nLab 2-category




The notion of a 2-category generalizes that of category: a 2-category is a higher category, where on top of the objects and morphisms, there are also 2-morphisms. In old texts, strict 2-categories are occasionally called hypercategories.

A 2-category consists of

The morphisms can be composed along the objects, while the 2-morphisms can be composed in two different directions: along objects – called horizontal composition – and along morphisms – called vertical composition. The composition of morphisms is allowed to be associative only up to coherent associator 2-morphisms.

2-categories are also a horizontal categorification of monoidal categories: they are like monoidal categories with many objects.

2-categories provide the context for discussing

The concept of 2-category generalizes further in higher category theory to n-categories, which have k-morphisms for all knk\le n.

2-categories form a 3-category, 2Cat.


Strict 2-categories

The easiest definition of 2-category is that it is a category enriched over the cartesian monoidal category Cat. Thus it has a collection of objects, and for each pair of objects a category hom(x,y)hom(x,y). The objects of these hom-categories are the morphisms, and the morphisms of these hom-categories are the 2-morphisms. This produces the classical notion of strict 2-category.

General 2-categories

For some purposes, strict 2-categories are too strict: one would like to allow composition of morphisms to be associative and unital only up to coherent invertible 2-morphisms. A direct generalization of the above “enriched” definition produces the classical notion of bicategory.

One can also obtain notions of 2-category by specialization from the case of higher categories. Specifically, if we fix a meaning of \infty-category, however weak or strict we wish, then we can define a 22-category to be an \infty-category such that every 3-morphism is an equivalence, and all parallel pairs of jj-morphisms are equivalent for j3j \geq 3. It follows that, up to equivalence, there is no point in mentioning anything beyond 22-morphisms, except whether two given parallel 22-morphisms are equivalent. In some models of \infty-categories, it is possible to make this precise by demanding that all parallel pairs of jj-morphisms are actually equal for j3j\geq 3, producing a simpler notion of 2-category in which we can speak about equality of 2-morphisms instead of equivalence. (This is the case for both strict 22-categories and bicategories.)

All of the above definitions produce “equivalent” theories of 2-category, although in some cases (such as the fact that every bicategory is equivalent to a strict 2-category) this requires some work to prove. On the nLab, we often use the word “2-category” in the general sense of referring to whatever model one may prefer, but usually one in which composition is weak; a bicategory is an adequate definition. One should beware, however, that in the literature it is common for “2-category” to refer only to strict 2-categories.

A 2-category in which all 1-morphisms and 2-morphisms are invertible is a 2-groupoid.



Double nerve

An ordinary category has a nerve which is a simplicial set. For 2-categories one may consider their double nerve which is a bisimplicial set.

There is also a 2-nerve. (LackPaoli)


Model category structure

There is a model category structure on 2-categories – sometimes known as the folk model structure – that models the (2,1)-category underlying 2Cat (Lack).

For strict 2-categories this is the restriction of the corresponding folk model structure on strict omega-categories.

  • The weak equivalences are the 2-functors that are equivalences of 2-categories.

  • The acyclic fibrations are the k-surjective functors for all kk.

Free resolutions

Theorem A strict 2-category CC is cofibrant precisely if the underlying 1-category C 1C_1 is a free category.

This is theorem 4.8 in (LackStrict). This is a special case of the more general statement that free strict ω\omega-categories are given by computads.

Example (free resolution of a 1-category). Let CC be an ordinary category (a 1-category) regarded as a strict 2-category. Then the cofibrant resolution C^C\hat C \stackrel{\simeq}{\to} C is the strict 2-category given as follows:

  • the objects of C^\hat C are those of CC;

  • the morphisms of C^\hat C are finite sequences of composable morphisms of CC, and composition is concatenation of such sequences

    (hence (C^) 1(\hat C)_1 is the free category on the quiver underlying CC);

  • the 2-morphisms of C^\hat C are generated from 2-morphisms c f,gc_{f,g} of the form

    y f c f,g g x g Cf z \array{ && y \\ & {}^{\mathllap{f}}\nearrow &\Downarrow^{c_{f,g}}& \searrow^{\mathrlap{g}} \\ x && \underset{g \circ_C f }{\to} && z }

    and their formal inverses

    y f c f,g 1 g x g Cf z \array{ && y \\ & {}^{\mathllap{f}}\nearrow &\Uparrow^{c_{f,g}^{-1}}& \searrow^{\mathrlap{g}} \\ x && \underset{g \circ_C f }{\to} && z }

    for all composable f,gMor(C)f,g \in Mor(C) with composite (in CC!) g Cfg \circ_C f;

    subject to the relation that for all composable triples f,g,hMor(C)f,g,h \in Mor(C) the following equation of 2-morphisms holds

    y g z c f,g f h c h,(g Cf) x h(g Cf) w=y g z c g,h f h c f,(g Ch) x (h Cg)f w \array{ y &\to& &\stackrel{g}{\to}& &\to& && z \\ \uparrow &\seArrow^{c_{f,g}}& && & \nearrow & && \downarrow \\ {}^{\mathllap{f}}\uparrow && & \nearrow & &&&& \downarrow^{\mathrlap{h}} \\ \uparrow & \nearrow & && &\Downarrow^{c_{h,(g\circ_C f)}}& && \downarrow \\ x &\to& &\underset{h \circ (g \circ_C f)}{\to}& &\to& &\to& w } \;\;\; = \;\;\; \array{ y &\to& &\stackrel{g}{\to}& &\to& && z \\ \uparrow &\searrow& && & & &\swArrow_{c_{g,h}}& \downarrow \\ {}^{\mathllap{f}}\uparrow && & \searrow & &&&& \downarrow^{\mathrlap{h}} \\ \uparrow &\Downarrow_{c_{f,(g \circ_C h)}}& && &\searrow& && \downarrow \\ x &\to& &\underset{( h \circ_C g) \circ f}{\to}& &\to& &\to& w }

Observation Let DD be any strict 2-catgeory. Then a pseudofunctor CDC \to D is the same as a strict 2-functor C^D\hat C \to D.

2-categorical concepts


extra properties

types of morphisms

specific versions

limit notions

model structures


Despite its being frequently attributed to Ehresmann, the notion of strict 2-categories is due to:

both apparently following or inspired by the earlier definition of double categories due to

An early definition also appears in the following, where it is mistakenly attributed to Charles Ehresmann:

The fundamental structure of the 2-category of categories (namely the vertical composition, horizontal composition and the whiskering of natural transformations) was first described in:

  • Roger Godement, Appendix (pp. 269) of: Topologie algébrique et theorie des faisceaux, Actualités Sci. Ind. 1252, Hermann, Paris (1958) [webpage, pdf]

Early discussion of the general notion of bicategories:

Exposition and review:

Comprehensive textbook accounts:

On coherence theorems:

Relation between bicategories and Tamsamani weak 2-categories:

There is a model category structure on 2-categories – the canonical model structure – that models the (2,1)-category underlying 2Cat:

  • Steve Lack, A Quillen Model Structure for 2-Categories, K-Theory 26: 171–205, 2002. (website)

  • Steve Lack, A Quillen Model Structure for Biategories, K-Theory 33: 185-197, 2004. (website)

Discussion of weak 2-categories in the style of A-infinity categories is (using dendroidal sets to model the higher operads) in

  • Andor Lucacs, Dendroidal weak 2-categories (arXiv:1304.4278)

  • Jonathan Chiche, La théorie de l’homotopie des 2-catégories, thesis, arXiv.

Last revised on May 7, 2024 at 15:31:47. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.