i/c)pr SSiC)=c, \mathrm{colim}((i/c)\stackrel{\mathrm{pr}_S}{\longrightarrow} S \stackrel{i}{\to} C) = c,

which is equivalent to the requirement that the corresponding nerve functor is fully faithful (in other words, if ii is inclusion then SS is a left adequate subcategory of CC in terminology of [Isbell 1960]). The nerve functor may be viewed as a singular functor? of the functor ii.


Nerve of a 1-category

For fixing notation, recall that


A small category 𝒞 \mathcal{C}_\bullet is

  • a pair of sets 𝒞 0Set\mathcal{C}_0 \in Set (the set of objects) and 𝒞 1Set\mathcal{C}_1 \in Set (the set of morphisms)

  • equipped with functions

    𝒞 1× 𝒞 0𝒞 1 𝒞 1 sit 𝒞 0, \array{ \mathcal{C}_1 \times_{\mathcal{C}_0} \mathcal{C}_1 &\stackrel{\circ}{\to}& \mathcal{C}_1 & \stackrel{\overset{t}{\to}}{\stackrel{\overset{i}{\leftarrow}}{\underset{s}{\to}}}& \mathcal{C}_0 }\,,

    where the fiber product on the left is that over 𝒞 1t𝒞 0s𝒞 1\mathcal{C}_1 \stackrel{t}{\to} \mathcal{C}_0 \stackrel{s}{\leftarrow} \mathcal{C}_1,

such that

  • ii takes values in endomorphisms;

    ti=si=id 𝒢 0, t \circ i = s \circ i = id_{\mathcal{G}_0}, \;\;\;
  • \circ defines a partial composition operation which is associative and unital for i(𝒞 0)i(\mathcal{C}_0) the identities; in particular

    s(gf)=s(f)s (g \circ f) = s(f) and t(gf)=t(g)t (g \circ f) = t(g).



For 𝒞 \mathcal{C}_\bullet a small category, def. 1, its simplicial nerve N(𝒞 ) N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)_\bullet is the simplicial set with

N(𝒞 ) n𝒞 1 × 𝒞 0 n N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)_n \coloneqq \mathcal{C}_1^{\times_{\mathcal{C}_0}^n}

the set of sequences of composable morphisms of length nn, for nn \in \mathbb{N};

with face maps

d k:N(𝒞 ) n+1N(𝒞 ) n d_k \colon N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)_{n+1} \to N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)_{n}


  • for n=0n = 0 the functions that remembers the kkth object;

  • for n1n \geq 1

    • the two outer face maps d 0d_0 and d nd_n are given by forgetting the first and the last morphism in such a sequence, respectively;

    • the n1n-1 inner face maps d 0<k<nd_{0 \lt k \lt n} are given by composing the kkth morphism with the k+1k+1st in the sequence.

The degeneracy maps

s k:N(𝒞 )nN(𝒞 ) n+1. s_k \colon N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)n \to N(\mathcal{C}_\bullet)_{n+1} \,.

are given by inserting an identity morphism on x kx_k.


Spelling this out in more detail: write

𝒞 n={x 0f 0,1x 1f 1,2x 2f 2,3f n1,nx n} \mathcal{C}_n = \left\{ x_0 \stackrel{f_{0,1}}{\to} x_1 \stackrel{f_{1,2}}{\to} x_2 \stackrel{f_{2,3}}{\to} \cdots \stackrel{f_{n-1,n}}{\to} x_n \right\}

for the set of sequences of nn composable morphisms. Given any element of this set and 0<k<n0 \lt k \lt n , write

f i1,i+1f i,i+1f i1,i f_{i-1,i+1} \coloneqq f_{i,i+1} \circ f_{i-1,i}

for the comosition of the two morphism that share the iith vertex.

With this, face map d kd_k acts simply by “removing the index kk”:

d 0:(x 0f 0,1x 1f 1,2x 2f n1,nx n)(x 1f 1,2x 2f n1,nx n) d_0 \colon (x_0 \stackrel{f_{0,1}}{\to} x_1 \stackrel{f_{1,2}}{\to} x_{2} \cdots \stackrel{f_{n-1,n}}{\to} x_n ) \mapsto (x_1 \stackrel{f_{1,2}}{\to} x_{2} \cdots \stackrel{f_{n-1,n}}{\to} x_n )
d 0<k<n:(x 0x k1f k1,kx kf k,k+1x k+1x n)(x 0x k1f k1,k+1x k+1x n) d_{0\lt k \lt n} \colon ( x_0 \cdots \stackrel{}{\to} x_{k-1} \stackrel{f_{k-1,k}}{\to} x_k \stackrel{f_{k,k+1}}{\to} x_{k+1} \stackrel{}{\to} \cdots x_n ) \mapsto ( x_0 \cdots \stackrel{}{\to} x_{k-1} \stackrel{f_{k-1,k+1}}{\to} x_{k+1} \stackrel{}{\to} \cdots x_n )
d n:(x 0f 0,1f n2,n1x n1f n1,nx n)(x 0f 0,1f n2,n1x n1). d_n \colon ( x_0 \stackrel{f_{0,1}}{\to} \cdots \stackrel{f_{n-2,n-1}}{\to} x_{n-1} \stackrel{f_{n-1,n}}{\to} x_n ) \mapsto ( x_0 \stackrel{f_{0,1}}{\to} \cdots \stackrel{f_{n-2,n-1}}{\to} x_{n-1} ) \,.

Similarly, writing

f k,kid x k f_{k,k} \coloneqq id_{x_k}

for the identity morphism on the object x kx_k, then the degenarcy map acts by “repeating the kkth index”

s k:(x 0x kf k,k+1x k+1)(x 0x kf k,kx kf k,k+1x k+1). s_k \colon ( x_0 \stackrel{}{\to} \cdots \to x_k \stackrel{f_{k,k+1}}{\to} x_{k+1} \to \cdots ) \mapsto ( x_0 \stackrel{}{\to} \cdots \to x_k \stackrel{f_{k,k}}{\to} x_k \stackrel{f_{k,k+1}}{\to} x_{k+1} \to \cdots ) \,.

This makes it manifest that these functions organise into a simplicial set.

More abstractly, this construction is described as follows. Recall that


The simplex category Δ\Delta is equivalent to the full subcategory

i:ΔCat i \colon \Delta \hookrightarrow Cat

of Cat on non-empty finite linear orders regarded as categoris, meaning that the object [n]Obj(Δ)[n] \in Obj(\Delta) may be identified with the category [n]={012n}[n] = \{0 \to 1 \to 2 \to \cdots \to n\}. The morphisms of Δ\Delta are all functors between these total linear categories.


For 𝒞\mathcal{C} a small category its nerve N(𝒞)N(\mathcal{C}) is the simplicial set give by

N(𝒞):Δ opCat opCat(,𝒞)Set, N(\mathcal{C}) \colon \Delta^{op} \hookrightarrow Cat^{op} \stackrel{Cat(-,\mathcal{C})}{\to} Set \,,

where Cat is regarded as a 1-category with objects locally small categories, and morphisms being functors between these.

So the set N(𝒞) nN(\mathcal{C})_n of nn-simplices of the nerve is the set of functors {01n}𝒞\{0 \to 1 \to \cdots \to n\} \to \mathcal{C}. This is clearly the same as the set of sequences of composable morphisms in DD of length nn:

N(𝒞) n=Mor(𝒞) t× sMor(D) t× s× sMor(𝒞) t nfactors N(\mathcal{C})_n = \underbrace{ Mor(\mathcal{C}) {}_t \times_s Mor(D) {}_t \times_s \cdots \times_s Mor(\mathcal{C}) {}_t}_{n factors}

The collection of all functors between linear orders

{01n}{01m} \{ 0 \to 1 \to \cdots \to n \} \to \{ 0 \to 1 \to \cdots \to m \}

is generated from those that map almost all generating morphisms kk+1k \to k+1 to another generating morphism, except at one position, where they

  • map a single generating morphism to the composite of two generating morphisms

    δ i n:[n1][n] \delta^n_i : [n-1] \to [n]
    δ i n:((i1)i)((i1)i(i+1)) \delta^n_i : ((i-1) \to i) \mapsto ((i-1) \to i \to (i+1))
  • map one generating morphism to an identity morphism

    σ i n:[n+1][n] \sigma^n_i : [n+1] \to [n]
    σ i n:(ii+1)Id i \sigma^n_i : (i \to i+1) \mapsto Id_i

It follows that, for instance

  • for (d 0f 1d 1,d 1f 2d 2,d 2f 3d 3)N(D) 3(d_0 \stackrel{f_1}{\to} d_1, d_1 \stackrel{f_2}{\to} d_2, d_2 \stackrel{f_3}{\to} d_3) \in N(D)_3 the image under d 1:=N(𝒞)(δ 1):N(𝒞) 3N(𝒞) 2d_1 := N(\mathcal{C})(\delta_1) : N(\mathcal{C})_3 \to N(\mathcal{C})_2 is obtained by composing the first two morphisms in this sequence: (d 0f 2f 1d 2,d 2f 3d 3)N(𝒞) 2(d_0 \stackrel{f_2 \circ f_1}{\to} d_2, d_2 \stackrel{f_3}{\to} d_3) \in N(\mathcal{C})_2

  • for (d 0f 1d 1)N(𝒞) 1(d_0 \stackrel{f_1}{\to} d_1) \in N(\mathcal{C})_1 the image under s 1:=N(𝒞)(σ 1):N(𝒞) 1N(𝒞) 2s_1 := N(\mathcal{C})(\sigma_1) : N(\mathcal{C})_1 \to N(\mathcal{C})_2 is obtained by inserting an identity morphism: (d 0f 1d 1,d 1Id d 1d 1)N(𝒞) 2(d_0 \stackrel{f_1}{\to} d_1, d_1 \stackrel{Id_{d_1}}{\to} d_1) \in N(\mathcal{C})_2.

In this way, generally the face and degeneracy maps of the nerve of a category come from composition of morphisms and from inserting identity morphisms.

In particular in light of their generalization to nerves of higher categories, discussed below, the cells in the nerve N(𝒞)N(\mathcal{C}) have the following interpretation:

  • N(𝒞) 0={d|dObj(𝒞)}N(\mathcal{C})_0 = \{d | d \in Obj(\mathcal{C})\} is the collection of objects of 𝒞\mathcal{C};

  • N(𝒞) 1=Mor(𝒞)={dfd|fMor(D)}N(\mathcal{C})_1 = Mor(\mathcal{C}) = \{d \stackrel{f}{\to} d' | f \in Mor(D)\} is the collection of morphisms of DD;

  • N(𝒞) 2={ d 1 f 1 ! f 2 d 0 f 2f 1 d 2|(f 1,f 2)Mor(D) t× sMor(D)}N(\mathcal{C})_2 = \left\{ \left. \array{ && d_1 \\ & {}^{f_1}\nearrow &\Downarrow^{\exists !}& \searrow^{f_2} \\ d_0 &&\stackrel{f_2 \circ f_1}{\to}&& d_2 } \right| (f_1, f_2) \in Mor(D) {}_t \times_s Mor(D) \right\} is the collection of composable morphisms in 𝒞\mathcal{C}: the 2-cell itself is to be read as the composition operation, which is unique for an ordinary category (there is just one way to compose to morphisms);

  • N(𝒞) 3={d 1 f 2 d 2 f 1 f 2f 1 f 3 d 0 f 3(f 2f 1) d 3!d 1 f 2 d 2 f 1 f 3f 2 f 3 d 0 (f 3f 2)f 1 d 3|(f 3,f 2,f 1)Mor(D) t× sMor(D) t× sMor(D)}N(\mathcal{C})_3 = \left\{ \left. \array{ d_1 &\stackrel{f_2}{\to}& d_2 \\ {}^{f_1}\uparrow & {}^{f_2 \circ f_1}\nearrow & \downarrow^{f_3} \\ d_0 &\stackrel{f_3\circ (f_2\circ f_1)}{\to}& d_3 } \;\;\;\;\;\stackrel{\exists !}{\Rightarrow} \;\;\;\;\; \array{ d_1 &\stackrel{f_2}{\to}& d_2 \\ {}^{f_1}\uparrow & \searrow^{f_3\circ f_2} & \downarrow^{f_3} \\ d_0 &\stackrel{(f_3\circ f_2) \circ f_1}{\to}& d_3 } \right| (f_3,f_2, f_1) \in Mor(D) {}_t \times_s Mor(D) {}_t \times_s Mor(D) \right\} is the collection of triples of composable morphisms, to be read as the unique associators that relate one way to compose three morphisms using the above 2-cells to the other way.



(bar construction)

Let AA be a monoid (for instance a group) and write BA\mathbf{B} A for the corresponding one-object category with Mor(BA)=AMor(\mathbf{B} A) = A. Then the nerve N(BA)N(\mathbf{B} A) of BA\mathbf{B}A is the simplicial set which is the usual bar construction of AA

N(BA)=(A×A×AA×AA*) N(\mathbf{B}A) = \left( \cdots A \times A \times A \stackrel{\to}{\stackrel{\to}{\to}} A \times A \stackrel{\to}{\to} A \to {*} \right)

In particular, when A=GA = G is a discrete group, then the geometric realization |N(BG)||N(\mathbf{B} G)| of the nerve of BG\mathbf{B}G is the classifying topological space BG \cdots \simeq B G for GG-principal bundles.


The following lists some characteristic properties of simplicial sets that are nerves of categories.


A simplicial set is the nerve of a category precisely if it satisfies the Segal condition.

See at Segal condition for more on this.


A simplicial set is the nerve of a small category precisely if all inner horns have unique fillers.

See inner fibration for details on this.


A simplicial set is the nerve of a groupoid precisely if all horns have unique fillers.


The nerve N(C)N(C) of a category is 2-coskeletal.

Hence all horn inclusions Λ[n] iΔ[n]\Lambda[n]_i \hookrightarrow \Delta[n] have unique fillers for n>3n \gt 3, and all boundary inclusions Δ[n]Δ[n]\partial \Delta[n] \hookrightarrow \Delta[n] have unique fillers for n3n \geq 3.

Here the point as compared to the previous statements is that in particular all the outer horns have fillers for n>3n \gt 3.


The nerve N(C)N(C) of a small category is a Kan complex precisely if CC is a groupoid.

The existence of inverse morphisms in DD corresponds to the fact that in the Kan complex N(D)N(D) the “outer” horns

d 0 f d 1 Id d 1 d 1and d 1 f d 0 Id d 0 d 1 \array{ && d_0 \\ & && \searrow^{f} \\ d_1 &&\stackrel{Id_{d_1}}{\to} && d_1 } \;\;\; \;\;\; and \;\;\; \;\;\; \array{ && d_1 \\ & {}^f\nearrow && \\ d_0 &&\stackrel{Id_{d_0}}{\to} && d_1 }

have fillers

d 0 f 1 f d 1 Id d 1 d 1and d 1 f f 1 d 0 Id d 0 d 0 \array{ && d_0 \\ & {}^{f^{-1}}\nearrow&& \searrow^{f} \\ d_1 &&\stackrel{Id_{d_1}}{\to} && d_1 } \;\;\; \;\;\; and \;\;\; \;\;\; \array{ && d_1 \\ & {}^f\nearrow && \searrow^{f^{-1}} \\ d_0 &&\stackrel{Id_{d_0}}{\to} && d_0 }

(even unique fillers, due to the above).

It suggests the sense that a Kan complex models an ∞-groupoid. The possible lack of uniqueness of fillers in general gives the ‘weakness’ needed, whilst the lack of a coskeletal property requirement means that the homotopy type it represents has enough generality, not being constrained to be a 1-type.


The nerve functor

N:CatSSet N : Cat \to SSet

is a full and faithful functor.

So functors between locally small categories are in bijection with morphisms of simplicial sets between their nerves.


A simplicial set SS is the nerve of a locally small category CC precisely if it satisfies the Segal conditions: precisely if all the commuting squares

S n+m d 0d 0 S m d n+m1d n+m S n d 0d 0 S 0 \array{ S_{n+m} &\stackrel{\cdots \circ d_0 \circ d_0}{\to}& S_m \\ {}^{\cdots d_{n+m-1}\circ d_{n+m}}\downarrow && \downarrow \\ S_n &\stackrel{d_0 \circ \cdots d_0}{\to}& S_0 }

are pullback diagrams.

Unwrapping this definition inductively in (n+m)(n+m), this says that a simplicial set is the nerve of a category if and only if all its cells in degree 2\geq 2 are unique compositors, associators, pentagonators, etc of composition of 1-morphisms. No non-trivial such structure cells appear and no further higher cells appear.

This characterization of categories in terms of nerves directly leads to the model of (∞,1)-category in terms of complete Segal spaces by replacing in the above discussion sets by topological spaces (or something similar, like Kan complexes) and pullbacks by homotopy pullbacks.

Nerve of a 2-category

For 2-categories modeled as bicategories the nerve operation is called the Duskin nerve.


A simplicial set is the Duskin nerve of a bigroupoid precisely if it is a 2-hypergroupoid: a Kan complex such that the horn fillers in dimension 3\geq 3 are unique .

This is theorem 8.6 in (Duskin)

For a 2-category, regarded as a Cat-internal category one can apply the nerve operation for categories in stages, to obtain the double nerve.

Nerve of an ω\omega-category

Nerve of chain complexes

Let Ch +Ch_+ be the category of chain complexes of abelian groups.

Then there is a cosimplicial chain complex

C :ΔCh + C_\bullet : \Delta \to Ch_+

given by sending the standard nn-simplex Δ[n]\Delta[n] first to the free simplicial group F(Δ[n])F(\Delta[n]) over it and then that to the normalized Moore complex. This is a small version of the ordinary homology chain complex of the standard nn-simplex.

The nerve induced by this cosimplicial object was first considered in

  • D. Kan, Functors involving c.s.s complexes, Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Mar., 1958), pp. 330–346 (jstor)

The nerve/realization adjunction induced from this is the Dold–Kan correspondence. See there for more details.


Geometric realization

Often the operation of taking the nerve of a (higher) category is followed by forming the geometric realization of the corresponding cellular set.

Nerves and higher categories

For many purposes it is convenient to conceive categories and especially ∞-categories entirely in terms of their nerves: those simplicial sets that arise as certain nerves are usually characterized by certain properties. So one can turn this around and define an ∞-category as a simplicial set with certain properties. This is the strategy of a geometric definition of higher category. Examples for this are complicial sets, Kan complexes, quasi-categories, simplicial T-complexes,…

Internal nerve

A variant of the nerve construction can also be applied internally within a category, to any internal category, see the discussion at internal category.


Historical note

The notion of the nerve of a category seems to be due to Grothendieck, which is in turn based on the nerve of a covering from 1926 work of P. S. Alexandroff?. One of the first papers to consider the properties of the nerve and to apply it to problems in algebraic topology was

  • Graeme Segal, Classifying spaces and spectral sequences, Inst. Hautes Études Sci. Publ. Math. No. 34 (1968) 105-112.

Many of the later developments can already be seen there in ‘embryonic’ form.

Revised on April 2, 2015 09:54:28 by Urs Schreiber (