Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm trying to learn category theory pretty much on my own (with some help from a professor). My main information source is the good old Categories for the working mathematician by Mac Lane. I find the book very good and and I don't have very much trouble understanding the theory, proofs and motivations and so on.

But many examples fly over my head as do the exercises.

The thing is that I'm far from a working mathematician or a grad student, which the book seems to be aimed towards. I know that one have to do learn math by doing math and I find it almost impossible when exercises involve things I'm not yet familiar with (modules, algebras etc). I simply don't have time to learn these things just so I can solve my exercises but on the other hand I don't want to miss out on learning things just because the exercises are on a too high level for me.

So I want to ask you for references on exercises in category theory aimed at someone with limited knowledge of abstract algebra, suitable for concepts in Categories for the working mathematician but with more basic objects but still meaningful and challenging.

(I consider myself to have fairly good basic knowledge of "elementary"-style abstract algebra (monoids, groups, rings, fields, linear algebra, some galois theory, related number theory, some algebraic graph theory etc))

share|cite|improve this question
"I've read the book and done the exercises before going to the university. The exercises are easy, and when you don't know a notion, just look it up" Good for you. I'm 2 years into my studies and I find the book quite intellectually challenging, but then I'm pretty slow and stupid compared to other math students I know. But is it really weird that I find it harder to work with structures I know next to nothing about rather than things I'm familiar with? I don't get it. – John Smith Jul 21 '14 at 18:28
Martin, your comment essentially amounts to 'it was easy for me so I don't see why you should be having any problems' – enthdegree Jul 21 '14 at 21:59
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Check out the new book (amazon-link)

Tom Leinster, Basic Category Theory, Cambridge Studies in Advanced Mathematics, Vol. 143, 2014

share|cite|improve this answer
+1. Just from what I can see off the Amazon preview, the book looks excellently written at an elementary level. A comment for beginners: Do not be put off that Leinster's book "only" covers (Co)Limits, Representables and Adjoints. Even though Mac Lane covers much more, a solid foundation in just these three concepts will take you surprisingly far. It's similar to Set Theory: In an elementary text of 10 chapters, you'll use things from the first 5 chapters every day of your life, and things from the last 5 chapters only on occasion (depending on what you study, of course). – Ragib Zaman Jul 22 '14 at 17:03

I can recommend Category Theory by Awodey for your situation. It is more elementary but not too slow for an average undergraduate.

share|cite|improve this answer

A more elementary text is Conceptual Mathematics: A First Introduction to Categories. Also interesting is the list given here.

share|cite|improve this answer

Introduction to Category Theory by Harold Simmons is a nice and gentle way to get into category theory with plenty of exercises (and full solutions!). I'm an undergrad as well, and I worked through this book before moving on to Categories for the Working Mathematician because it is more leisurely. More to the point of your question, Intro to Category Theory always describes the structures that it uses as examples (except for topological spaces) and describes their morphisms. It also works out many examples explicitly and diagrammatically, which I found really helpful.

On the other hand, I usually just think of $R$-modules as "vector spaces but over a ring" and algebras as "vector spaces, but you can multiply vectors". I've only worked through chapter 3, so I don't know if I will need more knowledge about this stuff later on, but these vagaries (and brief trips to wikipedia) have sufficed for me so far.

share|cite|improve this answer

Sets for mathematicians by Lawvere is very good and pitched at a fairly elementary but sophisticated level.

Also the catsters videos by Simon Willerton & Eugenia Cheng are excellent; and also short (5-8 minutes long!). Her notes on the subjects are also detailed and cover the basics.

These notes by Knighten are a bit scrappy, but usefully elementary and detailed.

share|cite|improve this answer

An alternative: Category theory for applied scientists: You find links and commentary here:

(A version is also posted on arXiv)

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.