nLab proper class

Proper classes

Proper classes


A proper class is a set that is too big to be a set. Exactly what this means depends on the foundations of mathematics, but something must be said about it to study large categories.


There are several ways to deal with this and define a proper class.

A proper class is a large discrete category. But since a large category is usually defined as having a proper class of objects, this just moves the bubble under the wallpaper to ‘large category’ and something must be applied there.

A proper class is a collection that can be put in bijection with the class of all ordinals, OrdOrd. But this requires the global axiom of choice to be correct.

A proper class is a class that is not a set. So now we have to define ‘class’.

A proper class is a class whose cardinality is not the cardinal number of any set. This is a version of the previous definition not violating the principle of equivalence; however, in some foundations these are actually equivalent (using the axiom of replacement).

A class is a collection of sets. Here the bubble is moved to ‘collection’, but we will be able to pop that bubble below. Also we might want to allow the members of a proper class to be other than sets (such as structured sets); certainly it is true, however, that a pure class is a collection of pure sets.

A class is a formula in the language of set theory for a truth value, equipped with a specified free variable for a set. This is a formalisation of the previous definition, but it must be interpreted metamathematically: a formula for a class in a given context Γ\Gamma is a formula for a truth value in the extension of Γ\Gamma by one more free variable for a set.

A class may even be an undefined concept; the real definition is to define a set as a class that is itself a member of some class. With appropriate axioms, this is equivalent to the previous definition (and conservative over set theory without classes), but it's also possible to apply stronger axioms here; this choice is the difference between BNGBNG and MKMK as extensions of ZFC.

A class is a subset of a Grothendieck universe UU, while a (small) set is merely an element of UU. This gives a relative notion, depending on UU. As stated here, we get a concept of class like that of the strong theory MKMK; to be more like BNGBNG (and therefore conservative over set theory without an axiom of universes) we should define a class to be a subset of UU that is definable in the language of set theory.


A large category is a category whose class of morphisms is a proper class. It is sufficient that the class of objects be a proper class, which is also necessary if the category is locally small.

Category theorists care about proper classes because many examples of categories in practice (such as Set, to begin with!) are large.

Category of classes

The category of classes is closed under all large colimits and small limits. See the linked article for more information and precise definitions.

Just as an elementary topos is an axiomatization of basic properties of the category Set, a category with class structure is an axiomatization of basic properties of the category ClassClass. See also algebraic set theory.


A paper detailing one approach to the technical side of how classes appear in category theory (namely using Grothendieck universes) is

  • Paul Blain Levy, Formulating Categorical Concepts using Classes (arXiv:1801.08528)

Last revised on December 12, 2020 at 15:42:58. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.