nLab point-free topology




topology (point-set topology, point-free topology)

see also differential topology, algebraic topology, functional analysis and topological homotopy theory


Basic concepts

Universal constructions

Extra stuff, structure, properties


Basic statements


Analysis Theorems

topological homotopy theory



Point-free topology refers to various formulations of topology that are not based on the notion of topological space as a set of points equipped with extra structure. What they generally have in common is that instead the points are described as models of a geometric theory. This change has some important consequences.

First, it conveniently describes the points not only in one’s favourite category of sets, but also in arbitrary Grothendieck toposes.

Second, it opens up the possibility of using predicate geometric theories, to obtain generalized spaces (the classifying toposes) in the sense of Grothendieck. This article will mostly concern itself with the ungeneralized point-free spaces, corresponding to propositional geometric theories.

The phrase “point-free topology” is often taken as synonymous with pointless topology Johnstone 83. However, let us reserve “pointless” for approaches that avoid mentioning points and refer directly to the geometric theory presentation and structures deriving from it.

Examples and Definitions

Locale theory

In locale theory, one studies the set of open subspaces (with the extra structure of a frame) as the fundamental notion. If AA is the frame, then the geometric theory is that of completely prime filters of AA. It has a propositional symbol ϕ a\phi_a for each element of AA, and axioms -

  • ϕ aϕ b\phi_a \vdash \phi_b (if aba \leq b)

  • ϕ 1\top \vdash \phi_1

  • ϕ aϕ bϕ ab\phi_a \wedge \phi_b \vdash \phi_{a\wedge b}

  • ϕ ia i iϕ a i\phi_{\bigvee_i a_i} \vdash \bigvee_i \phi_{a_i}

This simply makes a direct correspondence between the algebra of AA and the geometric logic. Of course it also corresponds to the finite intersections and arbitrary unions of open sets, which shows how geometric logic is matched to topology.

The classifying topos is the topos of sheaves over AA.

The frame is a presentation-independent representation of the theory. It can be recovered from the theory as the Lindenbaum algebra of formulae modulo equivalence.

Propositional geometric theories

A presentation of a frame by generators and relations corresponds more directly to a general propositional geometric theory. The generators are the signature (propositional symbols) and the relations can be straightforwardly converted to axioms.

Formal topology

In formal topology, one studies a set BB of basic open subspaces, with a cover relation aUa\triangleleft U between elements and subsets of BB, to show when one basic open is covered by a family of others. There are various flavours of this. \triangleleft may be the full cover relation or a generating part, and there may sometime be included the extra structure of a positivity. In each case the formal topology has the structure of a posite and so gives rise to a geometric theory of flat continuous functors. Its propositional symbols are ϕ a\phi_a for each aBa\in B. The axioms are -

  • aBϕ a\top \vdash \bigvee_{a\in B} \phi_a

  • ϕ aϕ b{ϕ cc{a}c{b}}\phi_a \wedge \phi_b \vdash \bigvee\{\phi_c\mid c\triangleleft\{a\} \wedge c\triangleleft\{b\}\}

  • ϕ a bUϕ b\phi_a \vdash \bigvee_{b\in U}\phi_{b} (if aUa\triangleleft U)

The models are known as formal points.

General definition

It is probably impossible to give a real definition of “a notion of point-free topology”. However, one way to capture the notion of “point-free-ness” is by a version of well-pointedness.

Specifically, suppose that one defines a category (or (,1)(\infty,1)-category) SS, whose objects one thinks of as spaces, and that one intends Hom(X,Y)Hom(X,Y) to be the set (or \infty-groupoid) of all continuous maps from XX to YY (whereas Ob(S)Ob(S) need not be the class of all spaces). Also suppose that SS has a terminal object ptpt, which one interprets as the point. Then we may call this a pointwise formulation of topology if ptpt is a generator in SS, and pointless if this is not provable (or, for a stronger variation, provably false).

Pointwise reasoning

The traditional way of doing topology using points may be called pointwise topology. Obviously that is natural in point-set topology, but for point-free there is an apparent problem: there may not be enough points to support, semantically, all the syntactic distinctions between formulae in the geometric logic. In other words, geometric logic is not necessarily complete.

It is possible to circumvent this by reasoning in an entirely pointless style, without reference to the points. For instance with locales, the maps are defined to be the frame homomorphisms, backwards.

Surprisingly, however, it is also possible to reason pointwise: a map from XX to YY can be defined by saying how points of XX transform to points of YY. What makes this work is that there are enough points (models of the geometric theory) if you allow for those that live outside your favourite category of sets. In essence, if the construction is defined for the generic point of XX in the topos of sheaves over XX, then the universal property of classifying toposes gives a point-free map (geometric morphism). The catch is that, to allow the construction to be transported from one topos to another, it has to be geometric - preserved by inverse image functors. Thus continuity becomes a logical issue, of geometricity.

Further details and references are in Vickers 2007 and 2014.


A decisive advantage of point-free topology is that it gives a fibrewise topology of bundles, understood broadly as maps into a base space. (Note - for generalized spaces, i.e. toposes, bundles must be understood as bounded geometric morphisms.)

It is shown in Joyal, Tierney that, for any elementary topos \mathcal{E}, there is an equivalence between localic bundles over \mathcal{E} (i.e. localic geometric morphisms into it) and internal point-free spaces in \mathcal{E}. The result does not work point-set.

Joyal and Tierney proved their result for internal frames. However, in some ways it works better for presentations of frames by generators and relations, if there is some geometric theory 𝕋 0\mathbb{T}_0 of which the systems of generators and relations are models. This is not the case for frames - the frame structure is not geometric. Vickers 2007 works it out for the general case of “GRD-systems”, systems of generators, relations and “disjuncts”. Each model PP of the geometric theory 𝕋 0\mathbb{T}_0 itself presents another geometric theory (for its point-free space), and this can be used to make a theory 𝕋 1\mathbb{T}_1, extending 𝕋 0\mathbb{T}_0, that classifies “pointed” presentations. There is a forgetful map (forget the point) p:𝒮[𝕋 1]𝒮[𝕋 0]p\colon \mathcal{S}[\mathbb{T}_1] \to \mathcal{S}[\mathbb{T}_0] between the classifying toposes. Then a presentation in \mathcal{E} is a map P:𝒮[𝕋 0]P\colon\mathcal{E}\to\mathcal{S}[\mathbb{T}_0], and the localic bundle constructed by Joyal and Tierney is a bipullback of pp along PP.

What this account reveals is that the bundle is - using PP - a continuous space-valued map on \mathcal{E}. For each point xx of \mathcal{E}, the fibre is P(x)P(x) - because fibres are just pullbacks.

Set of points

Depending on the foundational setting, a point-free space may or may not have a set of points, a discrete coreflection. This can be done in topos theory, but relies on an impredicative use of power_sets_. (Formal topology arose out of a desire to work predicatively.)

However, even when it exists, the set of points does not generally represent the space well.

This is best understood in terms of bundles over XX. The “set of points” of a bundle p:YXp\colon Y\to X is a sheaf over XX, hence a local homeomorphism q:ZXq\colon Z\to X. As a discrete coreflection it must also have a bundle map ff from qq to pp. However, local homeomorphisms have an opfibrational property that limits their ability to approximate general bundles. Suppose xxx \sqsubseteq x' are two points of XX that are related by the specialization order. Then there is a corresponding fibre map q 1(x)q 1(x)q^{-1}(x) \to q^{-1}(x').

As an example, take XX to be the Sierpinski space 𝕊\mathbb{S}. Its points are subsets of a singleton {*}\{\ast\} and include =={*}\bot=\emptyset\sqsubseteq\top=\{\ast\}. Its sheaves are functions - the fibre maps Z Z Z_{\bot}\to Z_{\top}.

Now consider the bundle p:1𝕊p\colon 1\to\mathbb{S} that picks out the closed point \bot. Its fibres over \bot and \top are singleton and empty. Let q:Z𝕊q\colon Z \to \mathbb{S} be its discrete coreflection. Because there is a bundle map from qq to pp, the fibre Z Z_\top must be empty. But then because qq is a local homeomorphism, Z Z_\bot must also be empty. ZZ, the “set of points” of pp, is the empty space over 𝕊\mathbb{S}.

We see that a non-trivial space can have have an empty set of points for purely topological reasons, nothing to do with logic or a pathological nature of point-free spaces.



An introduction to locale theory is

  • Peter Johnstone (1983); The point of pointless topology; Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.) Volume 8, Number 1, 41–53; Euclid.

This is, in its own words, to be read as the trailer for Johnstone’s book Stone Spaces, which see.

For a constructive treatment more appropriate to the ideas on this page see

  • André Joyal, Myles Tierney, An extension of the Galois theory of Grothendieck, Memoirs of the American Mathematical Society 51 (1984), no. 309

For formal topology, see

  • Giovanni Sambin (2001); Some points in formal topology; pdf.

  • Erik Palmgren, From Intuitionistic to Point-Free Topology: On the Foundation of Homotopy Theory, Logicism, Intuitionism, and Formalism Volume 341 of the series Synthese Library pp 237-253, 2005 (pdf)

The pointwise reasoning is explained in the next references (though it was surely understood before them):

  • Steve Vickers, The double powerlocale and exponentiation: a case study in geometric logic, Theory and Applications of Categories 12 (2004) pp. 372-422 (pdf)

  • Steve Vickers, Locales and toposes as spaces, Chapter 8 in Handbook of Spatial Logics (ed. Aiello, Pratt-Hartman, van Bentham), Springer, 2007, pp. 429-496.

  • Steve Vickers, Continuity and geometric logic, Journal of Applied Logic 12 (1) (2014), pages 14-27 (pdf)

  • Steven Vickers, Generalized point-free spaces, pointwise [arXiv:2206.01113]

Last revised on May 23, 2023 at 22:59:07. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.