filtered limit



Most of the earliest instances of limits and colimits used in mathematics were for diagrams indexed by the partially ordered set of natural numbers, which we now call sequential (co)limits. Many of the nice features of these (co)limits apply more generally to codirected limits and directed colimits, where the indexing category is a (co)-directed set (much as sequences in topology generalise fruitfully to nets). A filtered (co)limit is a further generalisation of this, essentially removing the requirement that the indexing category be a poset while preserving the directedness aspect in a categorified way.

Another very important class of early limits and colimits involved situations that generalised intersections and unions. If one is looking at a family of subsets of some set, then one can close it up under finite intersections and/or unions (if they are not already included) and use it to index diagrams. For instance, the family of continuous functions defined on open neighbourhoods of some point in a topological space will have this property. It was noticed that these limits and colimits behaved very nicely and a closer look showed that it was the (co)filtering nature of the indexing category that was the key. This also leads us to filtered (co)limits.

So, a filtered colimit is a colimit over a diagram from a filtered category, and a cofiltered limit (sometimes called a filtered limit) is a limit over a diagram from a cofiltered category. Taken in a suitable category such as Set, a colimit being filtered is equivalent to its commuting with finite limits.

More generally, for κ\kappa a regular cardinal, a κ\kappa-filtered colimit is one over a κ\kappa-filtered category (and dually), and when taken with values in Set these are precisely the colimits that commute with κ\kappa-small limits.



A filtered colimit or finitely filtered colimit is a colimit of a functor F:DCF\colon D \to C where DD is a filtered category.

For κ\kappa a regular cardinal a κ\kappa-filtered colimit is one over a κ\kappa-filtered category.

Similarly, a cofiltered limit is a limit of a functor F:DCF\colon D \to C where DD is a cofiltered category, or equivalently of a contravariant functor F:DCF\colon D \to C (that is a functor F:D opCF\colon D^{op} \to C) where DD is a filtered category.


A cofiltered limit may also be called a filtered limit (although this can be unclear); the respective terms filtered direct limit and filtered inverse limit are also popular.

A functor that preserves all finitely filtered colimits is called a finitary functor .


Commutation with κ\kappa-small limits

The following is the crucial property of filtered colimits: that they commute with finite limits.


For CC and DD two diagram categories and

F:C×DSet F : C \times D \to Set

a diagram, there is a canonical morphism

λ:lim Clim DFlim Dlim CF \lambda : {\lim_\to}_C {\lim_\leftarrow}_D F \to {\lim_\leftarrow}_D {\lim_\to}_C F

from the colimit over CC of the limit over DD to the limit over DD of the colimit over CC of FF:

λ\lambda is given by a cone, whose components

λ d:lim Clim DFlim CF(,d) \lambda_d : {\lim_\to}_C {\lim_\leftarrow}_D F \to {\lim_\to}_C F(-,d)

are in turn given by a cocone with components

(λ d) c:lim DF(c,)lim CF(,d). (\lambda_d)_c : {\lim_\leftarrow}_D F(c,-) \to {\lim_\to}_C F(-,d) \,.

This finally take to have as components

lim DF(c,d)F(c,d)lim CF(c,d). {\lim_\leftarrow}_D F(c,d) \to F(c,d) \to {\lim_\to}_C F(c,d) \,.

One checks that this indeed implies that all the components are natural and gives the existence of the original morphism.

Notice that in general λ\lambda is not an isomorphism.


We say the limit lim DF(,){\lim_\leftarrow}_D F(-,-) commutes with the colimit lim CF(,){\lim_\to}_C F(-,-) if the morphism λ\lambda above is an isomorphism

lim Clim DFlim Dlim CF. {\lim_\to}_C {\lim_\leftarrow}_D F \stackrel{\simeq}{\to} {\lim_\leftarrow}_D {\lim_\to}_C F \,.

In Set, filtered colimits commute with finite limits.

In fact, filtered categories CC are precisely those shapes of diagram categories such that colimits over them commute with all finite limits.

More generally, for κ\kappa a regular cardinal, then κ\kappa-filtered colimits commute with κ\kappa-small limits.

A detailed components proof of the first part is in Borceux, theorem I2.13.4 or (BJTS 14).

For more on this see also limits and colimits by example.


It is not true that filtered colimits and finite limits commute in any category CC which has them. A simple example is where CC is the poset of closed subspaces of the one-point compactification {}\mathbb{N} \cup \{\infty\} of the discrete space of natural numbers. If A={}A = \{\infty\} and B iB_i ranges over finite subsets of \mathbb{N}, then A×colim iB i={}({})={}A \times colim_i B_i = \{\infty\} \cap (\mathbb{N} \cup \{\infty\}) = \{\infty\}, but colim iA×B i=colim i{}B i=colim i=colim_i A \times B_i = colim_i \{\infty\} \cap B_i = colim_i \emptyset = \emptyset.

According to 1.5 and 1.21 in LPAC, a category has κ\kappa-directed colimits precisely if it has κ\kappa-filtered ones, and a functor preserves κ\kappa-directed colimits iff it preserves κ\kappa-filtered ones. A proof of this result, following Adamek & Rosicky, may be found here?.

The fact that directed colimits suffice to obtain all filtered ones may be regarded as a convenience similar to the fact that all colimits can be constructed from coproducts and coequalizers. Of course, a dual result holds for codirected limits.

Flat functors and points of presheaf toposes

Let CC be a small category. A functor F:CSetF: C \to Set is flat if it is a filtered colimit of representable functors.

Equivalently, a module F:CSetF: C \to Set is flat if and only if the tensor product

CF:Set C opSet- \otimes_C F: Set^{C^{op}} \to Set

is left exact. One may prove as a corollary that if CC is finitely complete, FF is flat if and only if it is left exact (preserves finite limits). Since this tensor product is automatically a left adjoint, we have the following basic result:


For CC a small category, the category of topos points of the presheaf topos Set C opSet^{C^{op}} (i.e., geometric morphisms SetSet C opSet \to Set^{C^{op}} and natural transformations between them) is equivalent to the category of flat modules on CC.

Description in Set, Grp, Top and alike

Elements in filtered colimits in Set and Grp are given as classes of equivalences, so called germs. Filtered limits in Set and Top are given as families of compatible elements, so called threads.


(More was/is to be written here, including an application to geometric realization, relation to Diaconescu's theorem, and perhaps more.)

Filtered colimits are also important in the theory of locally presentable and accessible categories. See also pro-object and ind-object.


Section 2.13 in part I of


Revised on February 8, 2017 10:43:34 by John Baez (